Indigenous land and sea management

Photo by T. Griffiths: Jimmy Djarrbarali undertaking fire management near Nandel in west Arnhem Land.

The Indigenous estate held under various land rights and native title regimes covers about 1.7 million square kilometres or 23 per cent of the Australian land mass. Many Indigenous landholdings are contiguous with or form an integral part of the National Reserve System which protects areas of high environmental value.

Indigenous lands include an enormously rich diversity of ecosystems – from the tropics of northern Australia to some of the driest areas of the desert centre. Large parts remain ecologically intact, with vast tracts of mainly undisturbed, connected and healthy environments.

Threats to Indigenous lands

The ecosystems of Indigenous lands are threatened by feral animals and invasive weeds, changing climate, overgrazing and the pollution of waterways and marine environments.

Recognising Indigenous knowledge

Indigenous people do not generally separate land and cultural heritage. They talk about ‘looking after country’ with the expectation that country will, in turn, look after them. This reciprocal relationship is a vastly different approach to the Western environmental management paradigm.

Indigenous knowledge must be recognised for its unique potential to improve understanding of the environment and offers insights into a sustainable future. Indigenous people must be paid fairly for the environmental work they do.

Government programs

As of March 2012, the Federal Government’s Working on Country Program supports 80 ranger groups employing more than 600 rangers. There is great potential for more Indigenous people to be involved in similar work.

Some Indigenous communities are also seeking a strong role in looking after marine and coastal environments. More support and resources are urgently needed to help them.

Maintaining and managing Indigenous lands properly is in the national interest and benefits all Australians.


  • Recognise the extraordinary environmental significance of Indigenous lands and support the development of appropriate responses to the threats they face.
  • Recognise and support Indigenous customary marine tenure and aspirations to manage sea country.
  • Appreciate that Indigenous customary land management, in combination with Western science, is a sound and legitimate basis for joint care of protected areas.
  • Recognise that economic disadvantage means many Indigenous land owners need help to look after their lands.
  • Acknowledge and respect the substantial contribution that Indigenous knowledge is making in tackling Australia’s environmental problems.
  • Make sure funding for work on Indigenous lands is fair.
  • Support Indigenous aspirations to live on country as an effective way of looking after the environment.
  • Fund further research on Indigenous environmental care from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives.

Learn more about Indigenous land and sea management