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Desert knowledge: integrating knowledge and development in arid and semi-arid drylands

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Globalisation presents particular challenges for deserts given that their sparse populations, which are amongst the world’s poorest in an absolute economic sense, tend to be remote from major markets and have only a distant, marginal voice in political and policy decision making. Here we are defining deserts as the arid and semi-arid drylands that encompass 70% of Australia and 25% of the world’s land surfaces. The value of the knowledge that local traditions and science have generated about living sustainably in deserts is being promoted and extended through the ‘desert knowledge’ movement in Australia. The Australian research reported here, together with a contribution from Niger that offers a contrast and some lessons for Australia, is largely underpinned by a neopopulist paradigm of development stressing respect for local knowledge, participatory practice and empowerment. Research in partnership with desert Aboriginal groups is contributing to their engagement with new livelihood opportunities. The local knowledge of livestock graziers is also being engaged to support sustainable management of desert water sources and landscapes for multiple values. The research reported here also addresses opportunities and challenges for local norms, identities, knowledge systems, governance and livelihoods from broader scale processes and institutions. In doing so it contributes to a ‘neo-ideographic approach’ wherein desert people might better harness their locality, knowledge and diversity in adaptations that shape their encounters with globalisation. It also points to considerable scope to mature such an approach.

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  1. Defined by the ratio of precipitation to evaporation being 0.20–0.50 for semi-arid areas and 0.05–0.20 for arid (less than 0.05 being hyper-arid, with no such areas in Australia). (Middleton and Thomas 1997, Safriel et al. 2005 in Stafford Smith 2008).

  2. Unless otherwise specified, we use ‘remote’ to encompass both the ‘remote’ and ‘very remote’ categories that are identified in the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA) (ABS 2006). ARIA provides the standard geographical classification for remoteness in Australia based primarily on accessibility to services. The vast proportion of Australia’s arid zone is classed as ‘very remote’ by ARIA, whereas land in the vicinity of the larger arid zone towns, and much of the land in semi-arid Australia, is classed as ‘remote’.

  3. The figure includes 8.2% of Australia (11.1% of ‘very remote’ Australia (sensu ABS 2006) where native title has been determined to exist in full or part, and over 15% of Australia (and 21.5% of ‘very remote’ Australia) which is owned and controlled by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander corporations or trusts, or is held by governments on behalf of Aboriginal people (and in most cases leased to Aboriginal corporations) (SCRGSP 2007, pp. 11.29–11.33).


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We acknowledge the assistance of reviewers of all the papers in this special issue and of Craig James and Murray McGregor of Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre. We thank two colleagues at CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems: Tom Measham for comments that have helped to improve a draft of this article, and Mark Stafford Smith for generous advice on this article and guidance throughout the compilation of this special issue. Further inspiration and insight has come from conversations with central Australian historian Megg Kelham. Development of this paper and our editorial work on this special issue was supported by funding from the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres Programme through the Desert Knowledge CRC; the views expressed in this paper do not necessarily represent the views of Desert Knowledge CRC or its Participants.

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Davies, J., Holcombe, S. Desert knowledge: integrating knowledge and development in arid and semi-arid drylands. GeoJournal 74, 363–375 (2009).

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