Five reasons Indigenous Protected Areas are a world leader... and why we should grow and secure their funding

Published: 26 Aug 2019

The Indigenous Protected Area program is a world leading model for environmental conservation… We’re not just saying that: IPAs have won international awards and are models that Indigenous peoples and governments in other countries, like Canada, are learning from and adapting so they can build their own models.

So what makes IPAs so successful? Here are five reasons Indigenous Protected Areas are such a winner:

1. Indigenous-led

This is an important place to start: for millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have cared for, managed, used and protected land and sea country across Australia. Traditional owners’ stewardship, responsibility and connection to country is a “fundamental pillar of Indigenous identity”. In Australia and internationally, there is increasing recognition of the high priority that should be placed on the rights of and support for Indigenous peoples to conserve ecosystems and sustain livelihoods.

This is one way Indigenous Protected Areas are leading the way. IPAs are a voluntary agreement with the Commonwealth Government that is initiated by a traditional owner group. Through a comprehensive planning process, the traditional owner group outlines priorities for protecting natural and cultural values on country and then negotiates the Indigenous Protected Area management plan in partnership with the government. The plan involves how the area’s biodiversity—the animals and plants within the IPA—will be cared for, and how the area’s cultural values, like sacred sites and rock art, will be conserved and strengthened.

IPAs are dedicated under International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categories. They reinforce and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance of land and sea and create a platform for negotiating natural, cultural and local management priorities.

Indigenous Protected Areas support the commitment and connection of
local traditional owners to look after country
. Credit Kimberley Land Council.


2. Flexible

There’s an Indigenous Protected Area on an island off Tasmania, and there’s an Indigenous Protected Area that’s the size of Tasmania in the desert of Central Australia. There’s a 100 hectare patch of rainforest a short drive from town on the Gold Coast hinterland, and there’s a 1.4 million hectare Indigenous Protected Area on the stone country of Arnhem Land.

Indigenous Protected Area management plans are tailored to the different landscapes, different cultures, different challenges and different aspirations of traditional owner groups around the country. That’s an important pillar of the success of IPAs because it recognises the complex, changing and place-specific needs of people and country around Australia.


Vast landscapes, biodiversity hotspots, cared for by traditional owners.


3. Huge in scale

The National Reserve System is Australia's network of protected areas, where our landscapes, plants and animals are protected for future generations. Through the NRS, Australia meets the international obligations of the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect more than 17 per cent of our continent.

Indigenous Protected Areas account for 44.6 per cent of Australia’s National Reserve System, making IPAs central to Australia’s nature protection and meeting our international obligations.

Indigenous Protected Areas cover more than 67 million hectares and there are more on the way. That’s an area more than ten times the size of Tasmania: more than 8 per cent of the Australian continent is being cared for by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through an Indigenous Protected Area.

Around 25 per cent of the Australian continent is owned or held by traditional owners, and more and more traditional owner groups are seeking to protect their country through an IPA. That’s why it’s so essential we grow and secure Indigenous Protected Area funding to meet the scale of environmental need and demand from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.


4. The frontline of nature protection

Destructive wildfires, feral animals and invasive weeds – all exacerbated by climate change – are three of Australia’s most threatening environmental challenges across our protected areas. One essential fact in combatting these threats is this: we can’t just lock up this land and walk away. We need people on the ground tackling fires, ferals and weeds day in day out, year in year out.

Indigenous Protected Areas are a plan of management over land and sea country, they outline a strategy for addressing environmental threats and keeping country healthy. Work on IPAs typically includes stopping the spread of invasive weeds, controlling feral animals, undertaking burning regimes to avoid wildfires, working with researchers to monitor, rescue and promote threatened species, and more.

Indigenous-managed land is home to much of Australia’s most ecologically healthy land and sea country, and is the last-remaining habitat of many of Australia’s threatened species, like the iconic bilby and the elusive night parrot.  That’s why, if we’re serious about protecting the wildlife and the landscapes that we’re so proud of as Australians, we need to grow the funding that supports Indigenous Protected Areas and their workforce, Indigenous rangers.

Indigenous rangers like Dhimurru Senior Ranger Daryl Lacey
undertake wildlife rescue, alongside other activities to protect and support threatened species
like feral animal control and scientific population monitoring. Credit Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation.


5. Government support and partnerships

Indigenous Protected Areas are a partnership, led by traditional owners, with the Commonwealth Government to protect wildlife and conserve an area’s cultural resources, like sacred sites and rock art. This partnership has international significance because it puts into action the growing global recognition that environments held or managed by Indigenous peoples tend to be healthier. In 2017, the World Future Council recognised the Indigenous Protected Area program, alongside the Indigenous ranger program, with a Future Policy Award as two of the best policies in the world for combatting land degradation and desertification.

The first Indigenous Protected Area was declared in South Australia over 20 years ago. Indigenous Protected Areas require engaged governmental support, careful implementation and a clear understanding of the land and sea management task, both in the planning and delivery - from traditional owners, Indigenous organisations and government. 

Indigenous Protected Areas promote partnerships with local schools and community organisations, government, research institutions, businesses and NGOs. They also provide Indigenous organisations with the foundation to create commercial opportunities, for example, fee-for-service contracts, tourism and carbon abatement.

Working together: Indigenous land management is a catalyst for positive partnerships. Credit Kimberley Land Council.



More and more traditional owner groups are seeking to protect land and sea country through Indigenous Protected Areas, but a lack of sufficient funding is a barrier to their creation and good management. We must, as a nation, support traditional owner groups to meet their aspirations to protect our environment for the benefit of all Australians.

Country Needs People is calling to double funding for Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous ranger jobs, and secure funding for the long term, to meet the vast scale of the landscapes we need to protect, and to meet demand from traditional owner groups seeking to care for them. Sign the Country Needs People statement supporting this call today.

Learn more about what an Indigenous Protected Area is here.


Header image: Wunggurr Rangers Kane Nenowatt and Robin Dann on the Wilinggin Indigenous Protected Area, which is renowned as a haven for threatened species thanks to millennia of unbroken care for, use and connection by traditional owners. Credit Annette Ruzicka and Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation.