Indigenous involvement in environmental and heritage management
Rowena Brown and Peter Creaser (eds) Alinytjara Wilurara NRM Services, South Australia and the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage;
Sean Kerins, Northern Land Council;
Jane L Lennon, Jane Lennon and Associates;
Mona Nugula Liddy, Daly River Community Reference Group
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Indigenous people in the Northern Territory living on Aboriginal-owned land face a complex range of natural resource management issues. As Aboriginal lands are some of the most bio-diverse in Australia, they face many of the same land and conservation management challenges as much of the ‘Top End’, for example, the need for wildfire management and the control of weeds, feral animals and other pests. In many regions there are limited resources, community capacity and skills to deal with natural resource management. As a result, in 1996, the Northern Land Council (NLC) established the Caring for Country Unit, in response to traditional owner aspirations, to help Aboriginal people living on country preserve healthy landscapes for future generations. In the ten years since its initiation, the Caring for Country Unit has worked closely with traditional landowners and managers to successfully set up a network of formalised land and sea management programs, often referred to as Aboriginal Ranger groups, throughout the ‘Top End’ of the Northern Territory.
The NLC is a statutory authority established under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 to represent the interests of Aboriginal people and help traditional Aboriginal owners claim and manage their land. The NLC region covers an area of 195 000km² in the northern half of the Northern Territory and, of this, approximately 50 per cent of the land, including 85 per cent of the coastal/intertidal zone, is Aboriginal-owned. Much of this Aboriginal-owned land contains biodiversity hotspots of both national and international significance. In the Northern Territory only 0.43 per cent of land has been cleared, compared to Victoria where 62.7 per cent has been cleared or New South Wales with 29.3 per cent. With this in mind, Aboriginal people face the ongoing task of managing vast areas of intact country in a sustainable way in the face of a myriad of introduced threats with little resources. The approach of the NLC through its Caring for Country Unit is to work collaboratively with a range of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal agencies to build local capacity to institute effective management of land and sea resources. The role of the Caring for Country Unit is to broker delivery of appropriate advice, education and training, and resources for Aboriginal land and sea managers, based on good participatory planning.
The broad network of community-based Aboriginal natural and cultural resource management programs throughout the NLC region continues to grow both in number and by consolidating existing programs. There are now 34 community-based land and sea management programs operating over about 50 per cent of the NLC region and employing over 350 people, including both men and women rangers. There is a strong focus on local capacity building and training in order to build the skills and resources of communities to manage these programs in the long term. Intensive consultation and coordination underpin these ranger programs, allowing Aboriginal people to determine how the programs are carried out. The community selects its own local rangers as workers and they are supported through the Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP). The ranger groups also provide a formalised structure for the transfer of traditional knowledge from old to young, as well as being a vehicle for the training and employment of young Aboriginal people living in remote areas.
These programs tackle a range of natural and cultural resource management issues, including weeds, fire and feral animal management, sacred site protection, coastal zone surveillance, resource-based enterprise development, monitoring of marine species (for example turtles, dugong), fauna relocations, marine debris management and Indigenous pastoral projects. Given the complex suite of natural resource management issues, Aboriginal landowners and managers are increasingly recognising the need to apply two sets of knowledge to land and sea management—traditional ecological knowledge and contemporary, science-based knowledge. Within the Caring for Country program both sets of knowledge are given equal value and are used to complement each other. The establishment of formalised land and sea management programs throughout the Top End has proved a successful way of fusing these two approaches to land and sea management.
To support the ranger groups’ activities the Caring for Country Unit has developed partnerships with a number of external agencies including Territory and Federal Government departments, the Indigenous Land Corporation, various research bodies such as the Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centre and the School of Environmental Research at Charles Darwin University, peak Aboriginal organisations such as the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), and funding agencies such the Natural Heritage Trust. Some successful examples of such partnerships include the Mimosa Management Program, the crazy ant eradication program, the quoll island reserve project, the turtle and dugong project, the Indigenous pastoral project and the marine ranger network. All are designed to manage land and sea, and build community capacity for sustainable economic development.
The Caring for Country Unit has achieved successful outcomes on a variety of levels. In environmental terms, the ranger groups have made significant inroads towards fire, weeds, feral animal and marine management, in particular the eastward and westward spread of the weed Mimosa pigra and a new regime of early patchwork burns on Aboriginal lands. Other issues include the reengagement of Aboriginal people in the pastoral industry, and wildlife protection and utilisation programs. At a community level, the development of the ranger programs has seen the confidence, skill and commitment of its participants increase significantly. The Caring for Country Unit continues to receive requests to initiate new programs with Aboriginal people utilising their own money to fund land and sea management on their country. As more communities join the ranger network, Aboriginal peoples’ ability to care for country and manage fire, erosion and pests will also increase. This growing capability is already recognised at a national level, with Aboriginal rangers’ expert knowledge of country seeing them fulfil vital, although still in a CDEP capacity, roles both in border security and quarantine protection.
The long-term goals of the Caring for Country Unit are to consolidate and enhance existing community-based programs as well as extend community-based programs into areas where there are gaps, the creation of new partnerships while formalising and strengthening existing partnerships and the initiation of employment or enterprise that can fund land management activities. Presently, the Caring for Country Unit remains dependent on short-term external grants which is problematic in that short-term funding inhibits long-term planning, and much staff time is spent on grant applications and acquittals rather than focusing on on-ground community initiatives. Maintaining and building capacity under these funding arrangements creates major challenges. Active land and sea management may well be the most viable form of employment in remote Aboriginal lands and community-based involvement in natural resource management has been shown to bring significant economic, environmental and socio-cultural benefits. Through the formalised land and sea management programs, with the support of the Caring for Country Unit, Aboriginal people have demonstrated that they have the commitment, skills and location to address both opportunities and challenges in natural resource management to meet targets of local, national and international importance.