Ngurra Kayanta man Matthew West has only been on Country once in his 41 years.
Until recently, paintings and stories were the only ways he could connect with the dunes and siltstone ranges of the Great Sandy Desert which are home to his people.
Mr West has spent the past eight years working as a ranger in other parts of Western Australia’s Kimberley region, waiting for an opportunity to conserve his own land.
As part of a $15 million initiative with the federal government, Ngurra Kayanta will become one of seven new Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) across Western Australia and Queensland to put Traditional Owners in charge of managing biodiversity conservation.
The government said the new IPAs would take the total area of land and sea managed by Traditional Owners through the IPA network to 115 million hectares across 95 IPAs, an area larger than South Australia.
“My people will get happy... I'm feeling really good,” Mr West said about Ngurra Kayanta’s proposed status.
He is keen to get to work managing the land.
“We need to start working around that area to protect the animals, all the night parrots and bilbies.”
Country Needs People Executive Director Patrick O'Leary, who currently works with 41 First Nations groups applying for and managing IPAs, said the announcement is “really significant” to Traditional Owners across the seven sites.
“Many of these groups have been aspiring towards having more capacity to work on their own country and Indigenous Protected Area provides a framework to be able to make those plans.”
Mr O’Leary said stable funding will get more jobs on Country, strengthen culture and preserve the environment.
“Often, these IPAs are combined with a separate stream of funding to support a ranger team, so the two work together to provide a team of workers who are properly paid to do this work,” Mr O’Leary said.
More than 800 Aboriginal and Torres Islander people are currently employed under the IPA program across the country.
‘Great success stories’
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said IPAs have provided significant social, cultural and economic benefits to local Indigenous communities since 1997, while protecting the natural environment for all Australians.
“The government is putting its trust in our Traditional Owners and the rich wealth of knowledge they hold for the land they inhabit, and that support is paying off,” Mr Wyatt said.
Mr O’Leary said when traditional knowledge and contemporary science and technology meet in a respectful place, it can be a “really powerful combination.”
While he knows of many “great success stories”, he said Warddeken IPA in the stone country of Western Arnhem Land stands out.
Much like Mr Wests’ people, “Traditional Owners there were moved off many years ago by missionaries and colonial forces," Mr O’Leary said.
They’re now back home, on Country, managing the land sustainably through the program.
“That group has also raised additional money to build a bilingual school that’s doing well in terms of the mainstream curriculum but importantly, in terms of local language and culture,” Mr O’Leary said.
While there are soon to be 95 IPAs across the country, Country Needs People is urging the government to continue expanding these initiatives.
“We're calling on the federal government to double their efforts on funding for both Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous rangers and we think if that happens, there'll be a lot of really positive stories coming out of it,” Mr O'Leary said.
“We'll need a more resilient landscape to be able to deal with the pressures that we know are going to come from climate change.”
“Who better to do that than Traditional Owners?”
‘Looking forward to going back’
Because of Ngurra Kayanta’s new IPA status, Mr West is expecting more roads will be built for better access to his Country.
“Tourists can come to visit because we have a permit now,” he said.
Mr West said he’s “looking forward to going back” to name and map the area to ensure future visitors understand protocols around sacred sites.
But most of all, Mr West said, he can’t wait to spend time on country with the four or five Ngurra Kayanta Elders who are still alive.
“They were really happy, hunting, gathering; telling a lot of stories about ceremonies, lore, business, the bush, dreaming...”
“It’s good for the old people to share where they’re from with young people,” Mr West said.