To Save Outback, Traditional Owners Draw on Past and Present

Arnhem land leader calls on Australia's politicians to back hybrid approach to conservation

Australian Outback

Rarrtjiwuy Melanie Herdman, chair of Dhimurru Aboriginal Corp. The work of her organisation is one of 12 case studies Pew features as champions of Outback land management in its new report, “My Country, Our Outback.”

© Kerry Trapnell

“If they don’t support us, we’re not going to be able to maintain this land.” Rarrtjiwuy Melanie Herdman, a 27-year-old Traditional Owner, is talking about Australia’s politicians and about the Outback, specifically Arnhem Land in the country’s far north, where Herdman has lived since birth.

“Our elders had the vision of making sure that this land they once lived off would stay exactly the same for us as it was for them, and we also want that for our kids and the next generations,” says the mother of two, who is from the Galpu clan.

My Country, Our Outback

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Australia’s Outback is under threat. The region spans 5.6 million square kilometres (2.2 million square miles), an area that would encompass more than half of the United States or Europe. Arnhem Land, with a rugged interior and stunning, remote coastline along the Arafura Sea, accounts for just under 100,000 square kilometres (nearly 40,000 square miles). While the Outback is one of the world’s few remaining vast natural areas—with landscapes stretching from scorching desert and rolling grasslands to lush forests and tropical beaches—many parts of the region are being ravaged by invasive plants and animals, and wildfires. To counter these destructive forces, the Outback needs more—not fewer—people living on and managing the land. 

The fate of the Outback could have international consequences, and The Pew Charitable Trusts is working with a broad range of stakeholders, including Indigenous people, scientists, conservation organisations, industry, and government agencies to conserve these critical natural landscapes and marine habitats. It is the work of many of these people, and their connection to country, that Pew explores in detail in its new report, “My Country, Our Outback: Voices From the Land on Hope and Change in Australia’s Heartland.”

This is vital research because the Outback, more than anywhere in Australia, represents an opportunity to leverage ancient and modern knowledge for improvements that will benefit all Australians. 

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“There are two systems that we use,” Herdman says of the Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area, a part of Arnhem Land managed by Traditional Owners. “One system is the Yolngu system—our kinship system to land and how we look after our country. And then on the other side, we use the tools from the ‘balanda’ world—the Western world.

“We use both those systems to work out how we will go forward, how we will look after our land and make sure it’s still going to be here for our children.”

Herdman, who works at the local Aboriginal health service, spends her free time with her partner and their children, and hunting, painting, and learning from elders—in short, enjoying life, the land, and the sea in this remote coastal community.

They need to understand our connection to this land and sea. And if we’re going to move forward, they need to support us in looking after this land, because if they don’t support us, we’re not going to be able to maintain this land.— Rarrtjiwuy Melanie Herdman
Australian Outback

A Dhimurru Indigenous Ranger clears away discarded fishing nets, or ghost nets, that frequently wash up on beaches in Australia’s Arnhem Land.

© Kerry Trapnell

The Indigenous Rangers and other staff at Dhimurru work closely with local schools to educate children about the way Yolngu people live on and care for their country. “We teach them about the seasons, what we do, what we hunt, when we do burn-offs, those sorts of things,” Herdman says.

She would like to extend that awareness to Australia’s political powerbrokers so that they can “see what we’re doing here, how we’re managing the land and why we’re doing it.” The policymakers and those who influence them “need to understand our connection to this land and sea. And if we’re going to move forward, they need to support us in looking after this land,” says Herdman.

“If we can continue to work together, it will work, because we Yolngu have our dictionaries, our encyclopaedias, our resources here, and the Western world’s also got theirs. If we bring that knowledge together, we can maintain this environment just as it was for our elders, and our ancestors before them.”

Barry Traill directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Outback to oceans program. Daniel Lewis is an Australian writer and author of the 12 case studies included in “My Country, Our Outback.”

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Australian Outback

A stretch of beach patrolled by Dhimurru Indigenous Rangers, at sunset.

© Kerry Trapnell