Land

Aboriginal land management & care

Modern Aboriginal land care methods are very different than traditional methods but address issues such as greenhouse gas emission. Bush rangers are critical for many land care tasks and highly successful.

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Selected statistics

770
Number of full-time equivalent ranger positions in Australia in 2015. [1]
60m
Hectares actively managed by rangers in Australia (30 times larger than Australia's largest national park at Kakadu). [1]
$83m
Annual funding for ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Areas in 2015. [1]
8
Number of ranger projects in QLD in 2017-18. [2]
120
Number of ranger groups across Australia. [3]
2.5t
Amount of rubbish collected by the Dhimurru rangers in eastern Arnhem Land in 2018; amount in 2016: 0.5 tonnes. [3]

Traditional care for the land

Before the invasion Aboriginal people created a complex system of land management. There was no 'pristine wilderness' as many explorers thought, but rather a patchwork of burnt and re-grown areas. Fire was their biggest ally.

In using fire Aboriginal people could plan and predict plant growth and with it attract animals for hunting. They converted the land to grasslands for the "maintenance" of animals, plants and fresh drinking water, according to Bill Gammage's award-winning book, The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Gammage explains that Aboriginal people not only thought of kangaroos when laying out their burn patterns, but also of possums, wombats, birds, insects, reptiles and plants. "Once you have started to lay out country to suit a species, you are on the way to an extraordinarily complex arrangement of the land, which you must maintain very carefully, and over many generations," he says. Burn patterns also need to consider plant cycles.

Research draws some striking conclusions: [4]

  • No uncontrolled fires. An uncontrolled fire could wipe out food sources—Aboriginal people had to prevent them or die. Evidence strongly suggests that no devastating fires occurred.
  • Aboriginal people were farmers. (see section below)
  • Customised templates. Aboriginal people developed specific templates to suit the land, plants and animals. They knew which animals preferred what, e.g. kangaroos preferred short grass, native bees preferred desert bloodwood etc. Managing the land with fire required them consider these dependencies.
  • No pristine wilderness. More trees grow in areas now known as national parks than did in 1788.

Aboriginal people were sophisticated farmers

Researchers found that Aboriginal people grew crops of tubers such as yams, grain such as native millet, macadamia nuts, fruits and berries. People reared dingoes, possums, emus and cassowaries, moved caterpillars to new breeding areas and carried fish stock across country. [4]

There is "strong evidence" of "sophisticated farming and agriculture practices". Early explorers watched women harvesting yams, onions, and cultivating the land, [5] creating reserves of flour and grain.

In 2019, the UNESCO added the 6,600-year-old Budj Bim Cultural Landscape near Portland, south-west Victoria, to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The site proves that Aboriginal people built fish traps, channels, weirs and ponds to harvest eels, and also permanent stone houses. The site is considered one of the largest and oldest aquaculture sites in the world and became the first Australian World Heritage site to be nominated exclusively for Aboriginal cultural values. [6]

A growing number of books document this new understanding of Aboriginal land management, challenging the hunter-gatherer stereotype. Besides Bill Gammage’s Biggest Estate on Earth there is also Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia and Bruce Pascoe’s very popular Dark Emu.

Not only does Budj Bim bust the myth that all Indigenous people were nomadic and not agriculturally inclined, it is also considered one of the oldest aquaculture sites in the world. — Matt Neal, ABC News [6]

Myth alarm: Australia's 'pristine' wilderness

Which of the following statements do you think is true?

1. Aboriginal people have lived in harmony with the Australian landscape for millennia.

2. The Australian landscape is a man-made result, even in the outback.

Many people, including members of political parties, believe that before invasion the Australian bush was virgin and Aboriginal people's lifestyle carefully tried to maintain its delicate balance.

The opposite is true.

Aboriginal people have been fire-farming for more than 50,000 years. The spinifex plains of the Tanami desert in central Australia, for example, are man-made [7]. Aboriginal people burnt the land there every year and used it for hunting kangaroos and other animals.

Governments, environmentalists and many other Australians maintain a distorted view of what 'wilderness' is. They engage to maintain it, not realising that Aboriginal people have always changed the Australian landscape. Native title legislation has fallen victim to this belief, allowing customary but not economic rights to Aboriginal people [7].

"Aboriginal cultural practice has always had an impact on the landscape—there is no pristine wilderness in Aboriginal lands," says Dr Deane Fergie, an anthropologist at the University of Adelaide. [8]

Explore more myths about Aboriginal life.

Video: Watch Bill Gammage discuss how Aboriginal people managed country, dispelling the myth that they just roamed around doing nothing.

What happens if indigenous peoples are not looking after the land?

From the previous section it is already clear that indigenous care changes the land and, over millennia, influences how animals and plants react to human interference.

Researchers from the University College London found another striking change: the temperature on Earth. When the world temperature dropped during the 16th and 17th centuries, a period known as the 'Little Ice Age', it coincided with the genocide of indigenous nations in the Americas after first European contact in 1492.

Like Australian Aboriginal people, indigenous nations in America cultivated the land and reduced the number of trees and bushes in the process. The fewer trees grow in a certain area, the warmer the local climate gets as less carbon dioxide is absorbed (similar to today).

At the time of invasion in the Americas, Europeans decimated the indigenous population from about 60 million to 5 or 6 million over the next 100 years. This led to an area the size of modern-day France regrow from indigenous land care. More trees could absorb more carbon dioxide, reducing the temperature so much that it led to the 'Little Ice Age', also felt in far-away Europe. [9]

Modern care & bush rangers

Caring for the land does not necessarily mean only the traditional way. Modern carers for land, such as rangers, can both continue traditions (deep knowledge about country passed on from generation to generation), as well as apply modern technologies and innovative land management practices.

Combining traditional methods and contemporary practices can in fact get the best results for the environment, for example in Indigenous Protected Areas or by preventing hot and destructive fires which can offset greenhouse gas emissions. [3]

The success of Aboriginal ranger programs is largely credited to the Aboriginal ownership of the work, guided by the local authority of Aboriginal elders. [1] And people have noticed.

A poll of more than 1,000 people in Queensland in November 2017 found that more than 80% supported Aboriginal land management and 88% supported a proposal to create new ranger jobs. Respondents agreed overwhelmingly that "people living on the land in the outback have an important role to play in protecting and restoring the natural environment". [2]

Working as a ranger benefits Aboriginal people's connection with country. "Being out on country, being one with the country, the feeling is indescribable," raves Ngumbarl/Nimanburr Nyikina woman Devena Cox, who leads the Nyul Nyul female rangers, based in Beagle Bay on the Dampier peninsula of Western Australia. "You’re busy when you’re out there working but when you sit back, you see that everything connects and there’s a purpose to it all." [3]

In remote communities, where there are often no other jobs than with the clinic, school or shop, being a ranger means an income as well as training. Ranger jobs are so popular that some sign up despite being paid less than they would as welfare recipients. [3]

Aboriginal ranger programmes also encourage people to work on their traditional country, support Aboriginal culture and conserve the environment. [2] They are funded through federal and state governments which is a risk as governments can stop funding anytime.

People [working in the ranger program] feel like they own the issues and, more importantly, they own the solutions. — Ned David, chairman, Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Land and Sea Council [2]

Fact

Between 1899 and 1902, fifty Aboriginal black trackers were summonsed by the British forces in South Africa to join the Boer war effort. Researchers claim that at the end of the war in 1902 the Australian government denied them re-entry to Australia under the White Australian Policy. [10]

Resource: The Indigenous Desert Alliance connects Aboriginal rangers who are working on desert country throughout Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory to support cultural, environmental and social outcomes.

Land management tasks

Traditional owners often work in partnership with government departments and other non-Aboriginal organisations to conserve and care for land.

In such mutual relationships traditional owners and rangers perform a multitude of tasks: [11][12][13][14][1][3]

Spiritual & cultural works

  • protect and maintain cultural sites, stories and songlines,
  • recognise important cultural areas,
  • perform cultural or customary activities,
  • supply meat from crocodile and feral buffalo to the local community.

Environmental works

  • record sites of resource use and special features,
  • create seasonal harvest calendars,
  • survey catchments,
  • hunt for feral animals such as foxes, camels or cats which threaten the delicate ecosystem of the bush,
  • track endangered species
  • record (new) plants,
  • protect biodiversity,
  • remove seeds and weeds including invasive pests like African buffel grass,
  • remove rubbish left by tourists at camping spots, and ghost nets, plastic and other marine debris from seas and beaches,
  • help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and earn carbon credits,
  • return threatened species to their native habitat (439 animal species were threatened in 2012, up from 353 in 2001; 1344 plant species were threatened in 2012, a 20% increase from 2001 [15]),
  • manage controlled burns and set fire breaks to prevent devastating bush fires and protect outstations and sacred sites,
  • conduct fisheries surveillance and compliance patrols,
  • help with sustainable water management, including animal rescue.

Educational works

  • teach government departments and tourists about their connection with the land, the seasons and bush foods,
  • assist with providing cross-cultural education and capacity building within their communities,
  • take Aboriginal children out on country so they can learn from their elders.

We come from a people who cherished the land and cared for it better than it will ever be cared for again. — Julie Kelly, NSW [16]

Joint [land] management is a win-win situation that provides employment, training, a better environment and a bit of hope. — Rick Hope, Senior Ranger, Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, NT [12]

Fact

In 2012, Aboriginal people managed 20% of Australia's land [14].

Fact

More than 3 million adult kangaroos and 1 million joeys are "harvested" each year in Australia for human and pet consumption. This is considered the "largest commercial kill of terrestrial wildlife on Earth" [17]. For many Aboriginal tribes kangaroos are a sacred animal.

References

View article sources (17)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] 'Funding for indigenous ranger programs must be doubled, report says', SMH 15/11/2015
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] 'Indigenous rangers: expansion call as support from One Nation voters revealed', The Guardian Australia, 8/1/2018
[3] [3a] [3b] [3c] [3d] [3e] ''We walk with our heads high': the women who care for country by fighting fire with fire', The Guardian 16/9/2019
[4] [4a] 'The first farmers', SMH 1/10/2011
[5] 'Dark Emu argues against 'Hunter Gatherer' history of Indigenous Australians', ABC 17/3/2014
[6] [6a] 'Ancient Indigenous aquaculture site Budj Bim added to UNESCO World Heritage list', ABC News 6/7/2019
[7] [7a] 'Indigenous Aussies in carbon rights fight', Daily Telegraph 16/1/2010
[8] 'Green and Black', Environment South Australia newsletter Nov/Dec 1994 p.14
[9] 'America colonisation ‘cooled Earth's climate’', BBC News 31/1/2019
[10] '50 Aboriginal trackers left behind at the end of the Boer War', National Unity Government, nationalunitygovernment.org/content/50-aboriginal-trackers-left-behind-after-boer-war, retrieved 9/1/2018
[11] 'Land is linked to well-being', Koori Mail 496 p.35
[12] [12a] 'Caring for their country', Koori Mail 485 p.27
[13] 'Coastline protected', Koori Mail 471 p.37
[14] [14a] 'Caring for country', Koori Mail 519 p.64
[15] 'Better lives for people, but nature under cloud', SMH 13/10/2012
[16] 'A word that identifies us', readers letter, Koori Mail 488 p.25
[17] 'Don't cull roos, says Elder', Koori Mail 492 p.41

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2019, Aboriginal land management & care, <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/aboriginal-land-care>, retrieved 18 November 2019

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