It’s difficult to imagine a more challenging year for East Gippsland, especially for Mallacoota and its surrounding communities.
As the pandemic-driven lockdowns made our distance from this area more acute, it became a struggle to gain a clearer understanding of how the town’s recovery was progressing — heightened by the fact that Covid-19 prevented their community healing in the way that so many needed.
A well-respected voice in the community informed Gippslandia that “support from government agencies and other networks has made a real difference, but the community-led model of recovery is at the forefront”. To our embarrassment, we had very limited knowledge of MADRA (Mallacoota & District Recovery Association Inc.) and the vital work they were facilitating.
In the opening chapter of their Recovery Plan, a valuable and dynamic document that reflects the community’s recovery priorities, the authors outline the severity of the situation the area faces:
In our district’s living memory, there is no comparable event.
To better grasp the innovative process that’s underway in the communities of Mallacoota, Genoa, Gipsy Point, Wangarabell, Weeragua, Maramingo Creek, Wallagaraugh and Wroxham — one that’s leading them out of such a devastating episode, we gratefully welcomed the opportunity to interview MADRA Deputy Chair Jenny Lloyd.
Gippslandia: In the Recovery Plan you paint a comprehensive picture of the area in the aftermath of the fires. What is the current state of the region?
Jenny: Recovery is not a linear process and will take many years. Within our community, many residents have begun rebuilding or have moved to temporary housing. For some, however, the grief is still raw. We need to make sure these people have the support they need and that no-one is slipping between the cracks.
"Our spirits are lifted seeing koalas, wombats, goannas and birds again."
In our environment, wildlife is returning and we are seeing signs of regeneration. Some mosses and lichen only seen after fires have emerged, feeding the soil for vegetation to come. Other areas have been so badly burned that restoration assistance will be needed.
Some of our injured wildlife has been returned and released into the wild. Our spirits are lifted seeing koalas, wombats, goannas and birds again.
What was the seed for seeking a ‘community-led’ recovery? Were you surprised that the concept was so encouragingly endorsed?
Our community-led recovery model derives from the experience of Strathewen, which was devastated during the 2009 Black Saturday fires. However, every community is different and our model has evolved to suit our situation.
Our isolation means we are a DIY community. That the concept was overwhelmingly endorsed is therefore no surprise. Not only do we have a strong love and understanding of our history, environment and culture, but those who live closest to the problem know where to ‘hit it with the shifter’ to get it working again.
What benefits has empowering the Mallacoota community brought to the project?
The community-led recovery is being taken seriously by all levels of government and our collective voice is being heard. This has enabled us to influence the rebuilding of infrastructure and articulate what supports we need. We identify recovery gaps and propose solutions based on local knowledge, values and experience, creating more enduring solutions that are fit for purpose.
How have you been able to define and achieve your goals collectively? How do you ensure everyone has a voice?
Covid-19 has put a spanner in our face-to-face community consultation plans. Easing restrictions will allow us to embark on a series of meetings at which community members can discuss recovery projects and initiatives.
Meanwhile, we have progressively released chapters of our draft Recovery Plan for information and feedback.
Do you think the community responds differently in receiving information or communications through MADRA rather than external agencies?
"Our story is ongoing and we can articulate it in ways that reflect our community’s thinking."
As our mission states, we are ‘a voice for our community’. As such, our communications are always in first person. We are able to acknowledge the work of the many individuals and organisations within our community who are working hard for our recovery. Of course, if we get it wrong we will very quickly hear about it! Importantly, community members are able to see their ideas and priorities through from conception to implementation. We see our voice is being heard.
Our story is ongoing and we can articulate it in ways that reflect our community’s thinking — something external bodies are not empowered to do.
What have been some of the challenges you have faced in undertaking this approach?
Covid-19 has hindered our recovery. Another challenge is that we are all volunteers and have to balance the recovery process with personal, family and work priorities.
With community-led development comes responsibility. We cannot just present with the problem; we have to spell out what the problem is together with community solutions and approaches for resolution. This is a big task.
As our (and the government agencies’) thinking of what is meant by ‘community-led recovery’ has evolved, we are starting to understand our respective roles and responsibilities.
Would you recommend that more Gippsland communities apply a community-led approach after future disasters?
Yes, but with the caveat that help is needed to get ‘Community Recovery Committees’ running and equipped for the task.
Every community is unique and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. For us, recovery is essentially about people. We are building a strong basis for community-led recovery that can be implemented in future disasters… In particular, a scalable model that can be quickly put in place will enable faster recovery.