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Uncle Dave Wandin
Photograph: Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations

Future Shapers: Uncle Dave Wandin, the Elder who wants to reverse climate change

He's here to prove that bush foods might be the answer to Australia's climate change crisis

Written by
Rushani Epa

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits), Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) and Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In food and drink, one such person is Uncle Dave Wandin, chairperson on the board for the Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation.

When’s the last time you tried finger lime? Perhaps dotted on your oyster at a non-Indigenous fine diner? OK, here’s a harder one: how about murnong? It’s impossible to find either at your local Coles or Woolworths, and many Australians have no idea how to cook with native ingredients like these. Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Dave Wandin is trying to familiarise Australians with native bush foods like murnong in an attempt to save the climate and honour his heritage. 

Aboriginal Australians have called this continent home for well over 60,000 years. Their cultures and spirituality are intertwined with the land and Country, which is why Uncle Dave is an advocate for Indigenous land management. He’s a member of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Aboriginal Corporation and chairperson on the board for the Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Wurundjeri people, the Aboriginal owners of the historical property “Coranderrk” in the Yarra Valley. Coranderrk was set up as an Aboriginal Reserve in 1863 and was led by William Barak (who Wandin is a descendant of). The community had to fight hard to keep their land and community thriving, but in 1924 the property was forced to close, and in 1999, the Indigenous Land Corporation purchased 80 hectares of the property and gave ownership to the Wandoon Estate (Barak’s descendants). Coranderrk now operates as a farm for native bush foods and is set to open up as a training space and commercial kitchen. 

Volunteers of the corporation are working together to grow native bush foods local to the area on the property, with a strong focus on tubers like murnong, vanilla lilies, chocolate lilies and even native geranium. 

“There are things like the native geranium, which can produce a yam tuber that looks very much and can be up to the size of a sweet potato, and we have that growing wild at Coranderrk. We've never really looked to harvest that before now,” says Uncle Dave. “But as I'm getting more into bush foods and starting to identify them, we are finding what is working to improve the land quality, and that there are more and more of these different types of bush foods popping up all across the property. Areas which are fenced off for conservation and excluded the cattle are now regenerating with not only trees but other plants not previously identified, but are now being identified as foods.”

The corporation is also working on a training program for Aboriginal people to learn about growing, harvesting and cooking with native bush foods.

“What we're doing as an Aboriginal organisation is we're not looking to make a million dollars,” says Uncle Dave. “We're looking to educate people, and we're looking to give our community the opportunity to work in horticulture and food processing, and to become chefs or cooks, whatever you like. We're setting up a commercial-style kitchen that will offer training courses for Aboriginal people and offer Aboriginal people the chance to learn how to grow and harvest bush foods.”

“There is very, very little on Aboriginal restaurants serving Aboriginal food that has been harvested and cooked in a traditional manner, because the foods are getting harder and harder to find due to the impacts of colonisation.”

The focus here is not commercial, but on the trade of ingredients among communities and education. Finger limes, for example, aren’t native to Wurundjeri country, so if there was the need for the organisation to grow finger limes here, they would distribute the profits to the community the produce came from.

“Whatever sale I make out of that needs to go back to that community. It's not about making money, it's about creating opportunities to support each other the way that it was done prior to colonisation – whether that be through education and training programs, or by direct sales, however it works out. We know it's not going to make us a million dollars, and that's fine.”

In an industry that is 99 percent dominated by non-First Nations people, Uncle Dave thinks it’s time more First Nations people took back ownership. 

“I'm not going to go over to China and tell them how to grow bok choy. They know how to grow it and have been doing so for centuries. And I don't think it should be people coming here to Australia and telling us how we should be growing our bush foods, because we are the best-placed people to understand throughout our history of how foods were used, harvested and farmed. We weren't hunter gatherers, we actually did farm huge tracts of land, to support our communities, not only for our own communities but to share when people came and visited.”

It’s been proven that using European farming methods and a system foreign to the land will lead to soil and land degradation, leading to the destruction of our environment. And this spells out one thing: climate change. 

“As we go towards climate change, we also hear about how farmers are struggling to maintain their lands to be productive in this commercial world. My answer to that is bring all the foods in that you want, but shouldn't we be remembering the foods that have always grown here? The foods that have adapted to this climate that don't need the extra rainfall, chemical fertilisers and are in the majority relatively resistant to pests and diseases? And the other thing is that they're super nutritious.”

Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation has plans to commercialise the bush food offering but to involve the community throughout the process. “We have chefs from the Yarra Valley Wine Growers Association who are offering up their time to come out here once a month and cook with our bush foods to create dishes that people can try and say ‘Wow, that was bloody good. I didn't know that was available. Where can I get it from?’.” The estate also plans to start selling its produce should demand increase. Wandin points out: “There are Indigenous plant nurseries in south Victoria but they aren’t First Nations owned, nor do they have Aboriginal people working for them.”

Read about more of our Future Shapers

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