It is hard not to feel moved by the strong sense of spirit and customary connection to country on Mer (Murray Island). Mer is the birthplace of native title rights in Australia, and home of the late Eddie Koiki Mabo of the landmark Mabo decision by the High Court of Australia in 1992.
Speaking with Eddie’s grandson, Appie Thaiday, about his motivation to be a ranger was a humbling experience. Appie’s lifelong ambition was to be a ranger, to carry out his ancestor’s wishes by looking after the land and sea estates he and his clan members, and the Meriam Traditional Owners, are responsible for. Appie’s job as a ranger enables him to be a custodian of his traditional country.
This role in his community helps to reinforce the importance of land and sea management, and to strengthen the communal and customary ties to country that govern Indigenous people’s relationships with their lands and seas.
The term ‘country’ is much broader than simply a reference to land. Dermot Smyth in his Guidelines for Country-based Planning discusses how the term ‘country’ has been adopted by Indigenous people across Australia to describe the complex layers of meaning associated with their place of origin and belonging.
Country encompasses land, water, sky and all life forms therein, all of which are inextricably linked. It envisions a peoples’ spiritual connection with that area and its values, articulated through the country’s dreaming, and through traditional laws and customs, which have been passed down through generations.
Notwithstanding its complex cultural meanings and the variations in its interpretation from place to place and over time, country as a place of origin, identity and belonging remains a cultural, social, political and economic reality for many of Australia’s Indigenous people. Smyth observes that country is also “the geographical scale at which most human interaction with Australia’s environment has occurred for tens of thousands of years”.
If Traditional Owners are to have a meaningful voice in planning for their future, it makes sense to recognise and respect the cultural resilience of country as the appropriate and enduring scale for engagement and planning. A country-based plan can afford Indigenous people with strong foundations for and opportunities to access resources and support to manage their land and sea estates. Such plans are therefore critical in helping to maintain and strengthen connections to country for many regional and remote First Australian nations.
The Federal Government’s Working on Country and Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) programs are key initiatives for enabling Traditional Owners to play a lead role in planning for, and managing their country. Indigenous Ranger and Protected Area programs are proven success stories, not only for the health of the nation’s natural heritage but for the lives and culture of Indigenous people.
The success of these programs is predicated on strong levels of engagement, at an appropriate cultural and geographic scale. Indigenous Australians are supported through IPAs to manage their country in accordance with their cultural obligations, at the same time, delivering significant conservation outcomes for Australia’s protected area estate, and numerous benefits in terms of Closing the Gap in Indigenous Disadvantage. IPAs are a unique and effective form of collaborative governance for terrestrial and marine conservation that empowers Indigenous communities, governments, industries and communities alike to work together to achieve social, cultural and ecological sustainability goals. A strong collaborative governance model is enabled through the voluntary declaration of IPAs by Traditional Owners and negotiation of Plans of Management with partners. This approach aligns with emerging international principles and best practice around governance of complex bio-cultural systems. These attributes include: Indigenous empowerment and leadership; the flexibility to account for different legal regimes and tenures, with Indigenous laws and governance as the basis for collaboration; the inclusion of other stakeholders in partnership arrangements; and, the recognition of ‘country’ as the key spatial unit for decision making and management action.
Overwhelmingly, it has been demonstrated that Indigenous community members involved with IPAs, especially where there is dedicated funding for rangers to be employed to manage these areas, have experienced a reconnection to their traditional country, language and culture.
In a report recently commissioned by the Australian Government, it was confirmed that 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.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities see these programs as a cornerstone of cultural maintenance and management of their ancestral estates. They have also catalysed the emergence of an Indigenous land and sea based economy, aligned with community and cultural priorities. There is a strong case for the programs to be dramatically expanded in Queensland and elsewhere.
If you want to establish an Indigenous ranger group or an Indigenous Protected Area, we are able to assist with the necessary community and Traditional Owner consultation, planning, and attracting necessary funding.