Country and connections

When we speak of the ‘environment’ in Australia it is important to understand that, for many Indigenous communities, the ‘environment’ is more widely embedded in what is known as ‘Country’. Country is a term that can often be oversimplified and misunderstood. Non-Indigenous people often perceive it to have a similar meaning to ‘land’.

But to Indigenous people, Country is so much more than the land, seas and waters. It encompasses all living things and all aspects of the environment, as well as the knowledge, cultural practices and responsibilities connected with this. A common view is that we belong to Country, rather than Country belonging to us.

While Indigenous peoples across Australia are incredibly diverse, there are many shared aspects of culture. Perceptions of Country as living kin is one such overarching foundational understanding that can be found in various forms across Australia. As Indigenous people hold obligations to care for all the lands, seas and waters in their traditional territories, assessment of the state of the environment is about both the condition of Country and the condition of connection to that Country.

Throughout the Indigenous chapter of this 2021 state of the environment (SoE) report, we give voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and knowledge systems, privileging Indigenous ways of knowing, being, seeing and interacting with all aspects of Country. We directly quote Indigenous people wherever possible because community voices are often missing, especially in government and academic reports. These quotes are drawn from SoE workshops held with Indigenous people and other stakeholders throughout Australia (see Approach). We also use Indigenous authored and co-authored publications and references wherever possible.

What does Country mean to Indigenous people?

Country is living, constantly changing and evolving (GA NSW 2020). Country for Indigenous people is the source of life, identity and culture. Indigenous people’s connection to their Country is a deep cultural and spiritual bond.

Wurundjeri-Willam/Dja Dja Wurrung/Ngurai illum Wurrung scholar and language expert Mandy Nicholson highlights the ‘more than human and much more than nature’ circumstance of Country from an Indigenous perspective (Porter et al. 2020):

 

Country defined by an Aboriginal person is multifaceted, it includes the physical, non-physical, linguistic, spiritual and emotional. It includes self, and feels emotion as we do ... Country is family, incorporating its animals, plants, landforms and features right down to the smallest of things like a grain of sand.

Participants in the workshop discussions held for this report similarly highlighted the deep meaning of Country:

 

For Indigenous people, Country means so much more than lands, waterways, mountains and plains. Country is one’s connection to place. It connects people, plant and animal species to land, water and sky. Country is a place of belonging, stories of your Dreaming. It embraces the yarns, traditions, seasons, creation spirits and our ancestors. Country is the feeling of belonging and knowing deep within. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, New South Wales (Murawin 2021b)

 

Country is everything to me. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Queensland (Murawin 2021c)

In island communities – for example, the Torres Strait Islands – the concept of Country is felt and expressed differently to the mainland. For Torres Strait Islander people, rather than the concept of ‘Country’, there is the concept of ‘Ailan Kustom’ (derived from the English – ‘island custom’), denoting cultural tradition and continuity:

 

Now I hear they say Country – sometimes I hear on the radio but I think, no, (we) not adopt that word from mainland. Aboriginal families. Yeah, we no say Country, it’s an island home. My island home is my life, like me – me, what makes me, what – how I look, how I – the food I cook, that influence there, the way I live now. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Torres Strait Islands (Murawin 2021b)

Country is holistic

Participants in the workshop discussions held as part of the Indigenous consultations around Australia overwhelmingly described Country as a ‘holistic, living entity encompassing Indigenous peoples as cultural beings interconnected through reciprocity and responsibility to the lands, waters and skies, as well as to ancestors. Stories and knowledge are seen as representations of, and inseparable from, Country. Many participants explicitly contrasted this perspective with the western mode of seeing, understanding and treating the environment’ (Murawin 2021b).

Indigenous perspectives see tangible and intangible heritage as connected (see the Heritage chapter). Country and knowledge, story, language, song and culture are embedded within cultural landscapes, and are entwined with tangible physical sites and features within the landscape.

 

There are still difficulties in getting companies to recognise that Country is not just the land but everything in it. The water, the flora, the fauna, the hills – if you remove or destroy things you change how people interact with the land. In the past there was no acknowledgement of this and there is still a long way to go but the recognition is starting to increase. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021b)

Non-Indigenous knowledge production often seeks to categorise and compartmentalise. These ‘separations’ are at odds with the approach Indigenous people have to their lands and seas. Indigenous culture and knowledge are holistic. Knowledge is not broken up into separate categories, and the interconnectedness and symbiotic relationship between tangible and intangible is foundational. For example, protecting a feature in the landscape without also protecting the stories, songs, language and other forms of cultural knowledge that underpin its cultural place and importance for Indigenous people dismantles Indigenous systems of protection and management. Country is always a cultural landscape – without the stories, and the knowledge embedded within these stories, the many millennia of observing, managing and caring for Country are silenced.

The Indigenous world view of linked intangible and tangible heritage is demonstrated in the recognition of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in World Heritage listings (see the Heritage chapter). The Gunditjmara people were successful in their World Heritage listing because they could show the ways in which their living culture combines tangible and intangible aspects in a cultural landscape of huge importance.

 

The whole thing – people, landscapes, stories. You can’t remove the stories because they tell us what the land is for. We tend to nowadays compartmentalise things so we manage everything separately, but it’s impossible to manage the environment that way. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Victoria (Murawin 2021b)

Country is reciprocity

Reciprocity is core to the custodial obligations of Indigenous people. There is an active exchange at the core of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. It is understood that if Country is sick, then its people are sick. Country is a living relative and, like any healthy relationship between people, the relationship between people and Country must include reciprocity. In simple terms, it is often stated that ‘when we look after Country, Country looks after us’.

 

We are all born with responsibility for caring for Country. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021b)

 

Our people are a reflection of Country and Country is a reflection of the sky ... so if we look after Country and we heal Country we’re actually looking after our people and we can heal as a race of people as well. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, New South Wales (Murawin 2021b)

 

Country for me is the Dreamtime stories, places that ancestors have walked, our birth rite to locations that are Country. We don’t own the Country, we’re just custodians that look after it, therefore it then becomes ours as well in that same process. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Victoria (Murawin 2021b)

 

It looks after us and feeds us … we have got to look after it. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021c)

 

It’s our Country, we can look after it ourselves … it’s important for us to be out there looking after it ourselves. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021c)

Caring for Country is part of a person’s world learning. It is the empathy with the land and a kind of custodial ethics that cover earth, seas and peoples. Mary Graham describes it as the ‘Law of Place’, which is a consciousness that equips all people (Graham 2009). Graham explains, ‘You look after land in action, and it builds empathy, so people become more connection. Old Indigenous people … they knew the law of relations, looking after land, look after kin, looking after people’ (Graham 2017).

(See also What should caring for Country look like?)

Country is cultural learning

Connection to Country is about connection to mob (community) and connection to ancestors. This continuing connection to Country is integral for cultural learning and continuity, and has great influence over the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people. Country connections embed and enact cultural learning that is at the heart of Indigenous identity, even if a person no longer lives on their ancestral Country (Jarvis et al. 2021b).

Colonisation has greatly affected the ability of Indigenous people to care for Country. Many Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land. Many died, and others were removed from their families through past colonial policies (see Impacts of colonisation, frontier violence, dispossession and family disruption). Despite all this, Indigenous people have survived and continue their connection to Country.

 

That was a time of regeneration, connecting to roots, our history, the culture and I used it as such. We spent quite a bit of time on Country in certain significant places for our family … to gather information, create contacts and connections with the Elders of the area. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, New South Wales (Murawin 2021b)

Country is spiritual belonging

 

Country is a place of belonging, stories of your dreaming. It embraces the yarns, traditions, seasons, creation spirits and our ancestors. Country is the feeling of belonging and knowing deep within. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, New South Wales (Murawin 2021b)

 

Country is about Identity and a belonging, knowing there is strength in connection to family, a place where one can use language and practise culture. Country is important. It is our home. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021c)

 

Country is our culture … our Mother. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021c).

Spiritual connection to Country, enacted through traditional law, creation stories and songlines, is a fundamental part of knowing one’s place, of honouring ancestors, and keeping culture and Country strong. Wurundjeri knowledge holder and Elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin AO explains (Porter et al. 2020):

 

It is our place, and that place comes from knowing that it’s been created by a very special spiritual being that we know as Bunjil the Eagle ... And that is why we have the greatest respect for the land. We’re born from this land. We belong to the land. And we take care of the land. We respect this land. And we should only ever take from the land what we can give back to the land. And we say to everyone, not only to Aboriginal people, but to everyone, there is a place on this land, for everyone; everyone has a place. So it’s their responsibility to nurture and to look after this place like our ancestors did for many many thousands of years for the future generations.

Ancestral beings in many different animal and human forms created the Country according to law and lore. They moved across the Country singing, dancing, fighting, tricking one another, and establishing the moral, practical and spiritual laws that still govern Indigenous societies today. At the end of their travels, they transformed themselves into hills, rocks, stars, and presences in weather events, landscapes and seascape (Poelina et al. 2020). Ancestral beings continue to teach people today. For example, Milpirri, the thunderclouds that form over bushfires, tell Warlpiri people of the strength of opposing forces that can bring good things, like the rain. They show the importance of negotiation to gain benefit (Wanta Janpijinpa, p. 7 in Hill et al. 2011).

Different aspects and areas of Country and connection

The concept of Country encompasses all aspects of the environment, including urban areas (see the Urban chapter). Almost every area of Australia has Traditional Custodians or Owners who belong to it or speak for it. (Australia’s remote offshore territories that are without Traditional Custodians or Owners who belong to or speak for these places according to their traditions include the Australian Antarctic Territory, Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and Heard Island and McDonald Islands. Lord Howe Island, part of New South Wales in the Tasman Sea, has no known Polynesian history, and similarly is without Traditional Owners or Custodians who belong to or speak for it.)

Australian Indigenous people live in many different parts of Australia, and often belong to or speak for lands and waters far from their place of usual residence (Table 1). Although most Indigenous people live in the major cities, the proportion of Indigenous people within the general population increases with remoteness. This context raises the visibility of Indigenous people in remote areas and, too often, connection to Country is narrowly perceived as happening only in those remote areas. It is vital to recognise that connection and responsibility for Country extends throughout the cities and inner and outer regional Australia, as well as remote and very remote Australia.

Table 1 Distribution of Indigenous population in Australia according to remoteness categories

Remoteness categorya

Usual place of residenceb (%)

People who identify as Indigenousc (%)

Major Cities

37.4

1.5

Inner Regional

24.0

3.9

Outer Regional

19.7

7.0

Remote

6.2

16.0

Very Remote

12.2

46.0

a                      Excludes Other Territories (according to 2016 Census data), comprising Jervis Bay Territory, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Christmas Island and Norfolk Island, Migratory-Offshore-Shipping, and No Usual Address.

b                     Usual residence, excludes overseas visitors or Indigenous people living overseas, according to 2016 Census data.

  1. According to 2016 Census data.

Source: ABS (2018)

Biodiversity

Indigenous people have a responsibility to nurture and care for the biodiversity and ecological balance of Country (see also Plant and animal totems). Biodiversity and the health of Country has been impacted by invasive species and climate change, which threaten the number of native species and the health of the land. Indigenous people have identified changes in and loss of biodiversity caused by these pressures. For example, the spread of cane toads has led to a corresponding decrease in land goannas, blue-tongue lizards and venomous snakes in and around Darwin (Murawin 2021c).

 

I’ve certainly witnessed a huge amount of degradation through the scale of mining being increased. The biodiversity loss has been constant as well and the stories that we don’t hear are the ones that I worry about. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Queensland (Murawin 2021b)

Indigenous and western biodiversity management processes have come together in relatively recent times, most powerfully through the expansion of Indigenous ranger programs (see Indigenous ranger programs). Direct involvement of Indigenous communities in biodiversity management empowers locally driven, Country-specific approaches incorporating Indigenous knowledge into biodiversity actions (Murawin 2021b). Head Balanggarra Ranger James ‘Birdy’ Birch explains the power of these collaborations within biodiversity projects (University of Sydney 2019):

 

You’ve got the western way of looking with all the tools and the data, and you’ve got the Indigenous way of looking at things. Together, western science and Indigenous knowledge, they complement each other. We’ve got our skills and you guys have got your skills, we can put them together and find out so much, we were amazed by the results.

However, it is widely acknowledged that ranger programs and opportunities to work on Country are limited (Murawin 2021b). Biodiversity management would greatly benefit from expansion of these models through long-term funding focused on the principles of self-determination (CSIRO 2014).

 

We’ve documented a reasonable amount of the change through the joint management plan which shows pretty clearly that a fair bit of Country is really sick and in a really poor condition compared to what it should be, but there’s also tremendous hope within Dja Dja Wurrung that if they’re actually empowered to be able to care for their Country, they might be able to fix some of it in a reasonably short timeframe. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Victoria (Murawin 2021b)

 

The best prospects are Martu living in healthy, attractive communities on Country to provide workforce for environmental programs. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Western Australia (Murawin 2021b)

Water

Water is the lifeblood of Indigenous communities across Australia, underpinning the social, cultural and economic wellbeing that is foundational to cultural vitality and resilience (AHRC 2008). Communities with direct relationships to coastal waters are often called ‘saltwater people’, and those whose culture centres on rivers are often referred to as ‘freshwater people’. To Indigenous people, water is life, whether it is on saltwater Country (or sea Country) or freshwater Country.

Barkandji Elder, activist, artist and educator Uncle Badger Bates explains the centrality of the Baaka/Barka – Darling River to his people (Bates 2018):

 

Our Barka means everything to us, it is our mother. It is who we are. We take our name from it, Barkandji means people belonging to the Barka. The Barka was created when Kuluwarra let the Ngatji (Rainbow Serpent) out of his waterbag up near Bourke, and the Ngatji lives in it still. Thirri also shaped the channel, bends and islands of the river after the Ngatji went through with the water. The Ngatji looks after us and we have to look after it, it is our traditional job to look after the Ngatji and the river and the other surface and subsurface waters of the Barka and its floodplains. The Barka gives us healthy food and medicine, it gives us wood to make our artefacts, reeds to weave, it is where we go as families to swim, boat, camp, picnic, fish, go yabbying, and prepare and cook our traditional food. It is where we relax and enjoy our homeland. When we go fishing we go as a family and we sit and talk and remember and pass stories on about our ancestors and our land and water.

Due to colonial mismanagement, industrialisation, water theft and a failure to recognise Indigenous rights to water, the health and quality of the waterways in Australia have deteriorated dramatically. This has caused great distress and concern to Indigenous people, and impacted their connection to Country (O’Donnell et al. 2020, Baird et al. 2021) (see the Inland water chapter). For example, the situation along the Baaka/Barka – Darling River in Barkandji Country is so dire that is has been described as a ‘warzone’.

 

It has been absolutely devastated. Government allows over-extraction of water and floodplain harvesting, particularly at the top end of the river system. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike are suffering at an extent that most Australians would barely comprehend as being something that’s happening in this continent. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021b)

 

Across the land, you’ve got all the body parts and all the organs. That water is not being allowed to get across into those organs so it’s killing off the ancestral beings that’s in the country, in the land. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Lower Murray–Darling Basin, New South Wales (Murawin 2021b)

Saltwater people in marine and coastal communities face other issues, including climate change and rising sea levels.

 

Climate change stuff … It affects us here, too. All the islands are sinking … The graves are getting washed down, some of the islands, the low-lying ones … it’s just flat, especially when it’s a king tide and the wet season, the tides come. It’s finished now, sometimes the beach was there. The water mark’s here now … we don’t have that long beach, no, it’s eroded. They say about the climate change. All these islands here, like in the Pacific, it’s all going to go down, if it keeps on – you know. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Torres Strait Islands (Murawin 2021b)

The impacts of commercial fishing practices and pollution are also felt. The increase of plastics in marine environments and ghost nets left in the ocean, particularly in the north of Australia, are harmful to marine species such as dugongs, dolphins and turtles. These species are important cultural totems for northern Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Over the past 15 years, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance and other organisations have worked to reduce the impact of ghost nets, which drift in Australian waters after being abandoned by foreign fishing boats (Sebag-Montefiore 2017).

Deserts and arid landscapes

The desert regions of Australia comprise more than one-third of the continent. The desert includes much of the remote and very remote parts of Australia, where 18.4% of Australia’s Indigenous people live (ABS 2018). Deserts are rich in biodiversity and home to many Traditional Owner groups (see case study: 10 Deserts Project). These regions face pressures such as climate change, tourism and invasive species.

Case Study 10 Deserts Project

Written with Indigenous Desert Alliance

The 10 Deserts Project is an Indigenous-led land management collaboration across Australia’s desert Country. Covering around one-third of the continent, desert Country is highly important, as it has significant biodiversity and continued Indigenous custodianship of the land.

The project aims to build the capacity of Indigenous people and organisations to ensure healthy Country, healthy people and a strong Indigenous voice for the desert (IDA 2021b). It is a significant example of a large-scale collaborative landscape management model. Launched in Canberra in 2018, the project is now managed by the Indigenous Desert Alliance (IDA), a member-based organisation that is dedicated to empowering desert people to look after their Country.

The 10 Deserts Project focuses on maintaining people’s connection to Country and collaborating across official borders to support the wellbeing of communities and landscapes. This is done through caring for Country, looking after cultural heritage, supporting career development, sharing stories and building relationships. Nyapuru Rose, Nyangumarta Elder and Chair of IDA, says, ‘What matters most is that rangers and the people of the desert are supported through improved opportunities for collaboration and that better outcomes are achieved. We will have an even clearer and stronger united voice for the desert as we come together, making sure people know the desert is on the map’.

Peter Murray, Ngururra Traditional Owner and Chair of the 10 Deserts Project, says, ‘Through sharing our approaches, skills and resources, we can build a strong community of practice. Through regional projects like 10 Deserts we can help to build the capacity of all ranger teams in our sector and provide much-needed resourcing to help groups deliver the highest level of land management services’.

The 10 Deserts Project involves around 60 desert ranger groups. Ownership over the priorities for managing the desert is important to desert rangers. Lindsey Langford, chief executive officer of IDA, says, ‘Indigenous rangers are interested (in) managing desert Country to ensure a series of interrelated regional outcomes are being achieved and that collaboration at scale and from the ground up is key. Rangers view desert Country as a whole, which is why it is so important to be resourcing large-scale and multidimensional projects’ (pers. comm., 30 October 2020). Another key objective is ensuring that women rangers are equally valued and included in the workforce, which started off as male dominated.

Gareth Catt, the 10 Deserts Project Regional Fire Management Coordinator, says, ‘Deserts are broad landscapes that are culturally connected across official boundaries and borders, requiring a holistic approach to management’ (pers. comm., 17 June 2021). For example, the fire management program aims for a coordinated approach across the region, combining traditional practice and contemporary techniques (IDA 2021a). There are ecological, social and cultural benefits when rangers manage fire in the desert, including reducing uncontrolled wildfires, improving habitat, increasing employment, and increasing connection to Country and wellbeing (IDA 2020). The program includes a seasonal fire calendar to educate the community on the right time of year for burning (IDA 2019).

Other project activities include the management of invasive animal and plant species such as feral camels and buffel grass. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands, feral camels do much damage to remote country, threatening waterholes and cultural landscapes across the deserts. Another area is the management of buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris and Cenchrus pennisetiformis), a major weed that transforms native grass ecosystems into monocultures of buffel grass (Desert Support Services 2018). This displaces native plant species and affects the availability of food and shelter for native wildlife (Desert Support Services 2018).

Above all, the key aim of the project is maintaining connections between people and Country. In desert landscapes, people are part of the place. The 10 Deserts Project is finding ways to support this connection for positive environmental and social outcomes that are ultimately interconnected.

Urban areas

It is important to remember that cities and urban areas are Country too (Cumpston 2020a). With 37% of Australia’s Indigenous population living in the major cities of Australia (ABS 2018), it is important that these cities are understood as Country. Caring for Country initiatives need to be championed in urban areas to promote the wellbeing of Indigenous communities and of Country.

Increased disconnection with Country has been considered an outcome of living in highly urbanised areas where the built environment is valued over the land itself (Murawin 2021b). Despite impediments, connection to Country is strong in urban areas. Every city in Australia has Traditional Owner groups that continue to speak for it and work to fulfil their cultural obligations to Country (see Country is reciprocity).

Examples of projects that have facilitated powerful connection to Country in urban areas include the recent cultural fire projects undertaken in Melbourne by the Wurundjeri people, and in Adelaide with the Kaurna people:

 

I feel quite emotional being here today because we’re bringing back cultural practice to a place where culture wasn’t allowed. Mandy Nicholson, Wurundjeri-Willam/Dja Dja Wurrung/Ngurai illum Wurrung woman (Dunstan 2021)

 

We’ve been at risk since settlement … what was done to us in the past. To have a position to sit down by camp and share, it’s very important. Healing is something we take for granted. We’re returning to Country and sitting on Country. Jeffrey Newchurch, Narungga/Kaurna man (Skujins 2021)

Urban planners are also becoming more aware of the importance of including Indigenous values and perspectives in the urban landscape through research projects, architecture, cultural mapping, advancements in legislation, visual art, Indigenous place names and green spaces with native plants (see the Urban chapter).

The Government Architect NSW has developed a ‘Connecting with Country’ draft framework to inform the planning, design and delivery of built environment projects (GA NSW 2021). The framework aims to support the health and wellbeing of Country by caring for it through the guidance of Indigenous people and values (see the Urban chapter).

Connection to Country also exists in urban areas through the sense of place and identity in residential areas that have been home to significant Indigenous populations. These are not only Traditional Owner groups, but Indigenous people who – although it may not be their ancestral Country – have connection and belonging that spans many generations. Housing development has been pushing and dispersing families and Elders out of areas where they were born or have lived for most of their lives. This can disrupt the connection to Country and heritage, and the transfer of culture and knowledge to youth (Murawin 2021b). Many areas such as Fitzroy in Melbourne and Redfern in Sydney have traditionally been home to, and the cultural centre of, many urban Indigenous communities and peoples. Across Australia, these urban and inner-city areas have borne the brunt of gentrification, resulting in a dispersal and fracturing of their role as centralised community strongholds (Latimore 2018).

Cultural landscapes

The concept of cultural landscapes recognises that specific places may combine environmental and human values, including cultural, spiritual and historical values (see the Heritage chapter). ‘A cultural landscape perspective explicitly recognises the history of a place and its cultural traditions in addition to its ecological value … A landscape perspective also recognises the continuity between the past and with people living and working on the land today’ (Mitchell & Buggey 2001:45).

Consideration and protection of Indigenous cultural landscapes depends on location (the state or territory) and the ability of Indigenous groups to meet the criteria of relevant laws. Two of Australia’s cultural landscapes on the World Heritage List are Uluu–Kata Tjua National Park in the Northern Territory and Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Victoria. Both of these landscapes are recognised for their Indigenous cultural values. The Murujuga Cultural Landscape in Western Australia is currently on the tentative list for World Heritage listing. The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is the only Australian place listed solely for its cultural values, whereas Uluu–Kata Tjua National Park has been listed for both natural and cultural landscape values (see the Heritage chapter).

Other cultural landscapes may be protected under state heritage laws and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act) (UNESCO 2021). The Indigenous cultural values of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area are recognised in its National Heritage listing under the EPBC Act, and Traditional Owners are working towards relisting the World Heritage Area for both its natural and cultural values (Roberts et al. 2021).

The Indigenous estate

As of 2018, 57% of Australia is recognised as part of the Indigenous estate (Jacobsen et al. 2020). This includes Indigenous owned, managed or co-managed lands, or lands subject to other recognised Indigenous rights, including native title rights (Table 2). The area of the Indigenous estate is growing – for example, it increased by 4.5% from 2010–11 to 2015–16 (see Indigenous land ownership and management).

Table 2 Areas and proportion of lands of the Indigenous estate in Australia

Attribute

Definition

Land area (’000 ha)

Proportion of Australia’s total land area (%)a

Indigenous owned

Freehold land or forest that is owned by Indigenous communities, or land or forest for which ownership is vested through other mechanisms

133,501

17.0

Indigenous managed

Land or forest that is managed by Indigenous communities

141,357

18.0

Indigenous co-managed

Land or forest that has a formal, legally binding agreement in place to include input from Indigenous people in the process of developing and implementing a management plan

32,707

4.3

Subject to other recognised Indigenous rights

Land or forest subject to native title determinations, registered Indigenous Land Use Agreements and legislated special cultural use provisions

337,174

44.0

Total area in Australia

Combination of the above taking account of the overlap between categories

437,679

57.0

a                      Calculated from the total area of Australia of 768,909,000 hectares (ha).

Note: Totals may not tally due to rounding.

Sources: Jacobsen et al. (2020), Rist et al. (2019). Note about the original: The attributes of the Indigenous estate (this work) and the National Forest Inventory tenure classes (ABARES 2018a) are assembled independently using different sources of data, which have varying currency. The datasets used in this work are those used for reporting in MPIGA & NFISC (2018), and different results could be obtained using more recent datasets.

Assessment The state of Country and connection to Country
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in very poor condition, resulting in heavily degraded environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Many signs indicate that the health of Country is deteriorating, which has negative impacts on people–Country connections. Negative trends are consistent across regions. Legal recognition of Indigenous–Country connection is increasing, but traditional laws and governance are poorly recognised, leading to problems for Country and Indigenous people. Access to Country is difficult for many Indigenous people, and the distinctive cultural, spiritual and physical relationships are stronger than the economic relationships.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 2.5, 6.6, 14.2, 15.1

Assessment The health of Australia’s lands and seas that underpins distinctive cultural, spiritual, physical and economic connections with Indigenous people
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in very poor condition, resulting in heavily degraded environmental values, and the situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Many early warning signs are showing that things are wrong. We are losing species, which greatly impacts culture and our connections.
Regionally consistent.

Assessment Areas of Australia’s land and seas covered by or subject to, Indigenous people’s legal rights or interests
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, but the situation is improving.
Somewhat adequate confidence

The Indigenous land and sea estate is growing, but there is a developing crisis if Indigenous organisations do not have adequate legal rights to negotiate agreements and rights. Legal recognition has increased overall, but Indigenous rights are highly constrained by Australian governments’ laws. Traditional laws, lore and governance are poorly recognised. Few rights are recognised over the seas and inland waters. Economic opportunities are limited for many Indigenous communities as they are struggling to operate.
Regionally variable, great increases in some places and little in many (e.g. south-eastern Australia).

Assessment Maintenance of a distinctive cultural, spiritual, physical and economic relationship between Indigenous people and Country through sufficient access to their land and waters
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in very poor condition, resulting in heavily degraded environmental values, but the situation is improving.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Access to land and waters is generally not sufficient. Economic relationships are highly dependent on funding and contracts, which are lacking. The distinctive cultural, spiritual and physical relationships continue.
Regionally variable.