Championing Indigenous expertise and inclusion at ASEAN summit

Professor Emma Lee chaired the ASEAN session on the Blue Economy – economic activities associated with the oceans and seas.

For Professor Emma Lee, this year's ASEAN-Australia Special Summit was a significant and historic moment for Indigenous inclusion—recognition that thousands of years of knowledge was being heard and respected.

Professor Lee, a trawlwulwuy woman and Professorial Research Fellow with Federation's National Centre for Reconciliation, Truth, and Justice, chaired the Blue Economy session at ASEAN, where experts gathered to enhance practical maritime cooperation and economic activities associated with the region's oceans and seas.

Much of Tasmania-based Professor Lee's work with the Centre is based on regional development, typically in the fisheries space, and the advocacy for Indigenous peoples' knowledges to be included within forums from local to international.

She says she felt a deep sense of cultural pride that her work in fisheries was having an impact on a broader audience, not just for Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

"ASEAN, with the Blue Economy, saw that the capacity for traditional knowledges to take advantage and contribute to broader investment industries around our seas, was something that they wanted to hear more about from my level of expertise," she said.

"We have never been in these rooms before, and yet this ASEAN saw Indigenous experts in policy and research as necessary to be in that room – that was extraordinary.

"ASEAN has a consensus-driven model, which reflects Indigenous Australians' way of negotiating issues based on consensus and everyone having a voice. So, the ASEAN model deeply reflects Indigenous Australian cultural practice of working towards consensus. That was a joy to experience."

For the past nine years, Professor Lee has led the establishment of a market for cultural fisheries in Tasmania through access to commercial quotas. Her work is restoring traditional governance to sea country – or marine and coastal systems – while allowing Tasmanian Aboriginal women to shine in their cultural strengths and assets.

"Cultural fisheries within all legislation across Australia prevents profiting off cultural catch. But there's no prohibition on how much culture you can put into commercial fisheries," she said.

"We believe that there's greater economic growth out of having tourists come to Tasmania to eat abalone as opposed to exporting it where the profits only circulate among a few, whereas the profits of having place-based fishery as food tourism, gets spread across everyone who wants to participate.

"Multiple and diverse Tasmanian Aboriginal communities have joined together to look at how thousands of years of traditional knowledges can be utilised for fisheries sustainability in modern economies."

It is a 'new' approach based on what was done for thousands of years.

"Being in the marine space is a cultural responsibility that is 40,000 years old. For me, as an Aboriginal woman, that knowledge flows not only through our waters but through our women, and a regional development perspective of looking at women in leadership over fisheries, sustainability, and inclusion in political and strategic rooms is my number one goal." Professor Emma Lee

Professor Lee says the work in Tasmania had broken through the colonial model that long excluded the Indigenous communities and that more had been reinvested in the abalone industry in the last year and a half than in the previous two decades.

She says all Tasmanians deserve the right to be included in fisheries from Indigenous-led knowledges, peoples and practices and that, for the first time, Aboriginal peoples have engaged with commercial fisheries to develop a product that is for all Tasmanians.

"We're providing cradle-to-grave programs for Tasmanian Aboriginal people to have fisheries futures. We're in partnership with Tasmania's high-end hospitality sector so that they have the competitive advantage of serving Indigenous wild catch abalone while returning a Tasmanian asset to all Tasmanians to enjoy through Indigenous-led regional development," Professor Lee said.

"The opportunities to transform Tasmanian wild-catch fisheries into a welcoming space for Aboriginal knowledges is endless."

Professor Lee says she felt it was her responsibility to elevate the value and worth of Indigenous peoples' and local communities' contributions to economic wealth building at ASEAN.

"It's not a space to be frightened of, but a space to see opportunities where we can become co-designers out of the geopolitical models for economic development," she said.

"Why move Indigenous peoples and local communities off their lands when indeed that could increase sustainability and production of fisheries, in particular, to help lift peoples out of extreme poverty?

"It was a privilege and an honour to speak about the depth and breadth of our knowledges and our aspirations for economic growth while ensuring healthy seas and healthy peoples."

Professor Lee, who was first in family at university, says higher education opened up a world of potential and possibility, and she has not wasted a moment in the 10 years since completing her PhD. In 2023, she was the first Indigenous female to be awarded a Pew Fellowship.

She is guided by a love of country, which drives a sense of Indigenous excellence in her research and social impact with the National Centre for Reconciliation, Truth, and Justice. Professor Andrew Gunstone created the Centre in March 2023 to drive national and regional transformational change in reconciliation.

"Andrew is one of the most compassionate leaders for Indigenous inclusion and rights, and his ability to shift how an education institution can see the benefits and see the cooperation out of knowledge systems is an exceptional achievement," she said.

"He has made everyone, not just the Centre's staff but also across Federation University, welcome to engage with Indigenous peoples and our knowledge.

"The National Centre is having an impact by razing exclusion and, in its place, rolling out the Black carpet for Indigenous Australians to know that Federation University is a culturally safe space for research, practice, learning and teaching."

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