Indigenous protection of vast area in NT will educate future generations

Published: 30 Oct 2015

From Sydney Morning Herald, Lucy Cormack with photos by Glenn Campbell, 2 October 2015

More than 5 million hectares of land surrounding Uluru-Kata Tjuta​ National Park was declared as an Indigenous Protected Area. The Katiti Petermann​ IPA forms part of a 48 million hectare network of nine protected areas in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia border region.

It took just a few minutes for Benjamen​ Kenny to see it: the fine markings, so intricately etched in the red dirt of Tjitjingati​, in the south-west corner of the Northern Territory.

They were undoubtedly the imprints of a perentie, Australia's largest native lizard.

"As rangers we find a track and if we just follow it, follow it, it'll take us a long way and we'll find him."


Mr Kenny, 29, works with the Central Land Council as a Kaltukatjara ranger co-ordinator, a job that is, at its core, about "getting back to country".

That message rang true on Thursday as the Anangu​ traditional owners declared more than five million hectares of their land an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA).

Larger than Switzerland and five years in the making, the Katiti Petermann​ IPA surrounds Uluru-Kata Tjuta​ National Park and will form part of a 48 million hectare network of nine protected areas in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia border region.

It will receive $1.6 million in funding up to 2018.

"This IPA, it's amazing.  To actually get more old people and young people to look after the land, like our ancestors," said Mr Kenny.

"They wandered through the desert looking after their country to pass [it] down from generation to generation. Look after the country, look after the land…and the land will give back to you."

Unique to Australia, an IPA is an area voluntarily declared and managed by Aboriginal land traditional owners as part of Australia's National Reserve System.

The IPA manages threats from wildfires, feral animals, weeds and uncontrolled tourism, while enabling traditional owners to keep culture and knowledge of country strong.

"IPAs make a significant contribution ... and protect highly significant natural and cultural values for the benefit of all Australians," a spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said.

Across the 5 million hectares covered by the new IPA, traditional owners had eagerly anticipated the opportunities. 

Peter Donohoe​, land management co-ordinator with the Central Land Council, said the driving force has been involving young people.

"It's really about that cultural knowledge transfer, and 5 million hectares is a huge area, so accessing country is a big part of facilitating that process," he said.

The Katiti Petermann IPA will be Australia's 70th and the fourth largest, testament to the broad array of Indigenous groups from Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, who gathered in Tjitjingati this week for the ceremony.

Children cheekily hung from branches on Thursday, as elders and traditional owners addressed the group of around 100 that had gathered for the declaration.

Speaking to young and old, Katiti Petermann traditional owner Ruby James summed up just how significant the declaration was.

"This is our schooling, this is our education system and we need to take all the time so [our children]…keep the knowledge of their ancestors strong," said Ms James, 57, who became the first female ranger in the area in 2013.

"I feel that if the government can witness this important part of our education, they will really understand. They will believe us when we say this is the education our children need and this is the way we need to do it."

Patrick O'Leary is the outback conservation partnerships manager for Pew Charitable Trust, which campaigns for IPAs across Australia.

He says one of the cricitisms of remote Indigenous policies is that they are "too monolithic," but the world-leading IPA model has proven otherwise.

"It makes a great negotiating table between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people," he said.

"IPAs have a strong track record on environment, jobs, growth, markers about closing the gap. These programs are on the right trajectory, but we need to increase the scale of federal funding."