The Environment and Indigenous Peoples

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 fact sheet
Department of the Environment and Heritage, February 2002

What is happening overall?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have valued and used the land and sea for at least 60,000 years. The involvement of Indigenous peoples in land management has a higher profile than it did five years ago. Indigenous knowledge is being better integrated into policies and programs in both the public and private sectors.

Some Indigenous peoples still depend directly on the natural environment for live game, firewood, edible plants, medicines, materials (building, weapons and transport), and cultural and spiritual items. For example, Indigenous people catch 2,000 to 4,000 green turtles each year. Permits regulate this hunting.

There are 110,000 Indigenous heritage places listed in state and territory registers.

Australian museums have developed 19 agreements for the repatriation of cultural property, especially human remains and secret and/or sacred objects, since 1998.

How are Indigenous peoples involved in land management?

Indigenous peoples are continuing to manage land. Traditional impacts including the use of fire and hunting of animals helped shape the terrestrial environment. Indigenous peoples now own and/or manage at least 15% of the country, often in remote areas. Much of the land being returned to Indigenous peoples has been degraded through land clearing, overstocking or by introduced pests. A new challenge for Indigenous peoples is to manage such problems effectively. To achieve this requires the provision of support mechanisms in a culturally suitable way.

Under the Indigenous Protected Areas program, Indigenous landowners manage their lands for the protection of natural and cultural features. The program funds management plans and practical work to protect natural and cultural features and to contribute to conserving biological diversity. Thirteen Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) were declared between 1998 and February 2001 and have been added to the National Reserve System.

How are Indigenous peoples involved in helping others manage land?

The mining industry and other land management groups are integrating Indigenous knowledge in rehabilitation and land management programs. Cooperation between mining companies and Indigenous peoples is growing, for instance, in the Weipa area of North Queensland and in the Pilbara in Western Australia.

The most recent Plan of Management for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park aims to maintain traditional Anangu burning practices to protect and enhance the park's biodiversity.

What is happening to Indigenous peoples' languages?

An Indigenous language is intimately related to the stretch of country for which its speakers care and on which they often reside. Language is the primary tool for connection to country for Indigenous peoples who have no written tradition.

Indigenous languages continue to be lost. The number of these languages and the percentage of people speaking them fell between 1986 and 1996, and this trend accelerated over the past ten years. Of the 20 Indigenous languages classified as strong in 1990, three had become endangered by 1996.