Healthy country, healthy people
Recent analyses of five Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) across regional and remote Australia demonstrate the social and cultural co-benefits of Indigenous land management initiatives.
In remote West Arnhem Land, on 1.4 million hectares of Indigenous-owned land adjoining Kakadu National Park, there is a small clearing where visionary local leader and accomplished artist, Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek, painted some of his last rock art before his death in 2009.
This clearing is one of thousands of rock art sites on the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), which is managed by Nawarddeken people in accordance with their priorities, with Federal Government support.
While most of Lofty’s more recent art is relatively well preserved, older sites have been badly damaged by buffalos and dangerous wildfires. When Nawarddeken left the land for nearby towns more than 50 years ago, feral animals and wildfires took hold of country that was no longer actively managed. Today, Warddeken IPA rangers are helping to bring back healthy country and preserve important heritage sites, including Lofty’s rock art.
Working ‘on country’
The term ‘country’ is far broader than simply a reference to land. Country encompasses land, water, sky and all life and geologic forms therein, all of which are inextricably linked. It speaks to a peoples’ spiritual connection with that land, articulated through the country’s dreaming, which has been passed down through generations. The opportunity to access and manage land for many regional and remote First Australian nations is critical in maintaining connection to country. The Federal Government’s Working on Country and Indigenous Protected Area programs afford that opportunity.
In 2015, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) sought to understand, measure (or estimate), and value the changes resulting from the Warddeken IPA, as well as four other IPAs across regional and remote Australia. To do so, PM&C commissioned Social Ventures Australia (SVA) to conduct Social Return on Investment (SROI) analyses of the five IPAs and associated ranger programs.
… the IPAs and associated Indigenous ranger programs have generated significant social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes…
A core component of SROI is understanding the changes that a program has created from the perspective of stakeholders. Key stakeholders included rangers, Indigenous community members, federal and state governments, Indigenous corporations and cross-sector partners (including corporates, NGOs and research organisations).
SVA undertook 143 consultations with identified stakeholders. That consultation involved spending time on country and facilitating conversations with individuals and groups wherever they felt most comfortable; around the campfire, in the car during long trips or whilst tracking feral cats.
The benefits created by IPAs
The four SROI analyses collectively established that the IPAs and associated Indigenous ranger programs have generated significant social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes for rangers, community members, state and federal governments and other stakeholders.
That success is predicated on extraordinary levels of engagement. Indigenous Australians are supported through IPAs to manage their country in accordance with their cultural obligations, at the same time, delivering large scale conservation outcomes. Overwhelmingly, the four analyses demonstrated that Indigenous community members – especially rangers – have experienced a reconnection to their traditional country, language and culture.
Facilitation of ranger employment opportunities on country, for old and young people, has delivered positive outcomes such as:
- Rangers – increased pride and sense of self; better health and wellbeing
- Community – better cultural asset management; more role models for young people; less violence
- Indigenous corporations – improved governance capacity
- Corporate partners – increased local and international credibility.
Each IPA has a different story, which impacts upon the nature and extent of value created.
From the perspective of Government, the programs demonstrate a successful lateral approach to tackling systemic social, health and justice issues – ranging from unemployment to dependence on alcohol and other drugs. Of the 35 outcomes that were deemed material across the four analyses, PM&C were able to map 28 outcomes (accounting for 91% of value creation) back to the five strategic priorities which underpin the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.
Each IPA has a different story, which impacts upon the nature and extent of value created.
Warddeken – carbon abatement
Today over 40 Indigenous rangers based on outstations within the Warddeken IPA are dedicated to caring for country. Fire management is undertaken using an award-winning ‘two tool box approach’, blending traditional and western land management practices. This highly-skilled work is critical to Nawarddeken’s vision for healthier country and people, and fulfilling the wishes of Elders.
“Before we returned here it was empty country; our old people would call it ‘orphaned country’… The land management and the IPA help us fix this.”
As Senior Ranger Terrah Guymala puts it, “Before we returned here, it was empty country; our old people would call it ‘orphaned country’. The country was damaged by uncontrolled fires and there were buffalo everywhere. The land management and the IPA help us fix this.”
While the social and cultural benefits resulting from healthier country cannot be overstated, Nawarddeken have achieved great success in generating tangible economic benefits from land management activities. Since 2007, Nawarddeken have been selling carbon offsets on the international carbon market to partners including ConocoPhillips. Carbon abatement has afforded Narwardekken the opportunity to use their land for economic gain, empowering them to chart their own course towards a better future for their communities.
Additionally, land management on the Wardekken IPA benefits the Federal Government and the wider community, since the Warddeken rangers are protecting and rejuvenating one of Australia’s most important biodiversity hotspots in a cost effective way.
Birriliburu and Matuwa Kurrara Kurrara – intermediate labour market
The Birriliburu and Matuwa Kurrara Kurrara (MKK) IPAs are located in central WA, north east of a small town called Wiluna. The land belongs to the Martu people, who were among the last of Australia’s Indigenous people to make contact with Europeans. Many living Martu recall their experience of first contact, occurring as late as the 1960s. Whilst Martu culture and connection to country remains strong, many Martu now live in towns and communities on the edge of the desert, rather than on their country.
A 2013 attitudinal survey of 98 Martu living in and around Wiluna – conducted by Martu – confirmed that there are low levels of work participation amongst Martu living in Wiluna. Respondents identified inadequate engagement of the Martu community by local employers, resulting in a low capacity to respond to work, training and enterprise opportunities amongst Martu. One of the exceptional employers was Central Desert Native Title Services (CDNTS), who are responsible for managing the Birriliburu and MKK IPAs in partnership with traditional owners.
“I don’t think our staff could ever read the country and track a cat across country the way Martu can.”
The Birriliburu IPA is characterised by a strong custodial responsibility to look after country and provides for the transfer of traditional knowledge between generations. The MKK IPA consists of two former pastoral properties – Lorna Glen (Matuwa) and Earaheedy (Kurrara Kurrara) – which now comprise a premier arid zone research station. A co-management relationship has evolved between the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) and Martu native title holders, providing for the development of rangers’ natural resource management and work readiness skills.
A third, important workzone is situated between the MKK IPA and Wiluna on the Jundee gold mine. Rangers undertake rehabilitation, recycling and flora and fauna survey work in partnership with Northern Star Resources (and formerly with Newmont Mining Corporation).
The three work zones – Birriliburu, MKK and Jundee – offer different opportunities for Martu rangers, providing a progression from a cultural space (Birriliburu), to one of joint management with Government (MKK), through to a commercial operation (Jundee). Martu have a different cultural and historical relationship with the country comprising each work zone and the nature of ranger work undertaken reflects that.
Lena Long was born at Well 7 on the Canning Stock Route. Lena has been one of the most consistent ranger employees on the Birriliburu and MKK IPAs. She sees the opportunity to effect greater change with increased investment in the IPAs.
At a meeting with DPaW representatives at the Lorna Glen research station on the MKK IPA, Lena explained how Martu and DPaW staff can continue to strengthen their working relationship and learn from each other. “We want to work with the scientists. Even if it’s just one or two Martu. Learning from the scientists. And we can teach them Martu names and looking for tracks.”
DPaW Regional Manager, Ian Kealley, agrees. “I don’t think our staff could ever read the country and track a cat across country the way Martu can.”
Girringun – partnerships
A significant amount of value created by the Girringun IPA is derived from its partnerships. The IPA covers more than 1.25 million hectares of land and sea country in Far North Queensland belonging to eight traditional owner groups. Land within the IPA is multi-tenured, including Aboriginal-held land, private landholdings, national parks and world heritage areas. Because of this, Girringun maintains a complex co-management model whereby partners jointly manage country in accordance with shared priorities. Girringun is considered the ‘glue’ that supports a diverse group of partners to come together, including local, state, and federal governments, local and national NGOs, research partners and private landholders.
“When we work with Girringun, we can trust that we are communicating with the people who have a right to speak for country.”
This arrangement is beneficial for Indigenous community members, whose aspirations for country are now heard alongside those of the broader community. Girringun provides its partners with a ‘culturally assured process’ of consultation with traditional owners.
M’Lis Flynn, Project Officer with the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA), explains that, “When we work with Girringun, we can trust that we are communicating with the people who have a right to speak for country. They have good governance and a good system for consulting with traditional owners, which enables us to work together effectively.”
Partners also benefit from the leading role Girringun plays in the region as advisor, supporter and advocate for local Indigenous organisations.
Minyumai – re-claiming culture
Situated on the far north coast of New South Wales, Minyumai is a freehold property of largely uncleared native forest, woodland, and wetland habitats. It was handed back to the Bandjalang clan by the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) in 1999 after a period of settlement by dairy farmers in the early 20th century. Under the tenure of dairy farmers, Minyumai was drained and left largely neglected, resulting in significant damage by wildfires, feral animals, and weeds.
The land management has had a transformative effect on the health of country.
Like many of his generation, Daniel Gomes, a Coordinator Ranger at Minyumai, grew up hearing stories of native plants and animals that previously inhabited Minyumai. With many key Elders having passed away, native plants and animals and their associated stories represent some of the last links to Bandjalang culture and heritage. Daniel worried that they would never return.
The IPA has provided the Bandjalang people with much needed resources and partnerships to enable land management activities. The land management has had a transformative effect on the health of country, including the restoration of native plants and animals that were thought to have been lost. The return of flora and fauna is a powerful reminder of the resilience of the Bandjalang people, enabling them to better understand their people, their culture, and their place in the world.
Daniel is proud to see his work paying off. He is regularly consulted by Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups on traditional burning techniques and was recently invited to present at the South East Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium.
Kesha Wilson and Belinda Gomes once doubted that they would enjoy working in the bush. As female rangers, they now jump at the opportunity to undertake fire and land management work, including hazard reduction burns at Coffs Harbour Airport.
The Minyumai rangers serve as role models for the broader Bandjalang community. Belinda hopes to write a book to pass on the traditional knowledge that she is learning to the younger generation.
The four SROI analyses demonstrated that the social, economic, cultural and environmental value created was more than the investment. (See the Consolidated report on IPAs for full details).
Varying results across the four analyses indicated that there were specific drivers of value. First and foremost are the individual circumstances of the IPA; the location, the landscape and the culture and history shared by traditional owners.
… increased investment in Indigenous land and sea management projects will continue to drive higher rates of social return.
Importantly, the analysis indicated that increased investment in Indigenous land and sea management projects will continue to drive higher (rather than diminishing) rates of social return. In particular, value is generated through:
- The creation of ranger employment opportunities on country, complemented by training to develop an increasingly skilled Indigenous land management workforce;
- The provision of sufficient resources to actively manage land at scale; and
- Investment in management capacity to effectively coordinate ranger work and leverage IPAs for mutually beneficial, cross sector partnerships.
Through the creation of ranger jobs in regional and remote communities and the facilitation of valuable partnerships with the private and non-profit sectors, IPAs are supporting a development agenda across Indigenous Australia. Government and third party co-investment in the emerging Indigenous land and sea management sector will create increasing opportunities for Indigenous Australians to engage in the market economy whilst actively managing, and strengthening connection to, their country.
Together, the IPA and Working on Country programs are empowering Indigenous landowners to manage their country in accordance with their priorities, and deliver social, economic and cultural benefits for their people.
Read the Warddeken SROI Report
Read the Girringun SROI Report
Read the Minyumai SROI Report
Read the BB-MKK SROI Report
For more information about this work contact Simon Faivel at firstname.lastname@example.org
 One of the locations in remote WA included two adjacent IPAs – the Birriliburu and Matuwa Kurrara Kurrara IPAs – that were analysed in a single SROI.
 Associated ranger programs were primarily funded through the Working on Country program.
 Other outcomes have also been achieved for stakeholders. For the Full Report, visit [insert].
 Martu Attitudinal Survey, Wiluna Region, WA, 2013, Survey Background and Summary, Muntjiltjarra, Wurrgumu Group
 Bandjin, Djiru, Girramay, Gugu Badhun, Gulnay, Nywaigi, Warrgamay and Warungnu traditional owners. The Jirrbal people support declaration of the IPA in principle.