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ABC: Gladstone Indigenous ranger program gets youth off the couch and back to country

From ABC, Alice Roberts, 3 June 2015

A Queensland Indigenous group have been working hard on developing a program they say will help keep young people engaged with country and culture.

Richard Johnson, from the Gidarjil Development Corporation, said they want to break the cycle of welfare in Gladstone and encourage locals to become environmental rangers for the region.

He said a land ranger program had been running for more than a decade in the Bundaberg and Gladstone regions but with more than 26,000 square kilometres of sea country in their care, a sea ranger program was the next step.

"Our experience with the tourists has been that they always ask 'where are all the Aboriginal people?'," Mr Johnson said.

"They used to go to the parks and they never saw any black faces, so that was one of the reasons behind our drive to get our people on country."

Combining scientific knowledge and culture

Gidarjil Development Corporation is an Indigenous owned enterprise run by the Gurang and Gooreng Gooreng traditional owners.

On July 1, five full-time rangers will take up positions in the Gladstone region as caretakers of significant Indigenous sites and areas along the coastline and inland waterways.

Their role will be to monitor the health of mangroves along waterways, conduct fish surveys and engage with the local community.

Mr Johnson hoped the program would help Indigenous people gain greater respect in the community.

"In the past, Aboriginal people haven't really been considered knowledgeable about issues around the environment," he said.

"It's certainly coming to the fore now that Aboriginal knowledge is being recognised by governments and groups."

Uniform earns respect

Eighteen-year-old trainee ranger William Hollingsworth said he is looking forward to putting on the sea ranger uniform when he graduates next month.

"Walking around town with that uniform and the badge on your shoulder, it's always a good feeling," he said.

Mr Hollingsworth said if he was not working with the program, he would be sitting at home doing nothing.

"This is the career that I want to move into," he said.

"I'd rather do this than being in a shed welding or something."

Mr Hollingsworth said strong male role models in the community encouraged him to pursue a career as a ranger.

"I had seen Simo, he was a Parks and Wildlife ranger before, and I saw what it was like and I thought 'yeah I can do this'," he said.

Mr Hollingsworth said the program is one of only a few aimed at engaging Indigenous youth and hopes more opportunities would be offered in the future.

Targeting the next generation

Gidarjil Development Corporation sea ranger manager Richard Johnson

"We see it as part of the reconciliation process in having a wide gathering of the community and schools," he said.

"It helps those kids at school to relate to what Aboriginal people are about, how we care for our land [and] why we're so passionate about being on country.

"It also helps to break down the barriers."

The program is funded mostly by industry dollars with some government assistance.

Mr Johnson said the program will help people of all ages from Byellee, Taribelang, Gurang and Gooreng Gooreng to improve their connection with their country.

"It's a great opportunity for our people to be able to go to those national parks and significant areas and just sit there and take it all in," he said.

"And obviously the opportunity to go back onto country is a real healing process for them."