Indigenous groups say ranger program is working, but needs more funding

Published: 13 Apr 2016

From The Guardian, 9 April 2016 by Helen Davidson

Coalition of Indigenous groups says ranger program needs to be expanded in federal budget to help close gap on disadvantage.

A coalition of Indigenous ranger groups are ramping up their campaign for more government support before the federal budget, claiming the government’s program is working, but needs to be expanded if Australia is to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

In February, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered his first closing the gap speech and said it was “important we listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when they tell us what is working”.

A coalition of 23 ranger and traditional owner groups, under the banner “Country Needs People”, are telling Turnbull “it’s working”.

The group has called on the commonwealth to “invest in success” and double its $83m a year funding for ranger groups and designated Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs).

The campaign builds on their calls last year to secure the benefits in employment, environmental protection and community growth in ten-year funding agreements.

The Working On Country program was established in 2007 by the Howard government, and has been consistently hailed as a somewhat lonely success in Indigenous affairs.

Under the program there are now 775 full-time equivalent ranger positions fully funded across 108 ranger groups. More than 1,600 people are employed under the scheme, working across the country, including in about 60% of the country’s IPAs.

“It is working,” said Dean Yibarbuk, a senior Indigenous ranger and fire ecologist for the Warddeken Aboriginal Corporation.

“In the years I’ve been watching the ranger groups, people are really, really proud, but they can’t employ more people under current funding.”

Yibarbuk has been a ranger for about 20 years and said Indigenous workers bring vital traditional knowledge to the job.

“That sort of thing has changed my whole life and given me pride as a manager of the country,” he told Guardian Australia.

“Being an owner of the land and capable of looking after it, I want to share that experience with my kids. We are seeing a difference in land management. When I look at the land management in western Arnhem Land, there are people who have tried to manage land for us, but we manage it the way we know. We have the knowledge.”

For the past 20 years he and colleagues have conducted fire management on the Arnhem Land plateau, using the “two toolboxes” of Western information and Indigenous traditional knowledge.

“Senior elders were very concerned with the wildfires coming through and killing all the little plants and animals and little marsupials, and many species of plants and animals are very special to that community,” he said.

“It was empty for the last 60-odd years, and since the people left the country [for government communities and missions] it became open, unmanaged. Wildfires got in destroying plants and animals, so that’s why I got involved and got interested in working with the elders.”

Yibarbuk said the ranger program has provided real and fulfilling employment for people in remote areas where there are not many jobs, and where lower standards of living, poor infrastructure and housing, and problems with drugs and alcohol have ravaged some communities.

“We try to let people know we are creating jobs for our people to come back in bush and manage their country, and we’re bringing our people back for that particular reason – [to get away from] alcohol and drugs,” he said.

“In the community people can impact other landowners groups and create a problem. This is why we’re trying to bring people back, to create jobs and teach people out on the landscape.”

A succession of government employment policies have left many in remote communities disillusioned. The latest iteration – the Communities Development Programme (CDP), which replaced the Remote Jobs and Communities Programme (RJCP) last year – pays individual welfare in return for a flexible range of “work-like” activities.

But people want real jobs, says Yibarbuk.

“People sometimes get really really depressed. The amount of policy changes in the RJCP, and CDP – people are getting sick and tired of the changes in policy. We want a secure country with a permanent continuing funding so we can bring people on with real jobs.”

The ranger groups also work closely with schools, teaching young people about the benefits of work such as land management and steering them away from alcohol and substance abuse.

“At the moment in schools western-style education is OK, but there are still problems. Kids are doing drugs, petrol sniffing that sort of thing,” said Yibarbuk.

“We want our country strong.”

A report commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust last year found “compelling” evidence in support of expanding ranger and IPA programs.

“It backs recent calls for a long-term commitment from policymakers which would support viable futures for Indigenous Australians on their traditional country,” the report said.

“It would also keep the environment of some of the most special parts of Australia, places of great beauty and natural significance, healthy and vibrant.”

From The Guardian, 9 April 2016, by Helen Davidson

Image: Dean Yibarbuk and Patrick O'Leary on Warddeken country


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Indigenous rangers call on Federal Government to increase funding, Sydney Morning Herald

Indigenous rangers lobby for more positions amid threat of feral animals, weeds