Special Event - Disasters as Transformative Opportunities


In the 21st Century, disasters and pandemics of unprecedented scales across the world are increasing the awareness of people. We are experiencing an existential crisis. Commonly, crises are interpreted as problems entailing great suffering. While acknowledging this “dark side” of crises, in this presentation we suggest that crises also create spaces for new opportunities and elaborate on the “bright side” of crises. Drawing upon transformative learning theory, symbolic interactionism and narrative theory, we propose that disasters offer during the recovering and rebuilding phases opportunities for individual and collective transformation and thus can function as catalysts for societal turning points. Crises interrupt largely unconscious interpretations and actions that have become dysfunctional and create spaces for people, communities and societies to create ways of being, knowing and doing that enable them to become healthy/well, fulfil their needs and thrive. However, articulation of the actual individual and social processes that facilitate using and sustaining the transformative potential disasters offer is still scarce. We start addressing this knowledge gap by sharing how Australian and a Taiwanese Indigenous communities used, and are sustaining, the transformative potential of a long-term social disaster (colonialization) and ‘natural’ disasters (cyclones Natham and Lam in Northern Australia in 2015 and typhoon Morakot in Taiwan in 2009) during recovery and rebuilding. The insights offered will highlight that the recovery and rebuilding phases could be utilized as long-term transformation processes that reduce the risk of future social and ‘natural’ disasters and pandemics. That is, perceiving recovery and rebuilding as transformative opportunities and as the critical starting points rather than end points in the DRR spiral could be highly useful for turning the tide. It will also become apparent that Indigenous peoples, and especially women, play a pivotal role in facilitating crises being used as opportunities for individual and collective transformations.


1200hrs: Introduction & context setting: Assist Prof Petra Buergelt and Prof Douglas Paton

1215hrs: Presentation 1: Dr Elaine Läwurrpa Maypilama & Tahir Ali

1230hrs: Presentation 2: A/Prof Chin-ju Lin & Apu’u Kaaviana

1245hrs: Presentation 3: Dr Bev Sithole

1300hrs: Q&A with the audience


Assistant Prof Petra Buergelt is an interdisciplinary social scientist at the University of Canberra (UC). She is also an affiliate researcher at the Disaster Risk Science Institute (ANU) and a research fellow at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research (Massey University, NZ). Petra is serving as a member of UC’s Collaborative Indigenous Research Initiative and the International Transformative Learning Association Leadership Committee. Her research is at the nexus of human adaptation and transformation, disasters, and Indigenous worldviews and knowledges. Petra is specializing in employing qualitative research to gain a holistic and in-depth understanding of the individual and contextual/environmental factors and processes that empower humans and communities thriving in the face of change, uncertainty and adversity. She was the principal researcher for the $12.4 million project with six Indigenous communities in Northern Australia, which was awarded several awards including the NAIDOC 2016 Award for the Best Environmental Project. Since 2017, Petra has been co-leading an international, interdisciplinary and intersectorial team that is co-creating an Indigenist research project aiming at facilitating Indigenous Australian and Taiwanese communities exchanging knowledges, skills and cultural practices to strengthen and (re)building their adaptive capacities. She is also a CI on the NHMRC MRFF project “Supporting mental health through building resilience during and after bushfires – Lessons from the 2019 – 2020 bushfires in Southern NSW and the ACT”. Petra has co-authored over 70 publications, has a shared research grant income of over $2.39 million and has been awarded numerous fellowships and scholarships. Petra is also serving as an editorial board member of the International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches.

Dr Elaine Läwurrpa Maypilama is a Principal Research Fellow in the Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University. Läwurrpa is a senior Yolŋu educator and researcher with a wide range of research experience over nearly 40 years. She is widely respected for her high level of expertise in developing and conducting culturally responsive and high-quality research. Her advice and participation are frequently sought from across Australia. Läwurrpa was one of the founding members of the research organisation Yalu Marŋgithinyaraw, which uses traditional Yolŋu clan structures of governance and management to promote the physical, spiritual and emotional health of Yolŋu. She has been involved in numerous research projects including the ARC-funded ‘Indigenous birth and family’ project, the Commonwealth-funded ‘Manymak Energy efficiency Project’, the FACSIA funded ‘Footprints in Time’ project, and Department of Health and Ageing funded ‘Taking Control of Chronic Disease’ project. She is also an author on many publications and has presented at numerous conferences across Australia and internationally. Läwurrpa recognised that non-Indigenous researchers often fail to understand the complexities of an Indigenous worldview. To address this, she has consistently acted as a facilitator to assist non-Indigenous researchers to better understand their processes within a Yolŋu.

A/Prof Chin-ju Lin is a sociologist and a feminist who graduated from University of Essex, U.K. and is now the Director of the Graduate Institute of Gender Studies at Kaohsiung Medical University, Taiwan. Her research interests fall on the intersection of gender and ethnicity, intersectionality, Indigenous women, migrant women, disasters and climate change. Chin-ju has worked with migrant women in Taiwan, and historical transformations of patriarchal kinship relations on 20th century Taiwan. In recent years, she explores experiences of Indigenous women after natural disaster. Her recent work includes, ‘‘Indigenous Social Work in Disaster: A Study of Indigenous Peoples’ Experiences of Emergency Relocation after Typhoon Morakot” and “The Colonized Masculinity and Cultural Politics of Seediq Bale”.

Apu’u Kaaviana is an Indigenous Taiwanese grassroots organizer and has been working towards empowering especially Indigenous women in Indigenous communities for over twenty years. After Typhoon Morakot hit in 2009, she committed herself to post-disaster recovery work in her hometown. Apu’u promotes a model of sustainable development in the post-disaster recovery processes. She promotes friendly land use, empowered grassroots women, encouraged collective care-work, and recovered Indigenous women’s fields, where the ancestral women’s knowledges are preserved. She not only hopes to bring about social change to improve the lives of her people, but also to preserve the spirits of her culture for generations to come. Apu’u is the representative of Kanakanavu people in the Taiwanese Council of Indigenous Peoples (Cabinet, executive yuan), the Chairperson of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Kaohsiung City, the Deputy CEO of the Morakot Typhoon Reconstruction Committee (Kaohsiung City Government), the Organizer and Chairperson of the Kaohsiung Indigenous Women's Growth Association, the Organizer and Director General of the Kaohsiung Indigenous Women's Sustainable Development Association and the Deputy secretary-general, Taiwan Kanakanavu Cultural and Educational Development Association.

Dr Bev Sithole is a social scientist and participatory research practitioner who works with and supports the Aboriginal Research Practitioners Network (ARPNet) in the Northern Territory (Australia). She is an adjunct fellow at the Research School For Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University. She is Research leader on a component of the BNHCRC funded project called “Developing Effective Management Partnerships” which is being implemented through RIEL at Charles Darwin University. This project is a continuation of an earlier project undertaken by ARPNet called “Scoping resilience in remote communities in Northern Australia” which was also funded by BNHCRC and was implemented through RIEL at CDU. ARPNet is a loosely coordinated network of community based research practitioners in remote communities that work in research and evaluation using locally adapted participatory tools – called the ARPNet Dilly Bag. Hmalan Hunter Xenie is the coordinator of the network and supports the Ramangining community based research practitioners in the field as they work on this project. Although I am working mostly in Arnhem land, I have started to work with the communities in the Eastern highlands of Zimbabwe who suffered the impact of the largest cyclone ever experienced in the southern Hemisphere.

Tahir Ali is an international student from Pakistan who is currently completing his PhD at Charles Darwin University. In 2016, Tahir investigated for his Master by Research at CDU’s School of Health how sources of funding and financial issues of community managed organizations in the mental health sector in the NT influence service delivery. For his PhD study, he selected to work directly with Indigenous communities in Australia and Pakistan to explore Indigenous disaster risk resilience through community-based approaches for sustainable futures to develop a grounded theory of Indigenous community-based disaster risk reduction and sustainable development. He has always been passionate to work together with people to enhance their health, wellbeing and welfare. This passion further developed during his 7 years career as Human Resource professional with different private and public sector organizations of UK and Pakistan. Tahir also extensively worked with disadvantaged communities of Pakistan during different humanitarian crises as a volunteer.

Dr Douglas Paton is a Professor of Psychology at Charles Darwin University and Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra, Director of the Australasian Centre for RISC Research at CDU, a Senior Research Fellow at the Bandung Resilience Development Initiative in Bandung (Indonesia), a Research Fellow at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research in New Zealand, and an Expert Advisor on Community Resilience with the World Health Organization. In 2005-2006, following the Indian Ocean tsunami, Douglas was the Australian delegate to the UNESCO Education for Natural Disaster Preparedness in the Asia-Pacific Program and was a member of the Psychosocial Advisory Committee for the Christchurch earthquake from 2011-2013, and in 204-15, he contributed to developing the community engagement program for the WHO Ebola response program in Sierra Leone. Douglas’ research focuses on developing and testing theories of adaptive and resilient capacity in communities and in emergency response organizations. His work adopts an all-hazards, cross cultural approach. Work is being undertaken in in Australia (wildfire, flooding, tsunami), New Zealand (earthquake, tsunami, volcanic hazards), Iran (earthquake), Somalia (flooding), Nepal (earthquake), Japan (earthquake, volcanic hazards), Indonesia (volcanic hazards), Taiwan (earthquake, typhoon), and Portugal (wildfire). He is currently working on community disaster recovery and capacity building programs with humanitarian aid agencies, developing transdisciplinary and transformative approaches to DRR research and practice and exploring the links between disaster risk reduction and recovery and the visual and performing arts. He has published 23 books, 133 book chapters and 186 peer-reviewed journal articles.