Northern Australia is one of the last great natural regions left on Earth. However, from Cape York to the Kimberley, pressure is now mounting for new mining, irrigation and industrial projects. The challenge we all face, armed with sobering lessons from the Murray-Darling Basin, is to ensure that new developments are economically and environmentally sustainable.
This pressure for development is driving a steadily building national debate about how it should occur. Central to the debate are the merits and threats posed by some particular projects, such as the gas industry hub in the Kimberley, the bauxite mine on Cape York and new irrigation projects in the north. Running through these arguments is the need for more jobs plus better education, housing and health outcomes for people in remote indigenous communities.
Unfortunately, the public debate often reads as if social and economic improvements for indigenous people can only come through major mining and agricultural projects. Such activities can generate jobs and dollars for a regional population. But routinely overlooked is a quieter, less heralded success story of sustainable jobs, economic development and environmental protection.
Across northern Australia, hundreds of indigenous people are now actively managing huge areas of public and indigenous-owned lands and adjoining seas. Indigenous rangers are performing difficult, on the ground environmental work over millions of hectares of country, protecting threatened species, controlling feral animals and noxious weeds and reducing greenhouse emissions by stopping uncontrolled wildfires.
These are real jobs which provide environmental services for all Australians. Land management work also assists families to remain on their traditional lands while earning sustainable livelihoods. This work is vital. More than 20 per cent of Australia is now in indigenous freehold ownership – twice the size of Australia's formal conservation reserves. In remote parts of northern and central Australia, indigenous freehold lands can constitute up to 50 per cent of the total region. These lands include some of Australia's most beautiful natural areas, which are vital to protecting many species of wildlife. They are also landscapes of enormous cultural and spiritual significance, including places with stunning rock art and important sacred sites.
One example of this collaboration is supported by my own organisation, the Pew Environment Group-Australia, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Just to the east of Kakadu National Park, on the floodplains and in the gorges of Western Arnhem Land, rangers of Warddeken Land Management and the Djelk Rangers work to maintain the health of their lands.
One of the key pieces of their responsibilities is managing landscape fires. On foot, from vehicles, and dropping incendiaries from helicopters, rangers put in place burnt fire breaks before the bush dries out too much in the winter dry season. Along with direct firefighting, these breaks control the fierce and highly destructive fires of the later dry season.
These efforts reduce greenhouse gas pollution caused by big, uncontrolled wildfires and are also vital to maintaining the many species of native plants and animals found only in Arnhem Land. Funding for these preventative measures is provided by industry, government and conservation organisations. Much credit is due to the traditional owners of the Djelk and Warddeken protected areas – they built such capacity over many years.
There are now several hundred indigenous people working on land management in northern Australia, and the demand for more jobs in this field is strong, forming a significant and growing employment base for small remote communities. These jobs will continue to grow and should be supported by all Australians. Continued support from government, industry and other sectors will help ensure these efforts reach full potential by providing jobs, income, social development and environmental protection.
We can and should move beyond the old assumptions that positive economic outcomes in the Australian Outback can only be based on extractive industries. Industries such as mining will play an important role in northern Australia, but they are not the only source of employment, social improvement and economic activity. Hundreds of indigenous rangers are proving that development in the north doesn't have to be a trade-off between the environment and jobs.