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Amid the questioning of government support for remote Aboriginal communities and what Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the “lifestyle choices” of those who live there, the growing role of Aboriginal management of large areas of remote Australia has been overlooked.
There are 1,200 small, discrete Indigenous communities in regional and remote Australia with various sources of income, including federal government “Working on Country” funding, as well as meagre and tightly regulated welfare payments. They fulfil a key role in populating large areas of outback Australia.
Outback Australia has high biodiversity and would otherwise be unoccupied – and so open to a host of threats including intense and widespread wildfires and invasive species. There is also a long-standing recognition of outstations as important to maintaining the connection of remote-living Aboriginal people to their culture and customary responsibilities.
More than a third of Australia is recognised as Aboriginal owned and managed land, mainly in very remote regions. Given ancestral connections and Aboriginal people’s customary obligations to Country (the land with its inherent natural, cultural and spiritual meaning), they are the best placed to look after it, it is a practice that can be very important to them.
As Cherry Wulumirr Daniels, Senior Ngandi Traditional Owner and founder of the Yugul Mangi Women Rangers in Ngukurr said:
Our ancestors were Rangers - we were Rangers for 40,000 years and are Rangers today. It’s a responsibility for us to look after those things. I am owned by and have ownership of those things…ownership to a tree or stone or billabong. We are not doing this for ourselves we are doing this for our Country and for our people and for the sake of our culture, keeping our culture alive and strong.
Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) represent a large and growing proportion of Australia’s National Reserve System, especially in remote Australia, and are funded largely by the federal government. IPAs are declared voluntarily by Traditional Owners who commit to maintaining the biodiversity and cultural values within them. To achieve this, they also receive government support to establish and operate Indigenous ranger programs. Without remote communities, it is likely that many of these programs would collapse.
Ranger programs provide economic value and culturally meaningful jobs to Indigenous people, who in turn manage threats to Country, protecting ecosystems through management of fire and invasive species, and seeking to rehabilitate degraded lands.
As any farmer will tell you, you cannot just walk off the land and expect it to return to a pre-disturbance state. If you do that, feral animals and weeds spread, large destructive fires become the norm, and Australia’s unique biodiversity is further threatened.
Indeed, the rapid and widespread declines of native mammals across the tropical north might well be due to past de-population and inadequate resourcing of remote communities and regions.
Aboriginal people in remote communities are also collaborating with scientists to understand better the condition of biodiversity in remote Australia. This can benefit both conservation and socio-economic development.
One example is the Yugul Mangi Rangers, based in the remote community of Ngukurr, Southeast Arnhem Land, who are working with Macquarie University, the Atlas of Living Australia and the Australian National University to survey biodiversity in one of the least scientifically understood parts of Australia.
Similarly, in north-central Arnhem Land, the Djelk Rangers, together with the Maningrida School, have worked with scientists to identify 25 new species of tarantula, as well as milking spiders for anti-venom production. The school has also hosted a pilot Learning on Country program that has seen improved attendance for senior students considering a career in rangering.
Aboriginal Sea Rangers, also based in remote communities, are playing a key role in management of endangered sea turtles. Australia’s northern coastline is monitored by more than 40 clan groups through the Ghostnets Australia alliance, which has recovered more than 13,000 discarded or lost fishing nets, which might otherwise have killed endangered marine life.
Indigenous Protected Areas and ranger programs perform a vital public service of national and global conservation benefit. Though not without challenges, these programs are performing well above expectations and continue to grow with both Aboriginal community, government, private sector and philanthropic support. They enjoy considerable widespread support and acclaim.
So why would the Australian government consider undermining such rare and uncontested success? Rangers are not only important for Australia’s ecological health, but these jobs also empower people and are one of the few culturally meaningful jobs on offer in remote communities.
Support for remote communities, which are often in hard-to-reach places with climates that many non-Indigenous Australians find unbearable, is crucial to maintaining this public service. Of course there are challenges in providing housing and infrastructure, education and health services in such remote places. Like remote pastoralists, some indigenous families make personal sacrifices to send children away from home for education or else ensure attendance in remote community schools.
Tony Abbott has asked the wrong question. What needs to be considered is not the the value to taxpayers in supporting so-called lifestyle choices, but rather how we, as a nation, can provide sustained support to Aboriginal people who take the hard decision to live “on-country” so as to meet their enduring cultural responsibilities and improve their livelihood prospects.
All over this continent, from the remotest deserts to the tropical savannas, Aboriginal people are committed to maintaining the environmental values of their lands for themselves and for all Australians. In different political circumstances they might be lauded as nation-builders and given the sort of praise and support that colonial frontiersmen have historically enjoyed.
At a time when governments of all persuasions are struggling to close the gap, it is sensible to recognise the opportunities that remote Indigenous communities give to their residents and the nation.
Craig Moritz, Professor, Research School of Biology, Australian National University; Emilie Ens, DECRA Research Fellow, Macquarie University, and Jon Altman, Emeritus Professor, Australian National University