Key findings

The health of Country and people are deeply interconnected

Indigenous peoples care for Country as kin

Indigenous voices must be heard

  • Since the beginning of colonisation – a circumstance that continues today – Indigenous peoples have faced many challenges in exercising their stewardship of Country. While Indigenous stewardship is widely recognised in national and international laws, including in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act), the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, practical application is still marginalised in mainstream environmental management. This marginalisation has impacted all aspects of Country, the intergenerational transfer of knowledge and Indigenous people’s wellbeing. As a nation, Australia can benefit greatly from using Indigenous knowledge in environmental management practices, and from enabling Indigenous people to care for Country.
  • Land rights and native title have enabled recognition of some Indigenous rights across 57% of Australia’s lands. Nevertheless, native title is not a full recognition of the connections between customary and nation-state laws as regards caring for Country. Approaches that focus on Indigenous self-determination and empowering Indigenous peoples are needed. Current laws, policies and management approaches continue modes of colonialism and are inherently limited in their ability to wholly support Indigenous self-determination.
  • Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) are growing and make up nearly half of Australia’s National Reserve System, delivering multiple conservation, socio-economic and cultural benefits. However, there is a strong need for capability, governance and adequate resourcing, and the government needs to respect and support Indigenous agency and control: economic, social and cultural. There is a need to factor in the varied Indigenous estates that include land and sea Country beyond IPAs.
  • The efforts of Indigenous rangers deliver environmental, cultural, social and economic outcomes of benefit to Indigenous people and Australia more broadly. Security of funding and increased resourcing is critical to empower people to get back to, and to look after, Country. Collecting, storing and sharing information about the environment is also a significant emerging area in the management of Country. It is critical to respect Indigenous data sovereignty through cultural protocols such as the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance.

Self-determination is key

  • There is much more to be done to enable Indigenous people to apply their knowledge, manage their Country and exercise their rights of self-determination, which can help restore the Australian environment and Indigenous wellbeing. Indigenous-led and governed caring for Country, undertaken via holistic and long-term programs, is key to future success.
  • Indigenous cultural principles must be prioritised if we are to have healthy Country and people. Cultural principles need greater recognition in environmental management and development approvals where other values such as economic goals often override cultural principles. Indigenous heritage laws are not effectively focused on Indigenous cultural principles and fail to adequately protect Country, enabling destruction and harm of Country through inadequate consent processes.
  • Indigenous cultural and intellectual property (ICIP) rights are important for protecting knowledge rights and practice management. Australian intellectual property laws do not effectively recognise Indigenous ICIP rights. Protocols have become an important means to recognise ICIP in the absence of law. Some Australian states have developed biodiscovery laws, but Indigenous people express that these are not effective, and there is no consistency nationally. Indigenous people call for new laws for the protection of ICIP to enable free, prior informed consent and mutual benefits. The Nagoya Protocol – Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provide an international foundation to recognise Indigenous knowledge rights.