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ABC Radio National: Working on Country Indigenous ranger program survives Budget

From ABC Radio NationalAngela Owens, 21 May 2015

A scheme that employs Indigenous rangers across the Top End looks to have survived the more than $500 million in cuts to Indigenous programs in the federal Budget.

The Working on Country program, which trains and supports rangers to manage their traditional lands, employs more than 700 people in remote communities.

What the ranger program has done for us is it's given men and women with an extremely low literacy rate, who would have had difficulty even getting a drivers license, the opportunity to work at home. It's given people a chance in life to get decent employment.

PHILLIP MCCARTHY, SENIOR RANGER

‘This is a movement that was really started at the grass roots level by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves, trying to get back on to their country to connect and fulfil their own responsibilities to culture,’ Patrick O’Leary of the Pew Charitable Trust, one of the program’s partners, told Life Matters.

You will have extensive local knowledge in some areas, and I've just come back from Arnhem Land and the knowledge that people have of rocks, of currents, of fish movements is really amazing. But they're also not chauvinistic about their own knowledge, if people are saying "look, we understand there's a lot of scientific knowledge we need to know about too".’

Working on Country employees are involved in a variety of projects, including weed eradication, back burning and the management of invasive species, as well as working alongside the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service.

According to O’Leary, the program is very different to traditional community development employment programs (CDEP), which have been criticised for failing to move people in remote communities off welfare and into work. Working on Country has an employment retention rate of 80 per cent, which O’Leary described as ‘comparable to or better than’ Indigenous retention in any employment sector in Australia.

Speaking over the phone from One Arm Point in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, senior ranger Phillip McCarthy said that the program has made a huge difference to his community.

‘Personally, when you look at isolated communities and remote communities, there's not many options for employment. You're lucky to get a job at the school or a government clinic. The other option is, if you're lucky enough, you might be able to get a fly-in, fly-out job in a mining town, which is pretty tough on any family.’

'What the ranger program has done for us is it's given men and women with an extremely low literacy rate, who would have had difficulty even getting a drivers license, the opportunity to work at home. It's given people a chance in life to get decent employment.’

The environmental benefits have also been noticeable, with weeds cleared, pests eradicated and culturally significant sites restored.

‘You can actually see changes where people have put effort in,’ says McCarthy. ‘Some of the work we're doing is ongoing, it's going to be going on forever, like weed eradication and control, but you can see water holes coming to life, trees are being rejuvenated, the beaches are nice and clean; you can see the impact everywhere.’