In Australia's Outback, New Protected Areas Bring Widespread Benefit

Growth of government-Indigenous partnership helps people and nature

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In Australia's Outback, New Protected Areas Bring Widespread Benefit
Mali Djarrbal cares for country as an Arafura Swamp Ranger.
Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation

Editor's note: This analysis was updated December 19, 2019, to correct the hectares to acres conversion.

Australia boasts some of the most ecologically healthy landscapes left in the world—from the tropical savannas and wetlands of the Northern Territory and the islands and sea country of the Great Barrier Reef to the tropical rainforests along the Queensland Coast and the vast living deserts of the Outback. For tens of thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have lived on, used, and cared for country, and in recent decades the Australian government has been moving to recognise the leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in protecting more of these lands.

In October, the government took another significant step in that effort by announcing the development of seven new Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) that, as proposed, will cover more than 40 million acres of culturally and ecologically rich land and sea. These areas harbor a wide array of threatened, rare and endemic plants and animals, including sea turtles, dugong, the Gouldian finch, the Arnhem shovel-nosed snake, and many more.

The protections are in addition to five IPAs, covering more than 34 million acres, announced in 2018, and an existing network of 75 others, totaling 167 million acres. Once the 12 newest areas are completed, the percent of Australia’s terrestrial protected areas safeguarded in IPAs will likely equal 50 percent (241 million acres).

This is globally significant: The Australian Outback is one of the few remaining large intact ecosystems in the world, and two of the proposed IPAs—on the Maralinga lands in South Australia and the Haasts Bluff region in Central Australia—will further extend a network of contiguous protected areas that will be bigger than Texas and become the world’s largest safeguarded area on land outside the Greenland ice sheet.

IPAs, developed and managed by Traditional Owners and sustained through a working partnership with government, also build community and strengthen local governance—for example, by supporting those owners to apply Indigenous ecological knowledge, foster cultural ties, pass knowledge on between Elders and younger community members, and protect sacred sites. The seven new areas will be managed by local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities.

Decision-making, conservation planning, and management work within IPAs is led by Traditional Owners through their local land and sea management organisations, in agreement with the federal government. IPA plans also prioritise the management of key Outback environmental threats, for example, feral animals, invasive weeds and destructive wildfires.

Further, IPAs typically create a highly productive means for Traditional Owners to develop and strengthen partnerships with state and federal government agencies, and other stakeholders such as nonprofit environmental groups, local industry, and research organisations. Being the leaders and primary managers of IPAs means that Traditional Owners are the central drivers of more key decisions applying to their estates.

The IPA network, which has grown substantially over the past 20 years, has attracted support from all sides of politics. In their media statement on the recent announcement, Australian Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley and Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt wrote, “Since 1997, IPAs have provided significant social, cultural and economic benefits to local Indigenous communities while protecting our native environment for all Australians.”

The newly proposed IPAs will undergo a highly consultative, locally driven planning process, which typically takes one to two years.

Despite significant historical and contemporary barriers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples throughout Australia have maintained an unbroken commitment to their land and sea, with a strong will to sustain culture and connection to country; manage pressures on the landscape such as uncontrolled fire, invasive weeds, and feral animals; and ensure a viable future with meaningful work. Because of this, IPAs are in high demand in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, working through the Country Needs People partnership of more than 40 Indigenous land and sea management groups, has for the past decade backed the development of the IPA network and growth in Indigenous ranger jobs, which typically provide the workforce on IPAs.

The proposed new IPAs build on the ongoing success and value of Indigenous land and sea management, but continuing advocacy for further growth in IPA and ranger funding is still clearly needed. The huge demand for new IPAs and ranger jobs is apparent throughout Australia; there are many more Traditional Owner groups aspiring to develop their own protected areas and ranger teams to help them realise their vision for sustainable Indigenous-led management. The Country Needs People alliance is committed to keep working to help that vision become a reality.

Australia is a massive continent that faces unique pressures, particularly from introduced species and uncontrolled fire coupled with a rapidly changing climate. The work that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are putting into caring for country through IPAs is a key part of the Australian response to these environmental pressures, and is generating major public benefit. Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous ranger jobs are world-leading examples of how governments and others can partner with Indigenous leadership in land and sea management. It is a credit to the Traditional Owners and Elders who have never lost the vision of their rights, responsibilities, and role in managing country and culture.

Patrick “Paddy” O’Leary is Pew’s conservation partnership manager working on Indigenous land management issues throughout Australia’s Outback. Barry Traill is director of Pew’s Outback to Oceans program in Australia.

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