For millennia, Indigenous Australians have managed and cared for country, but only in the past two decades have they been able to lead conservation under partnership with the Commonwealth government.
Under the program, Traditional Owners own and manage their country through a voluntary plan ensuring their priorities take the lead in combining traditional knowledge with science and technology to protect nature and strengthen culture.
Indigenous Protected Areas were developed through discussions in 1995 between Traditional Owners and the federal government.
Today, there are about 76 protected areas covering approximately 67 million hectares or about 9 per cent of Australia.
Gunditjmara Traditional Owner Denis Rose was part of the team that developed the country’s first Indigenous Protected Area program in South Australia.
“One of the ideas was incorporating Aboriginal lands into the national reserve system, but it was also important that we were cautious about it” he told NITV News.
“Traditional Owners probably seen it as a government land grab and we were cautious about the idea, but it’s just grown over the years and people have come to accept that it is a very positive program with great benefits.”
Calls for continued support
Cultural Ranger Albert Wiggins is from the Nyul Nyul people on the Dampier Peninsula, 190kms north-west of Broome in Western Australia.
He says Indigenous Protected Areas have created an ‘incredible’ platform for the wider community to appreciate and understand how to look after country.
“There’s always a disconnect with people that are grass-roots with the policy-makers and the decision makers,” he told NITV News.
Mr Wiggins traveled with around thirty other Traditional Owners and Indigenous Rangers to Canberra to celebrate their stories of success, but also call for continued cross-parliamentary support.
“[Their] decisions really weigh heavy on our lives and on our future, on our children and our families back home,” he said.
“This is about maintaining that momentum, pushing that agenda and that dialogue [about] why its important. A lot of people genuinely appreciate the concept that Indigenous people are the best qualified people to look after and manage Australia, but I think this is an opportunity for us as Indigenous Australians to express why its valuable to all Australians.”
In July this year, the federal Coalition government announced an $87 million funding boost to protected areas over the next five years.
In his budget response, Opposition leader Bill Shorten renewed the Labor Party’s promise to double the number of Indigenous rangers
'Country is like medication'
Nyangumarta Traditional Owner Nyaparu Margaret Rose is part of the Nyangumarta Warrarn Aboriginal Corporation.
The Nyangumarta Warrarn people had their native title rights successfully determined in 2009, and have since employed around seventeen rangers.
Ms Rose says Indigenous Protected Areas and ranger programs are essential to both young people and elders of her community.
“For old people and the Nyangumarta people country is like medication… It gives you a bit of a boost, you feel healthy on country,” she told NITV News.
“A lot of our young people are juveniles, they go to prison, and that (the ranger programs) will keep them away from prison.”
“That is where our heart is on our land, that’s why we have to protect it and take care of it – because country is always calling.”