Healthy Land, Healthy People

A government-sponsored, Aboriginal-led “Healthy Country, Healthy People” project in Arnhem Land, Australia made it possible for people to care for their traditional Country in “remote” areas.1 The study documented “demonstrated benefits” in a number of clinical health parameters (Berry et al 2010:140) but concluded “We have cited evidence that caring for country is directly related to improved health, but it is not known why this is, or whether project outcomes would differ across climate zones and, thus be generalisable” (ibid:139). However, the authors clearly noted additional benefits to social and emotional wellbeing and the fact that “People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person” (ibid:140).

In a similar study, Landry et al (2019:1) investigated the role of the land in the health of urban First Nations people, noting that  “Indigenous culture, identity, knowledge, and practices are intimately linked to the land. Relatedness to the land has even been said to be a determinant of Indigenous health and well-being. Health of the land is thus directly related to health of the people.” They found that “spiritual relations” to the land were an important part of participants experiences and improved health when they were able to return to the bush for a period of time.

The Gold Standard for work that connects the health of land, people, and all the various types of relationships between them in direct way, specifically to restore health and well-being, is Kaupapa Māori (Katoa Ltd. 2021), which promotes and fosters research by and for Māori. Most of the evaluators reading these pages are probably familiar with at least some of the basic programs that are part of Kaupapa Māori.

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

The scholars who published results of these studies described the correlations they saw between the people and the land but did not discuss the reasons for those correlations. (“We have cited evidence that caring for country is directly related to improved health, but it is not known why this is, or whether project outcomes would differ across climate zones and, thus be generalisable” Berry et al 2010:139, bold font added for emphasis). Why do you think the programs in Australia and Canada described above successfully improved the health of Indigenous participants?

Do you think the studies’ leaders did not see things the way you are now starting to see them? Or do you think they saw them but were reluctant to say so in print? Whichever way you think it might have been, what sorts of cultural or societal pressures might have made it hard for them to see the mechanism involved or, if they saw them, to put those ideas into print?

How might the cultural or societal pressures you’ve just thought about make it more difficult for Western culture to achieve real sustainability?

How do the things you’re thinking about now impact your perception of what Kaupapa Māori is doing, and why?

Nan Wehipeihana has written, “Māori have long advocated that what’s good for Māori is good for all New Zealanders . . . The key message for evaluators is to promote and advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous values in evaluation with Indigenous peoples, and to argue the benefits for non-Indigenous peoples” (2019:377). Why is this statement not only true but important? It specifically addresses evaluation, but in what ways does it apply to healing of the world’s ecosystems and peoples (of all nations, including those which are not human as well as humans of the dominant culture)?


[1] I have put the word “remote in quotation marks because it simply makes me so uncomfortable to describe a place with this particular word. It always makes me reflexively ask, “remote with respect to what?” The answer, of course, is “remote with respect to cities and towns,” which defines Place in terms of the dominant culture’s value system. It is, after all, the “remote” Places that tend to get mined, clear-cut, used for weapons testing, used for military training, and turned into toxic waste disposal sites. If “remote” places have physical features the dominant culture finds aesthetically appealing, then it is often set aside as a park of some sort instead. But regardless of which way the “remote” place is treated, the original Land itself and the people who are of that Land wind up being separated. I would prefer to think of “remote” Places as ones that have not yet been overwhelmed by the floodtide of the dominant culture and so still retain their own indigenous and sovereign autonomy.

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