Indigenous Protected Areas

In 51 Indigenous Protected Areas across the nation, traditional owners are managing their land for a better future.
By David Hancock June 3, 2014 Reading Time: 4 Minutes

IT’S THE DRY season in north-western Arnhem Land and Terah Guymala, his wife Sarah Nabarlambarl, and their daughter Aspellita have walked more than 50km from Imimbar Creek, near the Blyth River, on their way to Manmoyi outstation.

They have trekked across the challenging stone country of the Arnhem Land Plateau, following gorges and creeks, which open up to wetlands lush with native sorghum, paperbark and water lilies.

They have fished, shot wallabies and gathered fruit and yams. Part of a group of 40 Bininj, the family makes the trek every Dry. “We are putting our footprint on this country,” Terah says. “The ancestors see us, smell us, recognise us and we introduce the kids.”

As the sandstone glows amber in the afternoon light, the group stops and Jimmy Namarnyilk, a traditional owner of the area, declares he has not been here since he was a small child, some 60 years ago. The country is new to everyone else. Jimmy points to ancient art on the walls of the cliffs and declares no balanda (non-Aboriginal person) has ever visited the area.

The start of Indigenous Protection Areas

After years of being encouraged to congregate in the settlements of Jabiru and Kunbarllanjnja (Oenpelli) near the East Alligator River, and Maningrida on the coast, the Bininj are again walking in the steps of their ancestors and travelling their traditional lands. Many are now being paid to manage the land and spend time ‘on country’ in this 13,700sq.km chunk of western Arnhem Land called the Warddeken IPA.

When this Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) was declared in 2009, it became part of a network of about 50 that now encompass more than 365,000sq.km (covering almost the same area as Japan) and account for nearly one third of Australia’s National Reserve System (NRS).

The first IPA was declared in 1998, and the most recent and largest addition – the 101,500sq.km Southern Tanami IPA in the Northern Territory – was announced in July this year. They vary in size down to Pulu Islet in the Torres Strait, the smallest at just 15ha.

An IPA is an area of land or sea that has been dedicated by its traditional owners to conservation and sustainable resource use in agreement with the Australian government. It’s different from other Aboriginal land, because traditional owners will manage it in line with World Conservation Union (IUCN) standards.

Managing an IPA

A management plan needs to be in place before an IPA is declared, and the federal government supports traditional owners to develop this plan and make their declaration. IPAs are also developed to maintain culture and bring traditional owners back to their land, as well as develop skills, provide employment and find income sources.

Management remains with traditional owners, who are assisted by scientists and business managers to ensure conservation and financial reporting standards are met.
Steve Roeger, executive officer of the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation in north-eastern Arnhem Land, says that when the 1021sq.km Dhimurru IPA was created 12 years ago,
the process was of enormous benefit.

“It brought traditional owners together to talk about how they wanted to manage the land,” he says. “They acknowledged management had to be done under IUCN guidelines and the land would be part of the NRS.”

The formation of an IPA doesn’t preclude economic activities such as mining or tourism. Mining can be undertaken on a portion of the IPA, so long as the proposed activities are compatible with the conservation objectives of the protected area.

Tourists are often welcome, as the owners are keen to build sustainable tourism. For example, the Gunditjmara people in Victoria run tours through the volcanic landscape of Mt Eccles, and to the ancient aquaculture infrastructure in the area.

Growth of IPAs and partnerships

Traditional owners are encouraged to seek other partners, but the bulk of initial funding for an IPA comes from the federal government, currently set at $50 million for the whole IPA program from 2008–13. Funding is split into seed funding, which allows people to come together to discuss objectives and develop a management plan; and, later, core funding, which helps implement it.

Many IPAs  also receive funding from the private sector and NGOs. “One of the key factors is the plan-of-management funding, which sponsored the process of consultation with traditional owners,” Steve says of Dhimurru.

Partners may include Landcare groups, philanthropic organisations, wildlife and conservation bodies and federal agencies such as Australian Customs and Border Protection, Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and the
Department of Fisheries (DF). IPA rangers often carry out important contracts for these organisations, such as coastal patrol, weed and feral animal eradication, and fire control.

According to Peter Cooke, CEO of the Warddeken IPA, traditional owners are keen to generate employment coupled with high-quality land management. “We have to move back into country,” he said. “Within the IPA there are five or six outstations with people already back there.”

“They are not just there to live on their country because they can, but they are there to do some good, whether it is to preserve culture or create jobs.”

Dr Dermott Smyth, a consultant with Parks Australia who run the IPA program, said IPAs have been well received nationwide and interest has grown steadily since 1997.

“We’ve never gone out to market this idea,” he says. “It’s spread by word of mouth and the lack of pressure [to sign up] has drawn dividends. I think there’s gentle respect for the way it has rolled out.”