The Guardian: Indigenous rangers call for expansion of 'world-leading' jobs scheme

Published: 7 May 2015

From The Guardian, Helen Davidson, 7 May 2015.

Representatives of 15 regions across Australia urge government to ‘commit to approaches we know can work and which value traditional owners’ strengths’

Indigenous land and sea rangers have called on the government to expand what they say is one of the most successful Indigenous jobs programs, caring for the huge swaths of protected land across the country.

Representatives of 15 regions across Australia have written to the federal government in the week before the budget urging it to “commit to approaches we know can work and which value traditional owners’ strengths”, by increasing long-term investment in two closely linked initiatives.

Indigenous ranger programs train and employ local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to care for environmentally significant regions, many of which are designated Indigenous protected areas.

The group is calling for 10-year funding commitments from the government for the ranger programs and IPAs, and for a timetable to increase the number of rangers across the country from fewer than 1,000 to 5,000. .

More than 67 designated IPAs cover more than 55m hectares across Australia. The first was declared in Nantawarrina in South Australia in 1998, where 10 Indigenous rangers from the Nepabunna community look after about 58,000 hectares of land.

Greg Moore, the community’s chief executive and a signatory of the letter, told Guardian Australia the current arrangement funds allow the Adnyamathanha people to care for the region between the Flinders Ranges and Gammon Ranges national parks but an increase would allow them to extend to neighbouring properties and employ more people.

Moore said the rangers’ work had achieved significant revegetation and they were beginning to see the return of threatened species, but the social impact had been hugely important.

“Here we have 10 people who, because of our isolation, have very limited opportunities for paid employment, and here’s a paid job that’s achieving wonderful things,” he said.

“As well as socially what happens between ones that are employed versus ones that are unemployed, is just so noticeable. You’d have to look at it and say: why don’t we do more ranger work?”

Darren Farmer, a traditional owner for Birriliburu country and strategic adviser for Central Desert native title services, agreed. He told Guardian Australia there were more people in the community who wanted to become ranger than there were positions.

“It’s a very popular program, and goes a long way to creating permanent training but also [has] the hidden benefits of the cultural elements,” he said. “People feel proud to be part of a process that not only gives jobs and skills but also recognises their cultural place within the society.”

Half a dozen Birriliburu rangers care for a portion of a 2.7m hectare IPA and more funding would give greater certainty for future projects and expansion, Farmer said.

“It’s been great to get the funding we’ve got so far, but a long-term commitment would be good to provide ongoing support and funding,” he said. “It will guarantee, not only development … the IPA and ranger program, but bring in other partners like environmental and other groups, even pastoral leasers.”

Les Schultz, a traditional owner and leader of Ngadju country in southern Western Australia, told Guardian Australia his 100,000 square kilometres of land was “the jewel of Australia”.

The area includes 40,000 square kilometres of native title land and the Great Western Woodlands region, and is under threat from feral animals, invasive weeds, and climate change, Schultz said. It has no IPA or ranger program.

“We were just doing it ourselves, doing traditional fire burns and stuff, off our own back as we go out hunting,” said Schultz, who is also a signatory to the letter. “But it’s become a bigger problem.”

A “grassroots” group of Ngadju people conducts land and fire management and have formed a rural fire brigade, but government funding through a ranger program would lead to “large-scale biosecurity protection” and long-term meaningful employment, Schultz said.

“We know that skills pay the bills so we want to take our people back to country and train them in nationally accredited land management training.”

Patrick O’Leary of the Pew charitable trust, which runs programs to secure protection for Australian areas of high conservation, said the ranger programs were a “world-leading model” and a highly functional partnership between governments, Indigenous groups and other partners.

“You need to back winners in remote Australia because it’s good for people in the ground,” he said. “And in the longer term we’re going to lose this landscape, we’re going to lose everything that’s precious about it if we haven’t got people on it managing it every day.

“What we’ve got here is the best people to manage it who can bring that incredible traditional knowledge and are showing they’re quite happy to work with what science can bring to deliver landscape management.

“The Coalition has got a really decent legacy on this program,” he said, but added that the program needed certainty to cement its benefits.

“This is where you give long-term certainty to let groups build their capacity and power and strength,” he said. “If we’re not investing in this thing in remote communities, what we’ll spend it on is jail, police, more closing the gap outcomes that are really negative.

“We should be getting these long-term, mainstream, guaranteed – because of the success level and the scale of the problem.”

In the past year the federal minister for Indigenous affairs, Nigel Scullion, has announced new and expanded programs, including $2m for a program in far north Queensland and the Torres Strait, $4m for 16 new ranger positions in the Northern Territory and more than $7m for 14 newly recognised IPAs.

Scullion’s office did not respond to a request for comment but on Wednesday said he would like to to see the enforcement powers of Indigenous rangers expanded to match those of other rangers. He said there was no threat to funding.

A spokeswoman for the shadow Indigenous affairs minister, Mark Butler, told Guardian Australia Labor would look at the case put forward by the letter.

“Labor is extremely supportive of the Indigenous ranger programs, they have yielded some excellent results,” she said.