Opinion

To Save Australia’s Outback, Indigenous Groups Connect With Nature

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Note: This piece was updated on Nov. 14, 2017, with terminology to appropriately describe Indigenous communities in Australia. 

Flying across the width of Australia in July, from Sydney in the southeast to Broome in the northwest, I was mesmerized by the sweeping floodplains of the channel country and the seemingly endless rolling dunes of the Simpson and Great Sandy deserts—landscapes that looked devoid of life. But in fact I was peering down from my window seat at complex ecosystems that are home to both wildlife and people, many of whom are members of indigenous populations that have lived off this rugged terrain for more than 50,000 years.

My fascination with the country’s deserts would have to wait, though, for I was headed toward a region of Northwest Australia known as the Kimberley—considered one of the most biologically intact environments left on the planet. The Kimberley, part of the Australian Outback, is rich in wilderness, with landscapes of steep ridges, canyon walls, and grasslands abutting the country’s wild west coast and its complex ocean ecosystems. With a greater diversity of coral species than the Great Barrier Reef, the Kimberley’s turquoise waters are a refuge for threatened and endangered species, including northern river sharks and sawfish, six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, snubfin dolphins, and dugongs—Australia’s version of the manatee. The area also serves as the calving and nursery grounds for one of the largest humpback whale populations in the world: About 35,000 of these marine mammals migrate to these waters from Antarctica each year. No wonder, then, that the Western Australia state government established the Great Kimberley Marine Park last year.

Australian Outback

A snubfin dolphin plays in the warm waters of Roebuck Bay, in Western Australia’s Great Kimberley Marine Park. The species is classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

© Alex Brown/WWF

Indigenous peoples own vast portions of the land here, much of it designated as Indigenous Protected Areas. In one such place—Cape Leveque—I stood atop a 100-foot cliff where open space meets the coastline, looking down on the striking contrast of deep-rust colored  coastline and rocks against the ocean’s brilliant hues. 

Australian Outback

Cliffs hug the shoreline of Cape Leveque, one of the areas managed by the Bardi Jawi rangers, on Australia’s northwest coast.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

The Kimberley also boasts what the famed broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough has described as one of the greatest natural wonders of the world—Horizontal Falls, where massive tidal currents surge through two narrow, red-rock gorges, creating a horizontal whitewater waterfall in the sea. Horizontal Falls attracts thousands of tourists each year, who often watch the spectacle by plane or in the water by boat.

Australian Outback

The famed tidal rush of the Horizontal Falls, created when a tidal surge squeezes through two rock gorges—one only 12 meters wide, draw thousands of tourists annually.

© Genevieve Valle/Alamy

These are just a few of the reasons that The Pew Charitable Trusts began working in 2007 to support the local indigenous organizations that protect the Kimberley. Our goal is to work with partners wanting to increase the size and number of indigenous protected areas in the Outback, and we’ve already seen some progress toward that. To achieve lasting protection for almost any place, it is critical to partner with the people who live in or near the area. So Pew’s first priority here was to build relationships with local indigenous communities and organizations, which reflect the deep, ancient, and spiritual connection that the people maintain to their land—which they call their “Country.” In the past few decades, indigenous Australians have reasserted these connections to traditional lands as part of a quiet renaissance of active land and sea management by indigenous communities, which has led to the creation of 75 Indigenous Protected Areas across the country covering more than 160 million acres. The Australian government has delivered a big boost to this process through funding for Indigenous Ranger jobs and Indigenous Protected Areas.

The work has paid off. In partnership with local Indigenous organizations—including the Kimberley Land Council—along with many Indigenous land management groups, other environmental groups, and both the federal and Western Australian state governments, Pew has helped conserve 53.4 million acres of land and sea – an area bigger than the size of England and Scotland combined – in the Kimberley. Pew is working with partners to add an additional 2,100 square miles to the Great Kimberley Marine Park around the Buccaneer Archipelago. This vision includes a goal of establishing no-take marine reserves – that is, areas where no commercial fishing or other extractive activity is allowed. 

Australian Outback

Located in the Kimberley region, the Buccaneer Archipelago is made up of around 800 islands. Its secluded location has kept the islands mostly pristine.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

On the trip I was privileged to visit one of Australia’s leading indigenous ranger groups, the Bardi Jawi rangers, 30 men and women from the Bardi and Jawi peoples. Professionally trained, these rangers monitor the area’s biodiversity and manage the risk of large wildfires, one of the greatest threats to the Outback. They do this through the traditional method of setting small, controlled bushfires early in the May-to-October dry season, when temperatures are still relatively cool—highs near 90 F (32 C). This method creates a mosaic of firebreaks that greatly reduce the risk of widespread damage from late dry season wildfires and protects fire-sensitive vegetation such as rainforest patches, thereby preserving those plants as well as habitat throughout the landscape.

Nationally, Australia employs over 2,500 Indigenous rangers. These jobs enable rangers to support their families and develop practical skills, such as using a computer to document land-and-ocean-monitoring results, safely navigating a boat through sometimes hazardous waters, and managing bushfires to protect people, wildlife, and property. Some of these skills, coupled with earning a certification, usually in conservation management or a related field, give rangers the opportunity to advance to jobs outside of conservation.

Those working to protect the Kimberley’s indigenous culture and natural environment have much to celebrate. The commitment of the rangers and the growing success of their land-management programs bode well for the future of this region. I feel honored to be part of the team at Pew that is supporting local leaders who are blending the richness of an ancient culture with modern management techniques—a model that could help communities around the world balance the needs of people and nature.

This article was previously published by National Geographic.

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