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Saturday, 30 Jun 2012
Respecting culture and country: Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia

Respecting culture and country: Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia

Publication author(s):

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Publication abstract:

This book celebrates the first 15 years of Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia, from 1997 to 2012.

Respecting culture and country: Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia - PDF PDF 7.21 MB
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Respecting culture and country - Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia: The first 15 years

Dedicated to traditional owners and Indigenous rangers past or present who are working hard to care for culture and country.

This is an abridged version of the full 2012 publication.


Traditional owners of South Australia’s Adnyamathanha lands dedicated Australia’s very first Indigenous Protected Area in 1998. Today there are 55 Indigenous Protected Areas across Australia covering more than 43 million hectares.

The program has only existed for 15 years, so this is a tremendous achievement and testament to the very hard work and dedication of Australia’s Indigenous communities to manage their land and sea. This book is a tribute to them.

For Indigenous Australians, the phrase ‘caring for country’ means a deep spiritual connection and belonging to country. Our ancestral beings who created the laws to be maintained through ceremony and practices continue to give us the responsibility, duty of care and obligation to look after country.

In many ways Indigenous Protected Areas work because they have this philosophy at the core. The process is driven by Elders who are the holders of the law and their input to each plan of management is crucial.

It is traditional owners who choose when, where and how they will manage their country, not governments. This is then written into a management plan for the Indigenous Protected Area, successfully weaving traditional knowledge with western scientific methods, in line with the best international standards. It is a best-practice approach to conservation and one that is forming a model for many other people around the world.

On a day-to-day basis Indigenous land managers and rangers carry out important conservation activities such as weed and feral animal control, fire management, revegetation and wildlife protection monitoring. This has helped protect threatened or endangered plants and animals across the country.

But Indigenous Protected Areas deliver more than important environmental benefits. The program builds community capacity to develop strong and enduring partnerships with other organisations. Managing Indigenous Protected Areas helps communities protect their significant cultural values for future generations and receive improved health, education, economic and social benefits.

Many Indigenous Protected Areas are in regions of high unemployment, so they provide a key source of jobs and training. The rangers’ own employment helps provide further financial stability in communities. Indigenous Protected Areas rangers act as a positive role model to young people including junior ranger groups in schools. These programs have helped in reinforcing cultural stability for the whole community.

In the end Indigenous Protected Areas benefit all Australians because they are helping conserve our ecosystems that sustain life. They are part of conserving a our cultural heritage and contribute to helping transfer the knowledge of our older generations to our younger generations so that it will never be lost to us.

This is why the Australian Government supports Indigenous Protected Areas. The Indigenous Protected Area sub-committee is part of the Indigenous Advisory Committee advising Australia’s Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. We are proud of the work Indigenous Protected Areas and are happy to present this book outlining their achievements. We take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of the Indigenous Protected Area Section in administering the program. Indigenous Protected Areas are one of Australia’s true conservation success stories and we hope to see them continue to develop for many years to come.

Indigenous Protected Areas are one of Australia’s conservation success stories – protecting culture and country, while providing a pathway to meaningful jobs and positive health, education and social benefits. Today there are 55 Indigenous Protected Areas protecting more than 43 million hectares across Australia.

Back in the 1990s, the Australian Government, in cooperation with the states and territories, had started building a National Reserve System – Australia’s nationwide network of parks, reserves and protected areas. At the same time there was a growing Indigenous land management movement, communities were establishing ranger programs and engaging with governments on conservation issues.

The Indigenous Protected Area program, established in 1997, built on these developments by providing a framework for Indigenous communities to voluntarily manage their land as part of the National Reserve System. The traditional owners of Nantawarrina in South Australia declared their land as the nation’s first Indigenous Protected Area in 1998.


"We want a future for our children on our country... our blackfella national park (IPA) makes us proud... respects our country, our Wanjina culture and knowledge... so that our children give a future for their children in our ancestors’ country."

Basil Djanghara, senior Wunambal traditional owner, Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area

Managed for conservation by Indigenous organisations on behalf of their traditional owners, Indigenous Protected Areas are an important innovation in protected area management. They also provide a solid foundation for developing partnerships with the Australian Government’s Indigenous Protected Areas and Working on Country programs, not-for-profit funding agencies and government protected areas.

Helping to protect threatened species, under-represented bioregions and link conservation areas together, Indigenous Protected Areas comprise nearly a third of the National Reserve System. They are also a critical part of wildlife corridors such as the proposed Trans-Australian Eco-link – an internationally significant initiative that will stretch 3500 kilometres across the continent.

This book presents a snapshot of the Indigenous Protected Area program on its 15th anniversary and highlights the important contributions Indigenous Protected Areas make to the environment and culture of the nation.

What is an IPA?

"The IPA is helping create good jobs, like rangers to take care of country. It is giving young people opportunities day by day. Young people really enjoy working on the IPA, and old people enjoy going out with them. Women really enjoy taking children out for stories." Kumanjayi Jampijinpa Bunter, Northern Tanami IPA

An Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) is an area of Indigenous-managed land or sea voluntarily dedicated by its traditional owners to be managed to promote biodiversity and cultural resource conservation.

Indigenous Protected Areas make up about one third of Australia’s National Reserve System - protecting our diverse range of plants and animals for future generations.

What sets Indigenous Protected Areas apart from other protected areas such as national parks is their Indigenous governance. Each area is administered by an Indigenous organisation and actively managed by traditional owners.

The Indigenous community prepares a management plan, in consultation with the Australian Government and other stakeholders. It defines the Indigenous Protected Area’s boundaries and how its natural and cultural resources will be managed in line with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s guidelines. The majority are managed under categories V, to protect land and seascape values and VI, to protect natural resources through sustainable use.

Today some Indigenous Protected Areas can act as an overlay on existing government or local council managed protected areas. The Indigenous Protected Area doesn’t change the legal basis of these existing reserves, but through co-management agreements, formally recognises the contribution Indigenous people make to their management. The program is supporting traditional owners to explore how they can add sea country to Indigenous Protected Areas.

Indigenous Protected Areas are supported by the Australian Government’s Indigenous Protected Area program and around half have ranger groups funded by a related Working on Country program. A number of Indigenous Protected areas have also developed mutually beneficial partnerships with other conservation organisations and local community groups.

Indigenous country

"All the land is Yirritja and Dhuwa (two halves of a whole world). Our songs, our law, our sacred art, our stories are embedded in the land, which is the foundation of our knowledge. That’s how we see the land; that is what our Land Rights Act says." Roy Dadaynga Marika, Yolngu elder, MBE

Australia’s Indigenous people are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. These diverse cultures are made up of several hundred language groups each with their own traditional lands, beliefs and customs.

The tracks of spirit ancestors form a network across the continent and are the basis of a land tenure system for most Indigenous Australians. Based on complex traditional laws, Indigenous people have looked after their country, both land and sea, in a sustainable way for tens of thousands of years.

Following European colonisation, Indigenous people’s lands were often forcibly taken. In 1968 the first land rights case was mounted by Yolngu elders opposed to mining on their traditional land. Although unsuccessful, it led to a Royal Commission and the recognition of Aboriginal Land rights in the Northern Territory.

In 1992 legal action by Murray Islanders from Torres Strait, brought about a landmark High Court decision that finally over turned terra nullius, the doctrine of a land belonging to no one, and recognised native title. This paved the way for a number of Indigenous communities to regain control of traditional lands through successful land right claims, the purchase of pastoral properties, often with assistance from the Indigenous Land Corporation and joint management arrangements on government protected areas.

The Indigenous Protected Areas program, developed in 1997 after two years of consultation with traditional owners and Indigenous organisations, supports Indigenous Australians to voluntarily dedicate and manage their land for conservation. Although primarily a land based program, a number of coastal Indigenous communities already manage sea country and have aspirations to include it as part of their Indigenous Protected Area future.

Together, nature and culture

We don’t separate the cultural and the natural in the same way that many white fellas try to, and our management should reflect that. Risdon Cove Management Plan

Biodiversity is the variety of life and underpins human existence – it provides the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.

Australia is one of the most biologically rich countries in the world, home to between 600,000 and 700,000 species – almost 10 per cent of all species known. In addition, over 80 per cent of our plants, mammals and reptiles are unique to Australia.

Our country has been managed by Indigenous people in a sustainable way for tens of thousands of years and its ecosystems have been shaped by this interaction, particularly the use of fire.

Since European settlement, more than 50 animals and 60 plants have become extinct.

Indigenous Protected Areas include bioregions that are under-represented in national parks and protect many of Australia’s threatened species. They also contribute to management of environmental threats such as wild fires, weeds and feral animals.

Managed by Indigenous organisations, Indigenous Protected Areas provide a solid foundation to develop collaborative partnerships with training, environmental and funding organisations to meet conservation obligations.

Indigenous rangers receive on-the-job training in areas such as conservation, tourism, law enforcement, business administration and Indigenous leadership. They also work closely with community elders and environmental research partners to manage their land in a holistic way.

Indigenous Protected Areas are part of the National Reserve System, Australia’s network of protected areas.

Many isolated protected areas are being linked together in wildlife corridors that include wetlands and riparian zones and voluntary agreements with landholders who have high-quality habitat on private land.

This collaborative whole-of-landscape approach to conserving biodiversity is also designed to help strengthen the resilience of our native landscapes against climate change.

Australia - a living country

Australia is a rich cultural landscape, crisscrossed with the tracks of spirit ancestors who walked, slithered, swam or flew, creating landforms and life as they travelled. These tracks are associated with a highly complex set of belief systems that interconnect the land, spirituality, law, social life and environment. They are passed on through stories, ceremonies, totems, dance, song, and art.

European colonisation brought rapid changes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Most people were separated from their land, making it difficult to continue their traditional life. Missions provided refuge but generally discouraged people from using their own language and carrying out cultural practices.

However although physically separated, many people maintained a strong cultural connection to their country.

Today a number of Indigenous communities are piecing missing parts of their culture together by talking to elders, researching early images and writings, examining artefacts and mapping cultural heritage sites. This cultural renewal is an important way of maintaining cultural identity.

A concept still held by most Indigenous Australians, is that ‘country’ is a living entity, alive with ancestral spirits, and must be respected. People relate to country the same way they would a person and say, if you look after country; country will look after you.

The recognition of cultural landscapes by the World Heritage Convention reflects a growing trend towards taking a more holistic view of the environment. The Indigenous Protected Area program supports traditional owners to conserve and renew their cultural landscapes.

"One of our elders who has passed on now, John Naylor, he told us of a story about a rock that’s shaped like a face and a head.

And the story goes that this warrior was supposed to protect this area from the white settlers and he’d left his post and they’d come in and killed off part of the Banbai clan.

So punishment for him was his spirit was to stay there and look over the land until it was handed back to Aboriginal people and the moment it was handed back to us, this head had fallen over and it was a sign to us, that this land really belongs to us." John Patterson, Wattleridge traditional owner

Sustainable use

Mixing Anangu customary knowledge - the Tjukurpa (law) with Piranypa (non-Anangu) scientific knowledge to improve wildlife habitat, enhance landscapes and harvest species on a sustainable basis. Angas Downs Plan of Management

At the time of European settlement, Indigenous Australians were primarily hunter gatherers, clan groups moved around their traditional lands, harvesting food according to the seasons. Stone weirs and fish traps were also used in a number of coastal areas and some Torres Strait Islanders farmed yams and other crops. At times neighbouring clans gathered for ceremonies and to trade. Goods traded included food, ochres, shells and tools and trading occurred across Australia and with Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

In parts of Australia, Indigenous people retain a close or totemic relationship with plants and animals and a cultural responsibility to look after them. A number of cultural laws and protocols determine how wildlife is looked after and harvested. For example, many animals can only be hunted seasonally, by certain people and have to be shared in particular ways.

The management of most Indigenous Protected Areas allows the hunting of traditional foods including some animals of conservation significance such as marine turtles. A number of communities are re-establishing cultural protocols to ensure traditional hunting is humane and sustainable.

Hunting feral animals also provides meat and can reduce environmental damage. Some Indigenous communities, particularly those with a pastoral history, keep small herds of sheep or cattle for meat in areas of lower conservation value.

Other communities have built businesses around the sustainable use of plants and animals. These include producing bush tucker and game meat products, creating traditional arts and crafts and collecting crocodile eggs for crocodile farms.

Economic development

Today many Indigenous Protected Areas are building on Australian Government support by developing businesses that operate alongside conservation.

Tourism provides additional income and jobs for areas that are a destination in their own right or lie on an established tourist route. A number of ranger groups are currently operating tourist campgrounds and providing cultural and natural tours. The Anindilyakwa community has also developed an eco resort providing a range of hospitality training and jobs.

Cultural education can also generate income. Several communities have built cultural centres and provide cultural activities to visiting groups. A number of Indigenous rangers also run school activities and deliver cross-cultural courses to industry and government workers.

Green energy is another potential funding option. Wind turbines installed by a power company on the Deen Maar Indigenous Protected Area now generate an alternative income stream while helping to meet Victoria’s energy demands. When technology improves, solar power stations may become a viable option for more remote areas.

A number of Indigenous ranger groups are also successfully providing paid environmental services to organisations such as mines, conservation agencies and research institutions. Services provided include land rehabilitation, fire management, weed and feral animal control and environmental monitoring.

In a landmark agreement, traditional owners including those from the Warddeken and Djelk Indigenous Protected Areas, have entered a 17 year service arrangement with Conoco Phillips to offset some of their greenhouse gas emissions. By managing fire, the rangers reduce the size and frequency of wildfires that would otherwise release high levels of carbon into the atmosphere.

The Government is proposing a similar carbon offset scheme called the Indigenous Carbon Farming Fund. Currently in the research phase, carbon farming could be a way for Indigenous Protected Areas to generate income while helping the nation tackle climate change.


Just some of the many partners working with Indigenous communities to manage their land for conservation.

Land acquisition and governance

  • Indigenous Land Corporation
  • Indigenous management organisations
  • Indigenous Protected Area program
  • Working on Country program
  • Kimberley Land Council
  • Northern Land Council
  • Central Land Council
  • Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara
  • Ngaanyatjarra Council
  • Torres Strait Regional Authority
  • Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania
  • Other regional Land Councils and organisations

Conservation funding and support

  • Bush Heritage Australia
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Christensen Fund
  • The Pew Environment Group
  • World Wide Fund for Nature Australia
  • Natural Heritage Trust (Envirofund)
  • Aboriginal Benefits Account

Environmental service contractors

  • Australian Customs Service
  • North Australia Quarantine Strategy
  • Northern Territory Fisheries
  • Conoco Phillips Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas
  • Mining companies
  • State and Territory agencies

Land use agreements

  • Government protected areas
  • Town and city councils
  • Mining companies
  • Energy and communication providers

Government protected area managers

  • State and Territory fire services
  • State and Territory fisheries agencies
  • World Heritage Area management authorities
  • Dept of Environment and Conservation (WA)
  • Dept of Land Resource Management (NT)
  • Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory
  • Dept of Environment Water and Natural Resources (SA)
  • Dept of National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing (QLD)
  • NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service
  • Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania
  • Parks Victoria

Research or training

  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  • State and Territory universities and training institutions
  • State and Territory environmental organisations
  • State and Territory museums and art galleries
  • North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance
  • Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation
  • Australian Research Council
  • Bush Blitz
  • National Environmental Research Program

Conservation and volunteer groups

  • Australian Conservation Foundation
  • Conservation Volunteers Australia
  • Indigenous Community Volunteers
  • GhostsNets Australia
  • Australian Koala Foundation


  • National Heritage Trust
  • State and Territory departments