• Ethnobotanist Gerry Turpin is helping empower Indigenous people to renew and strengthen their cultural knowledge and practices about plants. (Supplied)
The Mbabaram man is unlocking the secrets of traditional medicine and bush tucker for future generations.
By
Alyssa Braithwaite

8 Jun 2016 - 10:56 AM  UPDATED 9 Jun 2016 - 9:52 AM

Ethnobotanist Gerry Turpin is used to people stumbling over his job title.

"Ethno means people, botany is the study of plants, so it's just simply the study of plants that people used traditionally, such as bush medicine, bush tucker, and things like that," Turpin tells SBS Science.

It's a field he got into by accident. The Mbabaram man says he was "pretty ordinary" at school and wasn't taught about traditional medicine and bush tucker growing up.

It was only when the former fruit picker got a 12-month trainee position with the Department of Primary Industries as a scientific assistant that he developed an interest in science, and botany in particular.

These days he's the bridge between the two worlds of traditional Indigenous knowledge and Western science.

Turpin manages the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre at James Cook University's Australian Tropical Herbarium in Cairns, and spends his days learning from Aboriginal Elders.  

"The main aim of that centre is to record and document the knowledge, because the Elders are passing on and the younger generation are not that interested anymore, so we want to be able to record that knowledge and store it for future generations," Turpin says.

With a science degree under his belt, Turpin's field trips are a chance to exchange and share knowledge with Traditional Owners.

"I go out on Country and I realise that it's their country, so I'm out there to learn from them - and I learn a lot," he says.

"They know their country like the back of their hand, especially the bush tucker and the bush medicine stuff, and so they teach me the traditional stuff and then in return I give some of my knowledge about Western science."

This knowledge sharing has benefits for both sides in areas such as land management, medicine, and sustainability.

"I think there's a huge potential for Aboriginal medicinal plants to be used in things like natural medicine."

One example is a practice by the Malanburra Yidinjdji people - they use a vine which they mash up and put into the creeks to stun the fish and bring them to the surface. Then they select the fish they want, and those that are left in the water slowly come back around and swim away.

Researchers are now trialling this as a method for dealing with pest fish like tilapia.

"Rather than put poisons in the stream and kill everything that lives in it, this does it in an environmentally safe way," says Turpin.

While some communities are just keen to have their traditional knowledge recorded, others hope to use it in a way that will allow the community to benefit financially as well. 

For instance, the Mbarrum people are working in partnership with the University of Western Sydney's National Institute of Complementary Medicine developing new medicines based on bush medicine remedies.

"The project is to collect the medicinal plants [and take them] back to the university to get it analysed for their active properties," Turpin says.

"We've gotten results back, and it pretty much validates traditional knowledge, so the next step is looking how to make creams and salves for those medicines.

"I think there's a huge potential for Aboriginal medicinal plants to be used in things like natural medicine."

As Australia's first, and possibly only, formally trained Indigenous ethnobotanist, Turpin has developed a real passion for restoring traditional knowledge to Indigenous communities.

"There are others in a worse position than us who have nothing left, so they're grateful for that little bit of knowledge."

He scours old documents, botanical journals and textbooks for knowledge that he can rescue from being lost forever. 

"With our people, we've only got 300 words left in our language, and now we've found five plants with a traditional language name, so we take that knowledge and we bring it back to community, reinvigorate it back into the community," Turpin explains.

"There are others in a worse position than us who have nothing left, so they're grateful for that little bit of knowledge."

In 2013, Turpin won the Indigenous Scientist category at Deadly Awards in recognition of his work - a career highlight for the scientist.

"It just shows that people appreciate the work that you do and the importance of it," he says. "And for me to come from my beginnings as not a very good scholar, to come up and to win something like this was very important for me."

Now he's hoping the next generation of Indigenous scientists will follow in his footsteps.

"Part of my job is to promote traditional knowledge. I'm on my own here. When I move on we need someone to come in and take over, to carry on this work." 

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