Caring for Country: An Australian Approach to Indigenous Land Management

The Tanami track is a rough, corrugated ‘bush highway’ that cuts across the Central Australian desert from Alice Springs northwest to Halls Creek in the Kimberley. While an important artery serving Aboriginal communities and mining operations, this route traverses one of the more remote and unforgiving regions of the country, offering few amenities to the uninitiated traveler. From my home in Alice Springs it was a 650 km drive up the Tanami before reaching the turnoff to Lajamanu, the Warlpiri Aboriginal community where I worked, a further 230 km north.

Employed by the Central Land Council’s Land Management Unit last year, I gained a unique glimpse into life in the northwest Tanami desert and the land management issues its traditional Aboriginal custodians face in “caring for country”. My initiation into this field of work offered a steep learning curve and an experience rich in gems, thorns, opportunities and contradictions. I couldn’t have asked for a more challenging and engaging position.

Appointed as an “Indigenous Protected Area Development Officer”, my role was to consult with the Lajamanu community on a broad range of natural resource management issues and facilitate on the ground programs that encouraged greater community involvement in land management activities. Funded by Environment Australia, the position was created to assess the feasibility of Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) declaration in the northwest Tanami, a national initiative that seeks to promote biodiversity and cultural resource conservation on Aboriginal lands. As a liaison between community elders and government conservation agencies, I had to learn to walk between the worlds, acting as a bridge between traditional ways of caring for country and contemporary western land management principles.

Home to about 700 Warlpiri and Gurindji Aboriginal people, Lajamanu was established as Hooker Creek Reserve in 1948 by the Northern Territory government’s Native Affairs Department. At the time nearly 400 Warlpiri people were forcibly transferred from Yuendumu (a community about 500 km southeast) and the surrounding region to this new settlement on Gurindji land. While many people walked back hundreds of kilometers to their homelands, after repeated relocations some Warlpiri people adopted the community as their home. Issues continue to arise over the ownership and use of the Lajamanu area. However as the population today is primarily Warlpiri, many of the Dreaming stories and cultural responsibilities associated with the area have been passed on to them from Gurindji people.

Today Lajamanu is a dynamic community with a local government council, school, clinic, outstation resource centre, police station, general store, service station, and fast food outlet. Situated in what is considered one of Australia’s last under-explored mineral provinces, the economy is based primarily on mining royalties. Multi-national Newmont’s Tanami and Granites mines on Warlpiri land are amongst the country’s largest gold producing operations. Employment opportunities in the region are minimal, and few people here work in the Western sense. Though cultural business has a high priority and occupies much of the community’s time.

My first trip to Lajamanu in early February gave me an initial sense of the land and pace of life in this unique desert community. Set at the interface of the arid zone and humid tropics, the ecology of this ecotone area is distinct, with flora and fauna of both biomes. The country was quite different than I’d expected, surprisingly lush and green for a desert. Though our arrival towards the end of the monsoonal season gave a misleading impression of the abundance of water. Most of the year water is scarce, and few creeks flow year around. The average annual precipitation sits at a meager 300mm.

Monotonous spinifex grasslands predominate much of the area, often supporting an overstorey of low bushes and trees, mainly eucalypt and acacia species. I was surprised to see occasional open woodlands, unexpected to my limited perception of the Australian desert landscape. Rich ochre coloured rocky outcrops and low lateritic rises also punctuate the sandplains, offering a diversity of microhabitats for desert fauna. The northwest Tanami is nationally recognised for its conservation significance, home to a number of rare and threatened arid zone animals and a high proportion of endemic plant species. Its importance as an area of high biological diversity and as a refuge area for threatened species led to the establishment of a formal conservation reserve, the Tanami Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in 1964. However this status has since elapsed with the land claims process in the 1970s.

Aboriginal people now have inalienable freehold title to nearly half of Australia’s Northern Territory. Most of this land was granted back through lengthy claims processes in the 1970s and 80s under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. The Central Land Council (CLC) came into being through this struggle and has been instrumental in supporting traditional owners in their rights to land. Aboriginal land is vested in land trusts and all decisions about its use are made collectively by the appropriate traditional owners. Covering more than 65,000 km2 the proposed management area I was working in included the Hooker Creek Aboriginal Land Trust, and a portion of the vast Central Desert A.L.T.

My first couple months in the position were a time to break the ice – to establish the trust of the community and start to learn how to operate within a cultural framework so different from my own. Seeing my pale white skin and youthful appearance, some community members expressed their concern about my age, and lack of experience with the Australian bush. The community had been let down by flailing CLC programs in the past, so building a strong working relationship already had its challenges before I had arrived. I was fortunate to have the guidance of a senior land management officer, as well as two senior men who supported the program and my presence there. All the study I had done and knowledge I carried meant nothing unless it could be translated on the ground in a way that was meaningful to the community.

As I began to experience, the Aboriginal perspective to land management is different, though related, to the western scientific view of natural resource management. “Caring for country” is a term more appropriately used to refer to Indigenous land management in Australia. To Aboriginal people “land management” is a holistic practice, and is not separate from their inherent cultural responsibilities that stem from the Jukurrpa, or Dreaming traditions.

The Jukurrpa is the spiritual basis of Warlpiri Aboriginal culture, referring to the creation period when Ancestral Spirits rose up from the earth and created the landforms, plants and animals that exist today. These animate Spirit Beings also created languages, established kinship relations, marriage rules and food taboos. They gave Aboriginal people the ceremonies, songs, and dances that ensure the continuous viability of the Dreaming and created a charter that is “The Law”, setting out their cultural obligations. At some point these Ancestral Spirits changed into various forms, becoming plants, animals, celestial bodies, wind, or rain. Others transformed themselves into rocks, trees, or watercourses, their power becoming localised at certain sites. This power is still considered alive and vital today, and such places are often referred to as sacred sites. Land management is based on the maintenance of Aboriginal Law and is not a specialized pursuit but an integral part of the inherited cultural obligations that all traditional owners carry.

As country is seen as animate and infused with the power or essence necessary for the well-being of all life forms, ceremonial activity that maintains this natural order is a key part of Indigenous land management. Country that is not cared for through appropriate ceremonies, songs, and visits can “become sick” or even dangerous to people. Thus elders who hold knowledge of ceremony and Dreaming stories/songs are essential to keep the land healthy. Ceremony is carried out for specific sites and to ensure the well-being of particular plant and animal species. One example is the “increase ceremony”, a site specific ritual that is performed at certain times of year to ensure a good supply of bush food in the coming season. Without the increase ceremony a particular species can become scarce. From an Aboriginal perspective the local extinction of small mammals in Central Australia is directly related to the loss of the proper ceremonies as key elders with this knowledge have passed away.

Traditional burning is one of the more practical aspects of Indigenous land management that has gained increasing recognition from mainstream land management agencies throughout the country. Fire has played a major roll in shaping the Australian continent, and is instrumental in determining the community structure and species composition present in the desert at any given time. In the Tanami, big fuel loads from monsoonal summer growth create a high risk of destructive wildfires as vegetation dries out later in the year. Traditionally, Aboriginal people burn patches of their country at specific times of year, creating a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas throughout the landscape with different stages of vegetative regrowth. Controlled burning not only prevents large destructive wildfires, but also clears hunting grounds and promotes the growth of culturally important food plants which appear in the early regenerative phase following a fire. Traditional owners use burning as a way to “clean up the country” and create protective fire-proof barriers around sacred sites. Country that has not been burnt for some time can be said to “go rubbish” and may be considered unhealthy. While traditional burning continues to be a primary focus of Indigenous land management in the Tanami, limited access and the high cost of travel throughout the region has resulted in poor fire management and extensive uncontrolled burns in recent years.

My primary role while at Lajamanu was to coordinate and supervise the Wulaign Rangers Program, a community-based Indigenous land management group that was set up to address a broad range of natural and cultural resource management issues within the proposed IPA project area. Rangers included both younger and older men, and senior traditional owners supervised all activities. A collaborative approach using both traditional Aboriginal and contemporary Western land management techniques was adopted, in recognition of the value of both systems in addressing complex land use issues. With the turbulent changes to both culture and the physical environment since European contact, there are many new land management issues to which traditional Aboriginal knowledge is ineffective. The rangers were keen to learn new approaches in caring for country, and to become trained and recognised as competent land managers by mainstream conservation agencies. Key focuses of the program include flora & fauna surveys, cleaning of rockholes and soakages (traditional water sources), trapping and hunting feral animals (i.e. foxes and cats), traditional burning, weed management, and revegetation with native species. The Wulaign rangers have also taken on environmental rehabilitation contract work on the nearby mining leases including projects such as capping drill holes, weed control, cultural site protection, and seed collection for revegetation.

The high conservation significance of the Tanami desert has meant groups such as Wulaign rangers have attracted attention from key national and state conservation agencies – the Australian Heritage Commission, the Northern Territory Parks & Wildlife Commission, and Environment Australia. This remote, emerging group of Aboriginal rangers is part of a larger movement towards greater Indigenous involvement in land management affairs throughout Australia. Collaborative initiatives such as joint management of national parks and conservation reserves, the Indigenous Protected Area program, and the integration of traditional environmental knowledge into mainstream land management practices are now seen as crucial to holistic land management in Australia.

Caring for country is of immense importance to Aboriginal people’s social and cultural well-being, and an invaluable contribution to a sustainable Australian environment. My brief time at Lajamanu was a glimpse into the profound relationship Warlpiri people have with their country – one that I have come to respect with deep admiration. While there are many bridges still to be crossed, growing partnerships between Aboriginal people and conservation agencies offer renewed hope for the sound stewardship of Australia’s unique natural and cultural resources.

Originally published in Watershed Sentinel Magazine, May 2004

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Maya Jiro Mithe

A folk tale from the Great Andamanese tribe that explains why birds are conserved in the Andaman Islands. The last speaker of the Bo language, the late Boa Sr., who died in February 2010, was seen talking to birds, as she believed that birds of Andaman understood her language. This is a story of a boy who belonged to the Jero tribe and lived near the seashore. Other tribes who lived near the seashore were Khora, Bo, and Sare. The protagonist of the story is swallowed by a Bol fish and then all the rescuers become birds. The tribes thus believe that birds are their ancestors.