Working on Country: Indigenous Protected Areas and Aboriginal Rangers
Working on Country is a program established by the Australian government that recognizes that protecting and conserving the environment is a shared responsibility between the government and the Indigenous people. The Indigenous people of Australia have always had long-held cultural and traditional responsibility to protect their environment. The Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) in Australia is a concept that was developed by the Australian government together with the Indigenous landowners. IPAs are areas on land and sea that are owned by the indigenous people whereby the indigenous people have entered into an agreement with the Australian government to promote biodiversity and cultural conservation (Kennett, Jackson, Morrison, & Kitchens, 2010). Under the Working on Country initiative, there is an Indigenous ranger program involving Indigenous rangers whose main duty is to protect and conserve the environment. This paper explores the Working on Country Initiative while focusing in the Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous Rangers.
Australia is a continent in the southern hemisphere that is made up of the mainland, the large island of Tasmania, and a number of smaller islands located around the mainland coast. Before the British arrived in the mainland in the 18th century, the whole of Australia was dominated by Indigenous inhabitants for more than 50,000 years. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have had a deep connection with the land and sea environments, which make a huge part of their culture, beliefs, spirituality, practices, and economy of each Indigenous group (Adams, 2008).
Europeans started visiting Australia in the 17th and 18th century and it was not until 1788 that the first British settlement was established in Sidney. Later, six separate British colonies were established, and they became one nation of Australia in 1901. Currently, Australia is a constitutional monarch with a federation of six states and two territories. As of 2013, there were 23 million people living in Australia, mostly from the British, Irish and European migration that started happening 200 years ago (Smyth, & Grant, 2012).
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were about 575,000 Indigenous people in 2012. The Indigenous people are Aboriginal people coming from the mainland Australia, the island of Tasmania or the inshore coastal islands, and the Torres Strait Islander coming from the islands of Torres Strait. Aboriginal people are descendants of the first people to settle in Australia in years dating back to tens of thousands of years, while Torres Strait Islanders are descendants of the Melanesian peoples that lived in the western pacific thousands of years ago (Smyth, & Grant, 2012).
The Indigenous people of Australia have a cultural relationship with Australia that dates back to tens of thousands of years. The Indigenous peoples managed the terrestrial and marine environment in Australia through a mosaic of clan estates. There were cultural rules and laws about how environmental resources should be used, and there were even sacred areas that had very little or no access. However, the British colonists did not understand or recognize the clan estates and sacred areas established by the Indigenous people. The first Australian national parks under the Australian government were established in the second half of the 19th century and most of these parks laid on land that the Indigenous people once lived on (Smyth, 2007).
Until 1975, national parks, heritage sites, and other protected areas were managed and conserved mainly because of their biodiversity and scenic values, which included Indigenous paintings and engravings. However, the Indigenous people were excluded from these areas and were not allowed to play any role in managing and conserving these areas (Adams, 2008).
Since 1975, the Australian government and the larger Australian community started recognizing the cultural and economic relationship between the Indigenous people and the Australian environment and biodiversity. As a result, the government of Australia started involving the Indigenous Australians in managing these protected area. The Australian government also started transferring ownership of some of the national parts to the Indigenous communities. The increased involvement of the aboriginal communities in managing and conserving the environment has occurred in various jurisdictions at different rates. While legislation provides roles of the Indigenous people in the conservation efforts, the implementation of such legislation remain partial (Smyth, 2007).
Indigenous Protection Areas
In 1990, the government of Australia established the IPA program, which enabled the Indigenous people to look after their traditional terrestrial land and sea country with the support and recognition from the Australian government. The Australian government defines IPA as an area of land or sea that the Indigenous traditional landowners or custodians have entered into an agreement with the Australian government, to voluntarily promote diversity and conserve cultural resources (Walsh, Davies, & Hill, 2010).
There has to be an agreement with the Australian government in order for IPA to get the support from the Australian government. The IPAs are based on the initiatives of the Indigenous people and their traditional responsibility for their country. In 1997, the Indigenous delegates established the definition of IPAs as areas governed by the continued responsibility of the Australian Indigenous peoples to care for and protect lands for the present and future generations (Walsh, Davies, & Hill, 2010).
The IPAs may include areas of land and waters under the custodianship of the Indigenous people, which are to be managed and conserved for their cultural biodiversity while permitting sustainable resource use. The IPAs are declared under voluntary agreement between the Australian government and the Indigenous people (Smyth, & Grant, 2012).
The first IPA in Australia is at Nantawarrina in South Australia and it was established in 1998. Since then, the IPA program has extended rapidly to other parts of Australia, and by 2013, there were more than 60 IPAs managed by the Indigenous communities and covering an area of over 48 m hectares. The largest declared IPA is the Southern Tanami which is located in the Northern Territory and covers 10.16 million hectares, while the smallest IPA is Pulu Islet, located in the Torres Strait and covers around 15 hectares.
Even though IPA refers to both land and sea areas, the formal declaration of IPAs has mostly been focusing on indigenously owned land. This mainly because managing Indigenous land is easier and less contested than the management of marine areas. The problems in the inclusion of marine areas have been mainly due to the lack of indigenous tenure and exclusive authority of the sea area. However, the Dhimurru IPA located in northeastern Arnhem Land has managed to include the costal land and marine areas (Smyth, 2007).
The main objectives of IPAs are to:
- Support the interests of the Indigenous communities in developing cooperative management arrangements with the Australian government in managing protected areas
- Support Indigenous landowners to develop and manage IPAs on the lands in which they live as part of Australia
- Support the integration of the cultural and ecological knowledge of the Indigenous community with the protected area management practices (Angas Downs IPA, 2009).
Working on Country
One effort to engage the Indigenous people in conserving and managing the environment is the Working on Country program which is an initiative established by the Australian government that recognizes shared responsibility with the indigenous people when it comes to conserving and protecting the environment. The Indigenous people of Australia have been known to protect their land and sea. They own about 20 per cent of the Australian continent, and most of this land has rich cultural and spiritual meaning. Working on Country enables the Australian government to invest in the Indigenous traditional knowledge in protecting and managing the land and sea (Australian Government Department of the Environment, 2013).
One program under the Working on Country Indigenous initiative is the ranger program that has been a successful in achieving environmental benefits when it comes to managing and conserving the environment. Under the Indigenous ranger program, the Australian government recognizes the strong will and relationship of the Indigenous people to manage their land and sea and get paid for their work. There are a number of ranger programs across Australia. For instance, the Kimberly region found in Western Australia is known for its natural beauty and significance. Indigenous people make up almost half of the area population, and they have diverse cultures and traditions. There is more than ten Working on Country ranger groups that assist in managing the culturally significant sites in the area. The Indigenous people care for large areas of Australia through managing cultural sites, conservation of heritage values, biodiversity, flora and fauna, and protect the land from land disturbance, pollution, and climate change effects (Kennett, Jackson, Morrison, & Kitchens, 2010).
Through the Indigenous rangers program, Working on Country enables the indigenous community to provide service to their country, care for the environment and get gainful employment. The Australian government provides funding to Indigenous and non-indigenous organizations under the Working on Country program that employ Indigenous rangers to manage and conserve the environment (Australian Government Department of the Environment, 2013).
The main objectives of the indigenous rangers programs are to:
- Support the Indigenous efforts and aspirations to care for their land
- Support the opportunities and efforts of the Indigenous communities in providing services meant to protect and manage the environment, cultural and heritage values of Australia,
- Provide training and support career pathways of the Indigenous people in managing and conserving their land and sea in partnership with others.
- Assist the partnership between the Indigenous people and the non-indigenous people and the government in delivering environmental outcomes (Australian Government Department of the Environment, 2012).
Working on Country program began in 2007, and by 2013, it had employed more than 680 Indigenous aboriginal rangers in about 95 ranger teams in Australia to help in delivering environmental outcomes. The Australian Government has remained committed to the Working on Country program offering real job positions for rangers which are long term jobs that offer more economic certainty to individuals, families, and communities of the Indigenous people. The Australian government provided over $244 million to run the program between 2007 and 2013 (Australian Government Department of the Environment, 2013). From July 2013, the Australian government set aside $320 million over a five year period to support Indigenous rangers. Apart from serving the environmental conservation outcomes, the Working on Country program has helped in closing the gap on the Indigenous disadvantage (Smyth, 2011).
Benefits of the IPA and Indigenous rangers program
The IPA and Indigenous rangers programs have led to various benefits that include environmental and cultural benefits, economic benefits, employment benefits, health and social benefits, among other benefits.
- Environmental and cultural benefits
The IPA and Indigenous ranger teams have managed to lead management and conservation efforts of over 1.5 million square kilometers of terrestrial land and marine land across Australia. The Australian government provides the needed training and science while the Indigenous communities use their native knowledge to engage in the conservation efforts. All the environmental projects managed by the Indigenous rangers are of National Environmental Significance as specified by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. About 91 of the conservation efforts involve managing threatening processes to the environment like invasive grasses, marine debris, and feral pigs (Moritz, Ens, & Altman, 2015).
A good number of the projects (61%) under the IPA and rangers programs are associated with managing threatened fauna species like the Flatback Turtle, Gouldian Finch and Greater Bilby. Other projects include those of tackling Weeds of National Significance like the Lantana, Mimosa, Olive Hymenachne and Parkinsonia. 78% of the conservation projects like those found in Kimberly involve managing and conserving cultural and heritage sites. Since the Indigenous people are the ones conducting the conservation efforts, there is a lot of transfer of cultural conservation knowledge between the elders and younger people among the Indigenous communities. For instance, there are country trips, field trips, talks, and junior ranger programs that are carried using the Indigenous cultures and languages (Angas Downs IPA, 2009).
- Economic and employment benefits
For a long time, the Indigenous communities in Australia were economically and socially disadvantaged. Years of marginalization of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders took a toll on the economic and social wellbeing of the Indigenous communities. However, the IPA and Working on Country programs have managed to provide employment and training opportunities to the Indigenous people who have been the most remote and economically marginalized. The Working on Country program provided over 730 job positions by June 2015.
The program has allowed for both full time and part time employment and this provides opportunities even for the community elders and women. By the end of 2012, more than a quarter of the Indigenous people working under the program were women. Apart from the part time and full time jobs, the program has provided an opportunity for the Indigenous people to work on a casual basis, say a few days or a season. The job retention under this program has been quite high at 80% for the year 2012. The employment benefits also extend to the Australian government as the government is now spending less on welfare payments as more Indigenous people have gotten into gainful employment (Australian Government Department of the Environment, 2012).
- Health and social benefits
Participating in the IPA and Working on Country programs has also yielded numerous health and social benefits to the Indigenous people. As the community is increasingly engaging in natural and cultural resource conservation and management, the people are more physically active, and this lowers rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and renal disease. The Indigenous people now have something to do for their country, and this has boosted their confidence, self-esteem, and hope as citizens of Australia (Australian Government Department of the Environment, 2012).
- Boosting knowledge
The Indigenous communities and ranger groups involved in the conservation efforts have to take some form of training so as to take up the position of rangers and conservationists. Most of the Indigenous ranger groups have attained certificate level of Conservation and Land Management. In addition, the Indigenous rangers are collaborating with scientists in order to gain more knowledge and understanding of the biodiversity in remote Australia. This can boost both conservation efforts and socio-economic development. For instance, the Yugul Mangi Rangers in the Southeast Arnhem Land have been working with the Atlas of Living Australia, the Macquarie University, and the Australian National University to survey and understand biodiversity in the most remote parts of Australia. The Djelk Rangers have also worked with scientists to identify about 25 species of tarantula in Australia (Moritz, Ens, & Altman, 2015).
There is a range of future directions for the development of Working on Country and IPA programs all centered on continued management of the environment by the Indigenous people of Australia. These future opportunities include:
- Landscape planning and management under the IPA and other Working on Country programs.
- Economic development opportunities based on the IPA and Working on Country programs. These opportunities include tourism, sustainable fisheries, feral animal management, and other land and sea use associated with environment conservation.
- Greater support directed at surveying and monitoring environmental outcomes and management effectiveness.
- New funding models to ensure sustainability and long term resourcing of the IPA and Work on Country programs (Smyth, 2011).
The IPAs represent a large and increasingly growing part of the national reserve system in Australia. While the concept of IPA started in 1990, there are more than 60 IPAs in Australia, and more areas are being proposed for new IPAs to be established. The IPAs have played a significant role in bringing the Australian government and the Indigenous communities to work together to manage and conserve the environment. The Working on Country program has been instrumental in providing an opportunity for the Indigenous communities to engage in environment conservation efforts and get paid in the process. The ranger programs particularly provide economic value and culturally meaningful employment opportunities to the Indigenous people who are also able to conserve and manage Australia’s ecosystems.