The announcement of the country’s newest – and one of its largest – Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) means more than half of the land in Australia’s National Reserve System is now part of an IPA.
The new Anangu Tjutaku IPA covers 9.7 million hectares in WA’s Great Victoria Desert on the native title lands of the Spinifex, Pilki and Untiri Pulka peoples. It’s the third largest IPA in the country.
Traditional owner and spinifex land management head ranger Ethan Hansen says the IPA gives the land a greater level of protection. “We own the land, but it gives us more pride and gives the young fellas more pride to look after more Country,” he says.
“With this ranger program, it helps us get back on Country and take the old people. Right now, a lot of people are coming in and it is good everyone is getting involved.
“We all have got a special connection to this land. When the people came we all connected as one so all them young fellas they have got a connection to Country as well.”
Hansen says this connection and extensive knowledge of the location makes it possible to manage the vast area.
“Being a big area, people know where they are connected and where their families come from so each ranger has got an area to focus on where they come from,” he says.
Patrick O’Leary, CEO of Indigenous range and protected areas advocacy group Country Needs People, says the Indigenous Protection Area system puts land management in the hands of local Indigenous leadership.
Anangu Tjutaku IPA is part of dozens of areas in the pipeline
“There are around 81 IPAs now covering about 85 million hectares… and there are big IPAs in the pipeline yet to be completed,” O’Leary says.
“Australia is an island continent with unique flora and fauna that was isolated from the outside world longer than anywhere else. Invasive species and weeds from colonisation have had a massive impact on biodiversity.
“It is not enough to put legal protection in an area without ongoing management.”
O’Leary says colonisation forced Indigenous people from their Country and disrupted patterns that had been in place for thousands of years, including the use of fire in land management.
“Put fire, ferals and weeds together and there are huge impacts… that need active management every day, all year… and that is before you talk about the pressures of the changing climate.”
O’Leary says the federal government recently committed to doubling the number of rangers by 2030, but there was more work to be done to protect culture and biodiversity.
“It is achievable with the right foundation in place,” he says. “My concern is over the past eight years (under the former Liberal-National government) the department of environment has lost about 95% of the staff that were previously focused on supporting Indigenous rangers and Indigenous IPAs.”
O’Leary says the number of staff has been reduced from about 50 to two.
“Our plea to the government is they rebuild their capacity to support Indigenous rangers… set the foundation as they create IPAs and increase ranger numbers. (The previous government) cut to the bone the support system for rangers and IPAs.
“They are going to need to rebuild their capacity to be good collaborators and supporters.”
O’Leary says IPAs provide a crucial framework of more sustainable management for land and sea, led by Traditional owners.
“Traditional owners understand the landscape… The people have lived there for thousands of years. IPAs are about Indigenous-led governance,” O’Leary says.
“The sector is more important now than ever… in terms of key goals around climate resilience… There is a lot of enthusiasm but this is difficult and challenging work.”
He says IPAs create jobs, support culture, and support biodiversity.
“We need to take this as seriously as we would our hospitals or any other major public benefit.”
O’Leary notes invasive species have had huge cultural impacts, with weeds undermining bush tucker, camels impacting on native vegetation and water holes, and feral pigs preying on sea turtle nests, among other threats.
Federal Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek says the Albanese Labor Government has committed to an extra $10 million a year to support the management of Indigenous Protected Areas.
“This is in addition to our commitment to double the number of rangers by the end of the decade, invest in First Nations water rights, and develop stand along cultural heritage legislation,” she says.
O’Leary says the system is “world-leading”, with First Nations people in Canada calling for their government to establish a similar partnership.
“There are a lot of things we are getting wrong in Australia in terms of the environment and in terms of Indigenous relations but this is one we are getting right,” he says.
Giovanni Torre is a writer at National Indigenous Times.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.
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