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

Number of full-time equivalent ranger positions in Australia in 2015. [12]
Hectares actively managed by rangers in Australia (30 times larger than Australia's largest national park at Kakadu). [12]
Annual funding for ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Areas in 2015. [12]
Number of ranger projects in QLD in 2017-18. [13]

Traditional care for the land

Before the invasion Aboriginal people created a complex system of land management. There was no ‘pristine wilderness’, 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.

The research draws some striking conclusions [8]:

  • No uncontrolled fires. 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 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 [8].

There is “strong evidence” of “sophisticated farming and agriculture practices”. Early explorers watched women harvesting yams, onions, and cultivating the land [11], creating reserves of flour and grain.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu challenges the notion that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers and did not settle down.

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 millenia.
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 [9]. 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 [9].

Aboriginal cultural practice has always had an impact on the landscape--there is no pristine wilderness in Aboriginal lands.—Dr Deane Fergie, anthropologist, University of Adelaide [10]

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.

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.

The success of Aboriginal ranger programs is largely credited to the Aboriginal ownership of the work, guided by the local authority of Aboriginal elders. [12] 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”. [13]

Aboriginal ranger programmes create jobs, encourage people to work on their traditional country, support Aboriginal culture and conserve the environment. [13] They are funded through federal and state governments.

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 [13]

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. [14]

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: [1][2][3][4][12]

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,
  • 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 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 [5]),
  • 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 [6]

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 [2]

Fact: In 2012, Aboriginal people managed 20% of Australia’s land [4].

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” [7]. For many Aboriginal tribes kangaroos are a sacred animal.


View article sources (14)

[1] 'Land is linked to well-being', Koori Mail 496 p.35
[2] 'Caring for their country', Koori Mail 485 p.27
[3] 'Coastline protected', Koori Mail 471 p.37
[4] 'Caring for country', Koori Mail 519 p.64
[5] 'Better lives for people, but nature under cloud', SMH 13/10/2012
[6] 'A word that identifies us', readers letter, Koori Mail 488 p.25
[7] 'Don't cull roos, says Elder', Koori Mail 492 p.41
[8] 'The first farmers', SMH 1/10/2011
[9] 'Indigenous Aussies in carbon rights fight', Daily Telegraph 16/1/2010
[10] 'Green and Black', Environment South Australia newsletter Nov/Dec 1994 p.14
[11] 'Dark Emu argues against 'Hunter Gatherer' history of Indigenous Australians', ABC 17/3/2014
[12] 'Funding for indigenous ranger programs must be doubled, report says', SMH 15/11/2015
[13] 'Indigenous rangers: expansion call as support from One Nation voters revealed', The Guardian Australia, 8/1/2018
[14] '50 Aboriginal trackers left behind at the end of the Boer War', National Unity Government,, retrieved 9/1/2018

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - Land - Aboriginal land management & care, retrieved 17 December 2018