Woodcarvings a sustainable art in Arnhem Land 


Research into the use of harvested trees for woodcarving in Arnhem Land has found the practice is sustainable at current levels, reducing uncertainly about the viability of the art form.

Charles Darwin University researcher Dr Jennifer Koenig (pictured), who was awarded a PhD from the University recently, examined the socio-cultural, economic and ecological determinants of sustainably harvesting timber for woodcarving in the Maningrida region of central Arnhem Land.

Her thesis was prompted by concerned community members who approached CDU to examine the long-term environmental effects of their relatively new woodcarving practice.

‘They didn’t have the resources and expertise to examine these sustainability issues and so utilised their existing relationship with researchers in the School for Environmental Research to instigate a collaborative project,’ Dr Koenig said.

A breakdown of sales data showed that the number of woodcarvers and the number of carvings produced in the region has grown rapidly over the past 20 years.

Her research found the tree populations used for woodcarving were resilient to harvesting and could cope with predicted increases in their use.

Dr Koenig also identified many cultural differences in harvest practice among various language groups but found two tree species commonly used for carving across all language groups in the region: Bombax ceiba and Brachychiton diversifolius.

Mature tree stems cut to near ground level re-sprouted and these new shoots were found to grow up to six times faster than similar sized, non-sprouted stems.

While B. diversifolius was more resilient to increasing harvesting intensity, the current harvest regimes for both species were sustainable, she said.

Dr Koenig said the results were very positive for the community.

‘The study has reduced the uncertainty surrounding the sustainability of harvesting these species and ensures woodcarving continues to be an important livelihood option for Indigenous Australians of Arnhem Land,’ she said.