Enablers of caring for Country

A comprehensive range of solutions to support effective caring for Country emerged across the consultations with Indigenous stakeholders for this chapter:

  • self-determination
  • acknowledgement and use of traditional knowledge
  • realistic, long-term timeframes and long-term investment commitment
  • appropriate legal instruments (e.g. legislation protecting sacred sites needs to be in every state and territory – an example is the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989 (NT), which emerged from the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth))
  • capacity building
  • initiatives to co-map economic and cultural values.

Indigenous governance of Country

Indigenous governance, both organisational and cultural governance, is the key for Indigenous knowledge to be used in caring for Country (Talbot 2017, Ford et al. 2020).

The need to apply principles of self-determination and empowerment for Indigenous communities in caring for Country is pressing. Indigenous organisations and communities across Australia emphasise that Indigenous autonomy is imperative in caring for Country. So is the need for Indigenous people to hold teaching and knowledge-sharing roles with non-Indigenous people and agencies.

I’d expect that (the government) come out and work with the people, work with our key organisations … (in a way) that’s about us, not about them, not ticking boxes for government. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021b)

(We) should expect to be involved in not just a backwards-looking analysis like the state of the environment report, but in forward-looking planning at the local and bioregional scale. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Western Australia (Murawin 2021b)

Government consults continuously with Indigenous communities but not real change; however, (they) need to keep doing so and Indigenous people’s input needs to lead the process. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, New South Wales (Murawin 2021b)

Constitutional, legal and policy reform across numerous institutions is required to redress injustices (Davis & Langton 2016). Three steps are needed to overcome the inflexibility of dominant western approaches (Searle & Muller 2019):

  • recognising that cultural bias exists
  • making that bias a problem, and analysing how it is embedded in the laws and management approaches
  • engaging Indigenous people to co-design changes to the laws and policies that can eliminate the bias.

Empowerment of Indigenous governance can be considered through the formal and informal rules and processes in place to support Indigenous roles in decision-making, including, for example:

  • formal recognition (native title and/or agreements)
  • Indigenous and co-developed plans
  • Indigenous governing roles
  • Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs)
  • Indigenous tenure
  • Indigenous advisory roles
  • Indigenous employment.

The Australian Indigenous Governance Institute provides many examples of successful Indigenous governance, particularly through their awards held every 2 years. For example, the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation, established in 2011 to manage the native title rights and interests of the Quandamooka people, won a Reconciliation Australia Indigenous Governance Award in 2018 (Reconciliation Australia 2018b). Nyamba Buru Yawuru were a joint winner in 2018 (Reconciliation Australia 2018a), with their governance statements providing a powerful example of the importance of embedding culture in governance for self-determination (AIGI 2020):

Mabu buru, mabu ngarungunil, mabu liyan. (Healthy country, strong people, good feeling.)

We are committed to a vision of an inclusive Yawuru community and sustainable economy which supports Yawuru and other Aboriginal people to achieve their full potential, while staying true to the mabu liyan philosophy. This vision incorporates commercial success and the renaissance of Yawuru cultural values and practices, embodied in the philosophy of ‘mabu liyan’ (good spirit) which is a holistic understanding of positive wellbeing. The concept of ‘liyan’ is a balanced integration of personal, social and environmental aspects that contribute to a good life.

Indigenous agency, grounded in Indigenous governance and sovereignties, can drive innovation and new ways of thinking and managing Country (Muller et al. 2019b). For example, the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority, through the Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement with the South Australian Government, governs water management with their prize-winning philosophy of Ruwe/Ruwar, the interconnection between lands, waters, spirit and all living things.

In Australia’s World Heritage Areas, there is patchy application of processes to empower Indigenous governance (Figure 20). While 17 properties may be formally recognised as Indigenous land (13) or as an IPA (4), only 5 properties involve Indigenous people in governing roles. Indigenous involvement is far more likely to be advisory (for 12 properties) or through employment (on 12 properties). Currently, Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is leading the way for Indigenous empowerment in world heritage.

Figure 20 Seven categories of Indigenous governance and engagement were identified in World Heritage properties across Australia

Unfortunately, the continued centralisation and mainstreaming policies of government that limit local agency impede efforts of Indigenous people to govern according to their situation, cultures and context. In central Australia, for example, the actions that the Ltyentye Apurte Community identified as necessary to adapt to intensifying climate change were almost all prohibited because decision-making was centralised to territory-level agencies that were geographically far from the community (Hill et al. 2020). Management needs to be flexible and support local decision-making, and must learn to meet the needs of local environments (both people and place).

Indigenous water governance and rights

Water is central to Indigenous people’s lives, spirituality, economies and all aspects of culture, and yet there has been limited integration of Indigenous aspirations and water knowledge in statutory regulations. Indigenous people have historically been excluded from water management, and Australian law and policy do not adequately recognise Indigenous water rights (see Lack of water rights) (AHRC 2008) (see the Inland water chapter).

Indigenous people have advocated for new approaches to water planning and decision-making that recognise and accommodate place-specific governance arrangements, including ‘nation-based’ approaches in some jurisdictions (NREC 2018) (see case study: Integrated water cycle management, in the Recycling water section in the Urban chapter).

Indigenous nation building and regional cultural governance are recognised strategies for river health and Indigenous people’s wellbeing (Hemming et al. 2017, Hemming et al. 2019, Poelina et al. 2020). Tati Tati Traditional Owners (Victoria) have proposed a legal and policy package that, if successful, will see cultural flows (water entitlements and rights for Indigenous communities) achieved for the first time in the Murray–Darling Basin. This would provide a powerful opportunity to track the conservation benefits of Indigenous management practices in relation to cultural flows (EJA 2021).

Several mechanisms of the nation-state, such as constitutional change, treaties and market instruments, are showing promise as ways to better recognise Indigenous water rights (Jackson 2018). The Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 (Vic) is the first legislation in Australia to be co-titled in a Traditional Owner language, and the first in Australia recognising legal identity in the river as a single living and integrated natural entity for protection (see case study: How empowering Indigenous values in urban areas promotes better outcomes for people and country, in the Water management section in the Urban chapter). In New Zealand, a legal personality has been conferred on the Whanganui River, increasing its recognition as a life-giving force. The Ganga and Yamuna rivers in India have been similarly bestowed with ‘legal personhood’ status (Jackson 2018, O’Donnell & Talbot-Jones 2018).

Indigenous-led monitoring and evaluation

Many Indigenous people throughout Australia describe how Country talks to them. Through their relationships with Country, Indigenous people come to know, understand, feel and empathise with the condition of Country. Yolŋu peoples explain how Country expresses itself through songspirals, commonly known as songlines or songcycles (Bawaka Country et al. 2019). Songspirals play a critical role in bringing Country and life into existence, supporting relationships between people and place. Songspirals show the direct connection to land and the respect that both Yolŋu and nonhumans have as they communicate with the land, helping each other, working together and singing to make them alive. Yolŋu people are frustrated that the voices of nonhumans and of all living things are not heard and respected. Yolŋu people are the guardians of the land and songspirals are part of attending to and communicating with Country, part of healing Country (Bawaka Country et al. 2019):

We are still singing and keening these songspirals. As Bawaka Country, we say ‘errgh’. Too much has been muddled up: the violences of ongoing colonialism; the Rom not followed; non-humans treated as if they have no voice. Our intention is bunbum ga dhä-yuṯakum, to make it right again, to remake, to build something through its renewal. We are starting again. We want to refuse the mistake and we hope to contribute to processes that heal.

Figure 21 Seven sisters dreaming songline map

Indigenous-led monitoring and evaluation is where local Indigenous people are involved in managing and governing the environment, and their shared knowledge is included. In this way, the analysis and evaluation consider Indigenous world views and ways of knowing alongside the context of digital data.

While western science frameworks support multiple sources of evidence, there are only a small number of Indigenous-led frameworks to guide the creation and sharing of Indigenous knowledge (Austin et al. 2019). This impacts Indigenous people’s ability to protect their Indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights and be involved in solutions.

Some successful partnerships between Traditional Owner groups and state government land management departments are affording opportunities for management practices that better align with Indigenous aspirations and custodial responsibilities. The Our Knowledge, Our Way guidelines provide best-practice examples of sharing protocols that could be applied when evaluating information, and for data management when sharing and weaving knowledge (Woodward et al. 2020). An excellent example may be seen in the co-management projects being undertaken to protect and manage sites in Gariwerd/Grampians and Dyurrite/Mount Arapiles in western Victoria (see the Heritage chapter).

Healthy Country Plans are a way of bringing Indigenous understanding of Country into assessments of condition. The Uunguu Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, for example, used results from monitoring 10 targets under their plan (e.g. rock art, bush plants, fish and other seafoods), together with their own expert opinion, to evaluate the health of Country and support ongoing adaptive management (Austin et al. 2017).

A steep rise in investment by governments and private investors in Indigenous land and sea management programs over recent years has led to a rise in demand for monitoring and evaluation of this investment against biodiversity outcomes. The Australian Government is currently trialling the Indigenous Land and Sea Management Outcomes Framework, which seeks to respond to a call by Indigenous people and their partners to explore how to extend credit to different knowledges and practices in land and sea management (SVA 2017). If evaluation of ranger work is not Indigenous led and informed, there is an increased risk of undervaluing the roles of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous governance structures in ranger work (Reed et al. 2020). The Productivity Commission has also released its Indigenous evaluation strategy intended to guide evaluation of government policies and programs (PC 2020).

Indigenous rangers in some areas are leading monitoring and evaluations. For example:

  • Members of the Dhimurru knowledge community, including Yolngu Rangers, have identified 3 sets of criteria for judging the effectiveness of their ranger work, which properly accounts for ‘the full complexity and richness of Indigenous ranger work’ (Ayre et al. 2021) and makes visible a Yolngu-led accountability framework for the Dhimurru IPA. Together with their partners, in 2022 they will assess how such criteria can be integrated into Dhimurru’s formal monitoring and evaluation processes (Ayre et al. 2021).
  • The Bardi Jawi Rangers were established in 2006 in Ardyaloon community, Dampier Peninsula, Western Australia. In late 2018, the rangers teamed up with the Australian Institute of Marine Science for a series of Indigenous ranger monitoring workshops in Bardi Jawi sea Country. Researchers from the institute are also working with the Anindilyakwa Rangers in Groote Eylandt (AIMS 2019).

Case Study Torres Strait 2021 state of environment report card

Provided by the Torres Strait Regional Authority, Stan Lui, and Terry Harper and team

The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) is developing a Torres Strait 2021 state of environment report card to present updates about the health of the environment in the Torres Strait (TSRA 2016b). Torres Strait is a predominantly Indigenous region, and the state of environment story is best told through a joint conventional science and Traditional Owner cultural lens. The report card focuses on the 16 key people, sea and land values identified in the Land and Sea Management Strategy for Torres Strait (TSRA 2016a), and involves a confidence-rating approach that considers both Indigenous and other science perspectives (Figure 22). This approach treats both perspectives as equally important, and acknowledges that Indigenous perspectives encompass a range of rich knowledge sources such as oral histories, lived experience, traditional ecological knowledge, local observations and community narratives, alongside other scientific knowledge and insights (Mustonen et al. 2021). Indigenous people’s expertise and continuing stewardship of our coasts, islands and sea Country are key to managing the world’s oceans more sustainably in the face of growing pressures (Mustonen et al. 2021).

The approach assessed confidence in the overall assessment for each of the 16 key values. The judgement of Indigenous people’s representatives and science partners with experience in Torres Strait land and sea management were used to determine a prevailing (not unanimous) view using 3 confidence levels:

  • high confidence – adequate high-quality evidence and high level of consensus
  • medium confidence – limited evidence or limited consensus
  • low confidence – very limited evidence, assessment based on anecdotal information and professional judgement.


The Torres Strait SOE process and workshop has really drawn from First Nations people’s knowledge and identified how both TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) and Science, both based on observation and evidence, are similar and can be integrated to identify knowledge gaps in research priorities and monitoring. Madeina David, Iama Traditional Owner, Marine Biologist and Senior Natural Resource Management Officer, Land and Sea Management Unit, Torres Strait Regional Authority

Figure 22 Two Perspectives, One Narrative: proposed confidence score grading approach for the Torres Strait state of the environment report

Source: Torres Strait Regional Authority © 2021

Indigenous knowledge governance

The knowledge and culture of Indigenous people and the use of this knowledge in land management is vital to Australia’s natural and cultural heritage. Dramatic social, cultural and environmental change are contributing to the rapid loss of this knowledge. In response, Indigenous Elders and communities are increasingly seeking to record their knowledge and culture so that it may be conserved, but also so that it may be used more effectively to protect Country and revitalise cultural practice.

Ford et al. (2020) suggest several points about keeping Indigenous laws and culture strong in knowledge governance:

  • Decision-making about knowledge is determined by our customary governance: Traditional Owner groups follow their own cultural protocols which usually require collective decision making by the appropriate people
  • New institutional arrangements and associated governance structures that have resulted from government policies and other post-colonial processes, can weaken cultural norms of knowledge governance unless appropriate resources are available to support customary governance
  • Indigenous cultural and intellectual property (ICIP) are based on customary laws that are not properly recognised in Australian or international legal systems
  • Agreement-making between Traditional Owners and partners, based on Indigenous knowledge protocols, can provide for both customary law and Australian nation-state legal protection
  • New laws are needed to provide protection for ICIP.

Indigenous data management

Indigenous data management needs to address the key principles of Indigenous data sovereignty (see Indigenous data sovereignty) across the entire lifecycle of data – namely ‘governance of data’. Indigenous data sovereignty is driving the use and development of the FAIR Principles (data and infrastructure focused) and the CARE Principles (people and purpose focused). Both of these data management approaches are designed to drive change in various data ecosystem or information supply chains, and ensure greater Indigenous leadership and control within these systems. These information supply chains include for data collection, data stewardship or data applications. For an example, see the commentary in Samuel (2020) about the environmental information supply chain.

The FAIR Principles are general guidelines for scientific data – it should be findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. All Indigenous data should be made FAIR, but at the same time the FAIR Principles need to be enacted or operationalised with the CARE Principles (Russo Carroll et al. 2021), which focus on Indigenous people’s data rights and interests (GIDA 2021a). The CARE Principles are:

  • Collective benefit – Data ecosystems shall be designed and function in ways that enable Indigenous people to derive benefit from the data.
  • Authority to control – Indigenous people’s rights and interests in Indigenous data must be recognised, including their authority to control such data. Indigenous data governance enables Indigenous people and governing bodies to determine how Indigenous people, as well as Indigenous lands, territories, resources, knowledges and geographical indicators, are represented and identified within data.
  • Responsibility – Those working with Indigenous data have a responsibility to share how those data are used to support Indigenous people’s self-determination and collective benefit. Accountability requires meaningful and openly available evidence of these efforts and the benefits accruing to Indigenous people.
  • Ethics – Indigenous people’s rights and wellbeing should be the primary concern at all stages of the data lifecycle and across the data ecosystem.

The CARE and FAIR principles can be applied across 3 different components of the data ecosystem:

  • Technical – What platforms hold Indigenous data? Are the platforms connected?
  • Information – What is the data quality? How can we improve discoverability?
  • Social – What are the efforts to expand capability? What tools are being used to protect or recognise Indigenous knowledge and data? What data governance systems are there?

Information management and collection systems

Initiatives and technologies that support Indigenous people to record, manage and transmit their knowledge are becoming more important and prevalent. These initiatives vary greatly and include:

  • language revitalisation programs
  • traditional ecological knowledge collection and on-Country cultural camps
  • the development of seasonal calendars, rock art and intangible heritage recordings
  • the development of databases and other technologies specifically designed to record, manage and present Indigenous knowledge and heritage.

Indigenous rangers and communities use several different information management systems to care for Country and to safekeep cultural heritage materials. Examples include:

  • Keeping Culture Knowledge Management System (developed from the Ara Irititja project), which was designed for preserving, organising and repatriating digital media and cultural knowledge into communities, and uses a licensing arrangement
  • The Keeping Place (see case study: The Keeping Place project)
  • Environmental Systems Solutions, which provides various environmental, administrative and cultural information systems (see case study: Health Country Plans, and cultural and environmental information management)
  • Miromaa, an Indigenous-owned language database software that has been used by language groups and the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre (Turpin 2012)
  • NAILSMA I-Tracker software, which is used by Indigenous rangers across northern Australia (NAILSMA 2019)
  • The Central Land Council data management system to support its threatened species Bilby Blitz project (CLC 2021a), which involves an app that rangers can use to collect information during surveys.

The national biodiversity information platform, Atlas of Living Australia, is beginning to ensure Indigenous language names sit alongside scientific names and common names (ALA 2019). It also provides tools that enable knowledge holders to create profiles of species by linking Indigenous ecological knowledge and western taxonomy information. Linkages include with the Noongar Boodjar Language Centre (Harris 2021), the Garragal Project (Kamilaroi peoples) (Horvat 2020) and the Yugul Mangi Rangers (Roberts & Gumbuli 2017).

Technologies and digital innovations such as artificial intelligence, drones, Earth observations, satellites and sensors are increasingly being used to monitor and manage Country, including sea Country. The use of emerging digital technologies raises several issues around the co-design or Indigenous-led development of these technologies, and the protocols needed to engage with these technologies. Angie Abdilla – a Palawa (Trawlwoolway) woman and founder of Old Ways, New – contributed to an international Indigenous-led position paper that reimagines artificial intelligence through the guidance of Indigenous knowledges and systems (Lewis 2020).

Indigenous-led research in Kakadu National Park is also considering the concept of responsible innovation and the use of drones for environmental management (Macdonald et al. 2021). One of the outputs of this work was to make the artificial intelligence and machine learning tools openly available on the software-sharing platform GitHub (Downs et al. 2021), for reuse and adaptation by other Indigenous groups.

Large-scale data hardware, associated with Earth observations and space observations, represents a whole new scale of data that has applications to environmental monitoring, such as the North Australia and Rangelands Fire Information platform being used for satellite fire monitoring (NAFI 2021). The Square Kilometre Array is a Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory located on the lands of the Wajarri people and managed through an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. Participation of Indigenous people and organisations in hosting these infrastructures and capturing their economic and information benefits will be essential. An example is the Centre for Appropriate Technology Satellite Enterprises Pty Ltd, which is Australia’s first and only Indigenous-owned and -operated ground segment service provider for satellites, positioning itself to provide technology and infrastructure services.

Case Study The Keeping Place project

Source: The Keeping Place (2021)

The Keeping Place project is a collaborative repatriation project between Traditional Owner groups and resource companies in the Pilbara, and the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the National Trust of Australia. The project has developed a bespoke online platform to house heritage survey reports and records, and to protect and manage cultural knowledge and cultural heritage. The Keeping Place is a secure, customisable online platform that enables Traditional Custodians to gain data sovereignty, apply cultural protocols to traditional knowledge, manage native title, map Country, improve governance and contract management, and open up social and economic opportunities for current and future generations.

Consultation, occurring over several years, with the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the local Yinhawangka and Nyiyaparli peoples resulted in the development of a governance framework, best-practice guidelines and associated contracts for The Keeping Place platform and the resulting legal entity.

Case Study Healthy Country Plans, and cultural and environmental information management

Healthy Country Plans are increasingly being developed to record Indigenous knowledge, values and priorities for culture and Country. These plans are grounded in the knowledge and ambitions of Traditional Owners, which means they may be used to direct ranger work, as well as assess and track the condition of Country and culture.

The work of Environmental Systems Solutions is an example of how effective information management can enable Indigenous groups to achieve the aspirations set out in their Healthy Country Plans. Environmental Systems Solutions has worked with Indigenous organisations for more than 2 decades to develop cultural and environmental information management systems, including tools, processes and skills, that assist them to record, manage, present and use information to their advantage. These systems vary according to the information management needs and capacity of each group, but include components specifically designed for:

  • scheduling and recording ranger work according to Healthy Country Plans, work plans and contracts
  • recording cultural heritage and traditional knowledge
  • cultural mapping
  • visitor management and engagement
  • asset management
  • whole-of-business management.

Beyond just recording information about Indigenous knowledge and priorities, this work activates the potential of this information to enable these priorities for Country, culture and people to be realised.


Case Study Karajarri Cultural Database

Sources: KJ (2018), IDA (2021c)

Karajarri Country stretches across the south-western Kimberley coast and inland into the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia. Because there are only a few Elders in the community, which means loss of cultural knowledge is potentially high, Mervyn Mulardy (Karajarri Cultural Coordinator) began recording stories and information. When Karajarri Country was declared an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in 2014, Mervyn and Sam Bailey (the then IPA coordinator) started to set up a structured database to store the cultural information Mervyn had been collecting. The Karajarri Cultural Database is a way of preserving and passing on cultural knowledge for future generations. The database has 2 categories – one for cultural knowledge and the other a work database for rangers, informing and linking to the rangers’ work and storing information that they collect when on Country.

The database includes written information, photos, audio and video in both English and Karajarri, traditional knowledge, stories, songs, anthropological data and more. It contains information that can be used by rangers for land management, who can also record their work and contribute to the database. The database is also used to support community research and revitalise cultural practices.

It is important to note that all Indigenous communities still practise their own diverse, traditional forms of knowledge transmission. Projects such as the Karajarri Cultural Database complement and strengthen embedded systems, and help to combat some of the ongoing pressures of colonisation in retaining and practising culture, and passing knowledge to future generations. Community members designed and implemented this project, which creates a safe space for sharing and storing knowledge within the community. If such projects are not Indigenous led, Indigenous cultural and intellectual property is put at risk and communities cannot engage.

People and skills

People and skills are an essential resource for caring for Country. Inadequate resourcing and short-term funding are both major barriers to Indigenous people and organisations caring for Country in any effective, long-term, holistic manner. This includes a lack of long-term resources for practical education and capacity building within communities.

We need rangers … Need Aboriginal people to have employment and training opportunities in becoming rangers to care for Country. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, New South Wales (Murawin 2021b)

Indigenous ranger programs

Indigenous natural and cultural resource management contributes significantly to the sustainable management of socio-ecological systems Australia-wide. Indigenous rangers are often on the frontline in observing changes in the environment (such as mangrove dieback, declining fisheries, changes in animals and plants, heritage degradation). Their proximity and cultural knowledge make them significant contributors to monitoring (MangroveWatch 2019). Indigenous rangers are responsible for managing land and seas that represent approximately 44% of the national protected area estate (Ayre et al. 2021) (Figure 23), and are considered critical in the delivery of environmental services across the nation. Implementing Indigenous ranger work plans and realising management goals are achieved through numerous institutional arrangements, with resourcing and support obtained from diverse programs, avenues and organisations. More than 2,000 ranger positions are funded in the Australian Government Indigenous rangers program, of which around two-thirds are men and one-third are women (Table 10). There are state-funded rangers in almost every state.

Many ranger groups operate from remote Indigenous communities across Australia. All ranger groups are community-driven initiatives seeded by Traditional Owners who recognise the imperative of actively managing new and emerging environmental challenges as a result of colonisation – development, erosion, pollution, weeds and feral animals.

Further opportunities remain for the diverse roles, practices and values of Indigenous ranger work to be clearly articulated, represented and assessed in ways that explicitly embed Indigenous conceptions of value and meaningful caring for Country activity (Austin et al. 2018).

Figure 23 Indigenous ranger groups and Indigenous Protected Areas, 2021
Table 10 Ranger demographics in IPAs and Indigenous ranger programs, 2015–16 to 2019–20

Benefits of Indigenous ranger programs

Indigenous land and sea management ranger work delivers social, cultural, ecological and economic benefits that demonstrate value at multiple scales. The benefits of Indigenous management include:

  • Indigenous land management is effective and cost-effective (SVA 2016).
  • When rangers work on Country, they experience personal benefits, including increased skills and confidence, and better health and wellbeing (Burgess et al. 2009, SVA 2016).
  • Community members benefit directly from ranger activities, with the reassurance that Country is being cared for, and opportunities are realised for the transfer and preservation of cultural knowledge (SVA 2016).
  • The broader community has greater understanding of, and respect for, traditional ecological knowledge.
  • Rangers and community members report that there is less violence, resulting in safer communities.

Many of these significant contributions to the management of Australia’s environment would not be realised if Indigenous land and sea managers were not undertaking the work (Kennett et al. 2010). This is because much of this work demands specific and detailed local knowledge, acute observation and dedication to the role. The success of ranger programs is a result of rangers who are committed and driven by a sense of responsibility to look after Country, on behalf of their family, Elders, communities and ancestors.

Indigenous ranger work is multifaceted and seeks to achieve more than just biodiversity outcomes. It has been recognised and described as a unique form of ‘both ways’ knowledge work (Ayre et al. 2021). Ranger programs enable Indigenous land and sea managers to undertake programs that support biodiversity outcomes, including Indigenous-led threatened species recovery. This is critical, given that at least 59.5% of Australia’s threatened species occur on Indigenous people’s lands (O’Bryan et al. 2021). Because land and sea rangers are frequently based on Country, they are able to identify threats and issues early and respond quickly, reducing overall management costs (Sangha et al. 2020).

Independent reviews of several IPAs and associated ranger programs have revealed significant social return on investment (NIAA 2020).

Partnering with Indigenous rangers provides expanded research outcomes and opportunities for research projects. The expertise and deep scientific knowledge of Country held by rangers is invaluable. Successful partnerships have been shown through empirical evidence (Ward-Fear et al. 2019) to greatly benefit from Indigenous partnerships where Traditional Owners are given a voice in scientific research (Ward-Fear & Shine 2019).

The university-educated scientists have research tools, data and methods that work for them. But we have every-day lived experience. We have knowledge of the land and the animals passed down over thousands of years. If we put these skills together, it paints a clearer picture. (University of Sydney 2019)

At an individual ranger level, rangers report a sense of self-worth and pride in being involved in ranger programs, along with respect from others for being a ranger. There is evidence that Indigenous land management directly impacts mental health (Burgess et al. 2009, SVA 2016). Many Traditional Owners and rangers also indicated that they became fit and healthy when they are on Country because they were swimming and eating bush tucker.

At the community scale, ranger work is frequently regarded as highly coveted work. Young people are inspired to go to school with the goal of being a ranger one day. Rangers can challenge stereotypes of Indigenous people in many areas where the rangers are demonstrating action, leadership, knowledge and innovation. Where children have regular contact with rangers – through, for example, Learning on Country and Two-way Science programs (Deslandes et al. 2019) in school – there is increased opportunity for rangers to mentor and guide young people.

Many Elders express great pride in what rangers are achieving on their behalf, and on behalf of Where I live at Kabulwarnamyo, the community has developed. It has become a big centre with work available for people and its influence is spreading out to other communities across the Arnhem Plateau as we continue to grow. Now the younger people are living and working here. I want to see this program continue; it allows young people to continue what our old people before us passed down to us. Mary Kolkkiwarra, senior cultural adviser (translated from Kunwinjku) (Country Needs People 2016)

Indigenous ranger programs have been identified as central to women’s employment opportunities. The Country Needs People (2016) report explores the central role of women in caring for Country and the many reciprocal benefits of employing Indigenous women within this field. In the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (ABS 2017a), 55% of Indigenous women cited ‘no jobs in local area or line of work’ or ‘no jobs at all’ as a barrier to finding employment. In remote areas, this figure was 66%. Indigenous ranger jobs address this barrier with real jobs that people are proud to do. The Strong Women for Healthy Country Forum 2021 (Strong Women for Healthy Country Forum), also highlighted the need for effective, strong and strategic communication and governance through networks of women leaders and rangers, and opportunities for them to meet and work together.

The Wiyi Yani u Thangani Report by June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, also noted the importance of Indigenous ranger programs and how they instil pride in women and girls. They also allow for proper management of women’s sites and women’s business. Oscar’s report notes (AHRC 2020):

Our women rangers hold a vital place in actively using our knowledge, and learning innovative practices, to keep our Country, our people and all human and non-human relatives healthy and strong. Our men play an equally important role, but our women rangers have been undervalued and under-resourced. It is essential we invest in women working on Country to ensure our sacred women’s sites, law, knowledge and songs are maintained and protected.

Indigenous ranger groups are increasingly engaging in networking opportunities with other ranger groups, partners and environmental managers, resulting in enhanced management efforts and the realisation of regional enterprise opportunities (Bardi Jawi Niimidiman Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC 2013).

Ranger funding

For Indigenous land management, rangers actively working on Country is the foundation on which almost all environmental and wellbeing outcomes are based (Putnis et al. 2021). The value created by an IPA is, therefore, largely proportional to the size of investment in ranger employment.

A significant number of contemporary Indigenous ranger groups receive support from state- and federal-run ranger programs in the form of wages, vehicles, boats and other management resources. However, for many decades across Australia, Indigenous-driven ranger activities have generally occurred quietly, with scant funding. Traditional Custodians secured resources to independently manage land and sea management issues on their often-extensive estates from wherever they could (e.g. Aboriginal Land Councils, environmental agencies fee-for-service arrangements, companies, and philanthropic or community-focused organisations) (Hill et al. 2013, Pert et al. 2020, Maclean et al. 2021).

The Indigenous consultations for this chapter revealed ongoing concerns about the impact of short-term funding cycles to support ranger programs. Indigenous communities and organisations lament the short-term funding models associated with Working on Country programs – considered a form of mismanagement – and call for permanent and adequately funded programs (Murawin 2021b).

In order to care for Country, there should be a ranger program for men and women in the area, the waterways need to be regularly cleaned … We should have a team of people making sure that that weed doesn’t get back in there again. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, New South Wales (Murawin 2021b)

It takes a whole lot of people to do caring for Country. National Parks and Wildlife will have 5 to 6 rangers with 1 billion hectares to look after and 100,000 visitors. How is that feasible? The costs need to be accepted, and government ideally needs to employ Traditional Owners to do the work. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Victoria (Murawin 2021b)

In March 2020, Indigenous ranger programs received an injection of funding for 7 years (2021–28) from the Australian Government, which was strongly welcomed although the lateness of the announcement was challenging for many ranger groups (Putnis et al. 2021). As of March 2021, 129 ranger programs and 898.7 full-time equivalent contracted ranger positions are supported by the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA 2021b).

This more long-term approach will allow ranger groups to plan and maintain their work as well as manage their workforce (The Hon Wyatt 2020). The Northern Land Council welcomed this move. However, funding is limited to groups who are already receiving funding for ranger programs. This will exclude many new groups and areas where there currently are no rangers. The only new Indigenous rangers that were funded were those funded through the Murray–Darling Basin Indigenous Rangers Program (April 2021) (The Hon Wyatt 2021); however, this funding is currently only for 1 year.

Indigenous organisations and alliances in caring for Country

Several Indigenous organisations and alliances are playing a key role in environmental management, which has led to a more coordinated approach (Table 11).

Table 11 Indigenous organisations and alliances in environmental management



Cape York Land Council

  • Native title representative body
  • Native title services
  • Capability building in post-determination phases
  • Governance

Central Land Council

  • Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth)
  • Permits
  • Mining agreements
  • Traditional Owner native title rights
  • Carry out obligations from agreements for mining and exploration

Federation of Victorian Traditional Owners Corporation

  • Peak body for Traditional Owners
  • Legal rights under the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 (Vic)
  • Partners in government and industry decision-making about Country
  • Building economic opportunities, such as the bushfoods project
  • Policy and planning framework

Indigenous Desert Alliance (IDA)

  • 10 Deserts Project
  • Advocacy for desert rangers; IDA Southern Desert Ranger Forum
  • Species of the Desert Festival
  • Ranger development
  • Regional collaboration

Kimberley Land Council

  • Native title services for Kimberley Aboriginal peoples
  • Heritage protection
  • Agreement-making
  • Post-determination services
  • Ranger groups

New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council

  • Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW)
  • Support for local Aboriginal Land Councils for claiming and managing Country
  • Joint management arrangements assistance
  • Advocacy
  • Planning laws
  • Community land and business plans

Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority

  • Indigenous water rights
  • Nation building

Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance

  • Land and sea management
  • Education and training
  • Collaborative research projects; I-Tracker Project
  • Culture-based economy

Northern Land Council

  • Permits under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth)
  • Native title representative body
  • Assist with land claims and negotiate on behalf of Traditional Owners
  • Supervise and assist with land trusts
  • Perform functions under laws such as the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989 (NT) and Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1976 (NT)

South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council

  • Native title representative body
  • Claims and negotiations for Noongar people
  • Settlement agreement

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre

  • Community organisation – Aboriginal corporation
  • Heritage and land management, language
  • Negotiation of land returns
  • Fishing rights and rangers

There are also local Indigenous-led initiatives that focus on specific places and sites and aim to bring an Indigenous voice to government decision-making.

Case Study Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, Kimberley

Written with Anne Poelina

The Fitzroy River in the west Kimberley region has the largest flow of any river in Western Australia. For Traditional Owners, it is known as the Martuwarra: a living ancestral being with a right to life, to live and flow (Martuwarra RiverOfLife et al. 2020b, O’Donnell et al. 2020, Allam 2021a).

Traditional Owners are concerned about the potential impacts of proposed intensive agriculture, pastoral and mining developments, and oil and gas exploration in the Fitzroy catchment (Poelina et al. 2019). While the Western Australian Government has promised not to build any damns or weirs on the river or its tributaries, pastoralists and mining bodies have proposed to draw groundwater and harvest surface water from the river.

Traditional Owners are concerned about the potential impacts of water extraction on freshwater flows, and the ecosystems and biodiversity that rely on them – including the coastal and marine environment in King Sound – and flow-on cultural and spiritual impacts (Martuwarra RiverOfLife et al. 2021). They are also concerned about run-off of agricultural chemicals used in intensive farming systems, increased erosion associated with increased cattle grazing intensity, and potential for pollution from mining and other extractive industries. They are worried that not enough science has been done to understand the potential cumulative impacts of all the different proposed developments in the catchment. Martuwarra Council are told it is for the greater good of our nation, but we know, as Senior Walmajarri Elder Mr Brown states, ‘drain the water out, that will kill the culture’ (Brown n.d.).

The river holds extremely important values for Traditional Owners. They depend on it to live. It is a healing place of many important stories, and it is a gathering place essential for passing on knowledge, culture and spirituality.

Martuwarra Council is working with fellow Australians to build a ‘coalition of hope’ (Poelina 2020). They want to make sure the river continues to exist in its natural state for current and future generations. They want to make sure there is ‘living water’ for the plants, animals, people, and their own pastoral and tourism industries. They are already witnessing changes in the river, and recent dry years saw 40 endangered sawfish die in shrinking pools.

Because of their concerns for the river, Fitzroy River catchment Traditional Owners came together to form the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, a forum for bringing the 7 Traditional Owner groups together to declare a united voice to protect Fitzroy River (Madjulla Inc 2018). The council aims to deliver a strong voice to government and develop their vision for the catchment, as Traditional Owners. Traditional Owner groups are pushing for sustainable economic development in the region, based on new and emerging sustainable industries with less pressure on natural systems (Martuwarra RiverOfLife et al. 2020a). They are looking to sustainable enterprises to invest in the ‘forever industries’, with necessary support and training to ensure their communities benefit from economic developments on their native title lands (ACF 2021a).

Case Study Fire Country and Victor Steffensen

Written with Victor Steffensen

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man, expert Indigenous fire practitioner and author of Fire Country, a landmark book on the revival of traditional burning in Australia (Steffensen 2020). Traditional burning is the cultural practice of using fire to manage the landscape. It has been developed and used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The revitalisation of this knowledge and the reintroduction of this into Australian land management regimes is crucial to looking after the health of the land and the community.

Steffensen grew up in far north Queensland where he was mentored by 2 Awu-Laya Elders, the late Dr George Musgrave and Dr Tommy George. Over many years, they passed on significant knowledge of Country to him, including how to read and apply fire to the landscape. Through this work, Steffensen has become one of the leaders in the revitalisation of cultural burning in Australia. He says that land and people have evolved together for thousands of years and that we must strengthen this connection for a healthy future. He points out that the western system that has taken people out of the landscape has caused many problems, both social and environmental. Indigenous fire and land management is thus a vital pathway for restoring the health of landscapes and the health of communities.

Victor and the Firesticks Alliance, an Indigenous-led organisation, are reinvigorating the use of cultural burning by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Firesticks Alliance provides leadership and advocacy in this area, delivering workshops and training programs. This provides opportunities to empower Indigenous people, and improve social and welfare outcomes. The programs are strengthening the role of women in fire and land management and developing youth programs. It is crucial that Indigenous communities benefit through education, employment and connecting with Country. This has been the fundamental aspiration of many Elders from the beginning, and will continue as the central goal into the future (V Steffenson, pers. comm., 9 August 2021).

As the practice of traditional burning is revitalised, it is crucial that the programs are Indigenous led and community driven. It is also crucial that the Indigenous knowledge behind these ancient burning practices is respected and safeguarded. The training programs need to be legally protected and the knowledge secured. Aboriginal people should be the key players in how their Country is managed because the land is all we have left to restore our culture and move towards a better quality of life. Victor says, ‘It is important that Aboriginal people lead the space of reviving their knowledge to avoid exploitation of our opportunities and to ensure all the environmental and social benefits are achieved for everybody’ (Steffenson, V, pers. comm., 9 August 2021).

Indigenous scientists and professionals

Indigenous people have used scientific approaches to observe and understand their world for millennia. Seth Westhead, Awabakal and Wiradjuri man and Research Associate with Wardliparingga Aboriginal Health Equity Theme, South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, explains (Mitchell 2020):

Aboriginal people in Australia have been practising science and the scientific method for 60,000 or 80,000 years. It really is quite accurate when people describe us as the first scientists.

The work of Indigenous scientists has been increasingly highlighted in the national media in the past 5 years (NITV 2016), and there are educational programs in schools and universities aimed at attracting Indigenous students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses and careers. However, there are no data on numbers of Indigenous scientists or their areas of specialisation.

Indigenous leadership and governance structures have developed in universities by including Indigenous units and pro-vice chancellors, and the Universities Australia strategy (Universities Australia 2017). Reconciliation Action Plans and individual university strategies have focused on increasing Indigenous engagement and staff. However, while there is an increasing number of Indigenous academics in positions of power within university systems (Trudgett et al. 2021), this is not indicative of overall improvements for Indigenous people in the academic landscape (NIRAKN 2020). Some universities have Reconciliation Action Plan agreements that show huge climbs in employment. But, when these statistics are viewed in detail, there are very few positions offered in academia, with many in low-level administration, and even fewer that have an ongoing circumstance (Trudgett et al. 2021). There are many young Indigenous academics emerging, but our institutions remain ill-equipped to meaningfully resource and make room for Indigenous people at all levels (Kiatkoski Kim et al. 2021).

In addition, the scientific or academic methods themselves require Indigenous input and a move away from collecting data from a deficit discourse (see also Indigenous knowledge governance) (Fogarty et al. 2018). Key issues for Indigenous scientists are tokenism and the balancing of western scientific learnings with Indigenous knowledge systems (Gewin 2021). There is a need for cultural protocols in research and academia that involve Indigenous people and culture. The AIATSIS code of ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research was released in 2020, setting high standards of ethics and human rights in Indigenous research across all disciplines and methodologies (AIATSIS 2020b). Indigenous academics in Australia and abroad have written extensively on Indigenous research methodologies (Fletcher et al. 2021).

Indigenous-controlled and -managed research networks are limited. The National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network was instrumental in providing support and connections to undertake research. However, it ceased in 2021 (NIRAKN 2020). For the future, key initiatives suggested are a National Indigenous Environmental Research Network as a peak Indigenous-led science organisation, and the First Peoples’ Science Centre (see case study: First Peoples’ Science Centre). We need to have communities of Indigenous academics who can support and interact with each other, and find ways to change systems that do not know how to be respectful of Indigenous knowledge, ways of doing and cultural methodologies (McAllister et al. 2020, Thunig & Jones 2021).

The Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP) has demonstrated many benefits from Indigenous engagement in environmental and climate science (Wensing & Callinan 2020). NESP identified gaps where Indigenous people’s knowledge may add value, including to the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation, the Integrated Marine and Coastal Regionalisation of Australia, and the National Reserve System.

Effective engagement and environmental management going forward will benefit from (S Szydzik, First Peoples’ Science Centre, pers. comm., 15 September 2021):

  • increased opportunities for Indigenous peoples to identify Indigenous research needs and interests via an Indigenous-led facilitation process
  • significant funds quarantined within national environmental science programs (10–15%) for Indigenous-conceived environmental and climate science research projects.

Case Study First Peoples’ Science Centre

Sarah Szydzik

In 2016, Wamba Wamba man Steven Ross and Alicia Talbot began developing the idea for a national First Peoples’ Science Centre as part of their work with the City of Parramatta (Janke 2021). Such a centre could highlight the value of Indigenous science and strengthen the critical connection between scientific research and traditional knowledge (Janke et al. 2020). It could support and advance the careers of Indigenous scientists and lead to culturally sensitive projects and collaborations. It could also assist in the protection and safekeeping of Indigenous knowledge, explore commercial means and share opportunities through education (Janke 2021). The City of Parramatta, the University of Sydney and the Powerhouse Museum are the project partners. Project management and governance for the centre sits with the First Peoples’ Science Centre Steering Committee, comprising 9 Indigenous members including scientists, academics, industry experts and community leaders in the sector (S Szydzik, First Peoples’ Science Centre, pers. comm., 15 September 2021).

Education and awareness

Within the formal education system, a report recommended greater focus on Indigenous people being engaged in STEM education (DESE 2015). The CSIRO Indigenous STEM Education Project opens new pathways using Indigenous knowledge as a basis. The program includes 2-way learning, building teacher capacity, conducting Indigenous summer schools, hosting Indigenous STEM awards, providing high school tools to support Indigenous students, and opportunities to earn a degree in science. Since 2015, more than 22,000 Indigenous students, 2,000 teachers and 233 schools have been engaged in the program (CSIRO 2021e). Another CSIRO initiative, the Young Indigenous Women’s STEM Academy, was established in 2016 to give young Indigenous women the support and resources to embark on careers in STEM. The integration of Indigenous knowledge into the program involves co-design with Indigenous communities (CSIRO 2021c).

The university pathways for Indigenous students in science degrees has grown. Programs such as the CareerTrackers Indigenous Internship Program provide internships for Indigenous university students in science and engineering organisations (CareerTrackers 2021). Similarly, the Aurora Education Foundation, led by Wiradjuri chief executive officer Leila Smith, supports Indigenous students through a multitude of pathways across high school to university and the workplace (Aurora Education Foundation 2021). Leila asserts the need for more cohesive structures within Indigenous education (Trinca 2021).

Two-way learning

There have also been several initiatives that aim to bring Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental education, including science and general education. For example, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority have developed content for teachers in Indigenous histories and cultures (ACARA 2019). This is also happening at a state education department level. For example, the New South Wales Education Standards Authority, working with the New South Wales Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, introduced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander principles and protocols to enable greater engagement with Indigenous people so that Indigenous knowledge can be included in schools.

Corey Tutt, a Kamilaroi man, established the Deadly Science initiative in 2018 to provide science books to remote Indigenous schools in Australia. More than 20,000 STEM resources such as books and telescopes have been distributed (Deadly Science 2021). Several remote schools are developing programs for 2-way learning, such as the Wiluna Remote Community School (Australian Curriculum 2021). CSIRO has also published Two-way science: an integrated learning program for Aboriginal desert schools.

The Wuyagiba Regional Study Hub created a 2-way learning university program for the exchange of non-Indigenous and Indigenous knowledge. Kevin Rogers, Annette Daniels and Helen Rogers – key local staff of the Wuyagiba Bush Hub Aboriginal Corporation – run the program. Partners include Ngukurr and surrounding communities in the Northern Territory, and Macquarie University. The aim is to increase opportunity for remote Indigenous people to attain a university education, and to create opportunities for Elders to maintain high-level Indigenous culture on Country (Wuyagiba Study Hub 2021).


Museums and galleries around the country are also involved in greater recognition of Indigenous knowledge in science and the environment. Examples are the National Museum of Australia’s Indigenous Knowledges Curatorial Centre, the Museum of Applied Arts and Science’s project to establish a First Peoples’ Science Centre, and the Australian Museum.

Special events provide opportunities for raising awareness about the benefits of Indigenous caring for Country, and Indigenous culture more broadly, across Australia. NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week has been growing in popularity and reach in recent years. Although it is aimed at celebrating Indigenous people’s histories and culture, it has become an event that is enthusiastically recognised and celebrated across many diverse groups within wider Australian society. Workplaces, schools, universities, cultural institutions, community groups and many others organise NAIDOC events, often in collaboration with Indigenous community members, that work towards educating and celebrating.

Assessment Management effectiveness
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Management responses are currently partially effective with an overall trend of improving across much of Australia through diverse government and community programs and policies. Rangers and environmental management programs are increasing opportunities for Indigenous land and sea management. Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) have great strengths as Indigenous-led ways to recognise, respect and provide some resources for Indigenous management. However, IPAs are not comprehensive, adequate or representative, and lack the legislative foundations to stop extractive uses such as mining. Self-determined governance through traditional and customary laws, lore and cultural practices is poorly recognised, which undermines the capacity for Indigenous-led caring for Country. A greater focus on longer-term funding, adequate resources, building of diverse skills (rangers, coordinators, managers, advisers) will improve capacity.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 2.3, 12.8, 15.6

Assessment Recognition of Indigenous people’s distinctive relationships with and obligations for caring for Country
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is ineffective, meaning that management measures are failing to stop substantial declines in the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Current legislation, regulations and policies do not consider traditional and customary laws, lore and cultural governance.
Regionally variable.

Assessment Comprehensive, adequate, representative and appropriately managed Indigenous Protected Areas
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Somewhat adequate confidence

IPAs have great strengths as Indigenous-led ways to recognise, respect and provide some resources for Indigenous management. However, IPAs do not represent all ecosystems across Australia, and are not comprehensive. IPAs lack legislative foundations and cannot stop extractive industries (e.g. mining or commercial fisheries).
Regionally variable.

Assessment Indigenous people’s self-determined governance of Australia’s lands and waters is recognised and supported
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Self-determined governance through traditional and customary laws, lore and cultural practices is poorly recognised. Few rights are recognised over the seas and inland waters.
Regionally variable.

Assessment Indigenous people’s capacity to manage and use the resources of Australia’s land and seas
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is improving.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Indigenous people’s capacity is often undermined by lack of control. Their rights to manage are not properly recognised or supported with resources, so they depend on others to enable their participation. Regulations also stop management and use. A greater focus on longer-term funding, adequate resources, building of diverse skills (rangers, coordinators, managers, advisers) will improve capacity.
Regionally variable.