Spinifex, mulga and red sand in north-west South Australia,

Structure of the sector

This content forms part of our insights on the Indigenous land and sea management sector.

On-country land and sea management groups

On-country land and sea management groups, or “ranger groups”, are as diverse as the land and seas that they protect. How each operates is determined from a combination of historic, environmental, social and economic factors.

They vary greatly in their scale, including: The numbers of people involved; the size of the area they manage; and, the frequency and amount of work that they undertake.

A typical land and sea management group is directed by local, senior Traditional Owners, supported in their decision making by western expertise (including ecology, natural resource management and anthropology), and facilitated by several Indigenous or non-Indigenous staff.

Indigenous rangers are employed to undertake on-ground works. Most commonly these rangers are also Traditional Owners of the area under management. Employment arrangements are generally considerate of cultural and social needs, offering casual, part-time, seasonal and ad hoc work, and cultural leave provisions.

Rocky foot-hills of the Musgrave Range in north-west South Australia owned by Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yunkunytjatjara (APY) Traditional Owners and managed by APY Land Management Rangers.

Other cultural considerations such as who the appropriate people are to access areas of country (depending on familial lineage, gender, level of initiation and cultural responsibility) are taken into account.

There are now more than one-hundred land and sea management groups working across Australia.

Almost always, these groups evolve from the desire of Senior Traditional Owners to see their country protected and their younger generations continuing to maintain their cultural and environmental connections.
Other reasons for Traditional Owners to choose to participate in land and sea management can include:

  • To gain access to their traditional lands;
  • To protect the biodiversity values of their traditional lands, such as flora and fauna, threatened species and culturally important species;
  • To protect the cultural values of their traditional lands, including physical values, such as sacred sites, and knowledge values, such as language and other cultural information;
  • To gain employment and training;
  • To provide economic opportunities for their community on their traditional lands, and;
  • To benefit from a range of associated cultural, social and health outcomes.

Australian Government funded Indigenous land and sea management programs

Australian Government funded Indigenous land and sea management projects

Financial support for these aspirations is gained from various sources, with the Australian Government being the primary source. Where possible, these groups often seek multiple revenue streams including undertaking fee-for-service environmental works such as weed mitigation on neighbouring properties, coastal patrolling or carbon sequestration through fire management.

Depending upon the size, skills, interests and location of the Traditional Owner group, they may be self-governed, or be supported in their administration by a larger organisation.

There is most commonly a regional or collective Indigenous organisation representing multiple Traditional Owner groups across a region, such as a Land Council. However, it could also be a non-Indigenous partner organisation providing these support services.

Examples of the administration styles include:

  • Warddeken Land Management in Arnhem Land and Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa in the Western Desert, examples of land and sea management groups who are self-governed.
  • The Normanton Rangers in the Lower Gulf of Carpentaria, administered by the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and the Anangu Luritjiku Rangers in Central Australia, administered by the Central Land Council, examples of administration support being provided by regional Indigenous organisations who represent more than one Traditional Owner group.
  • The Kiwirrkurra Rangers in the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts, supported in their administration by Desert Support Services, an example of a ranger group in an administration partnership with a non-Indigenous organisation.

Indigenous land and sea management groups work across a range of different land tenures, including where they hold exclusive and non-exclusive title or where they enter into partnership agreements with other landowners.

Land title may be granted to Traditional Owners through several mechanisms, including Land Rights or Native Title legislation, or purchased, including with the support of the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation.

Traditional Owners may also have partnership agreements or contracts to work on land owned by others, including in National Parks or private property managed by pastoralists or biodiversity conservation organisations.

In many parts of Australia, gaining access to traditionally owned land and sea remains a major struggle for Traditional Owner groups, and a necessary precursor to being able to commence land and sea management, or other on-ground activities.

Day to day, these ranger groups undertake on-ground environmental and cultural protection activities including:

  • feral animal and plant control
  • erosion control
  • fire management
  • species reintroduction
  • threatened species protection
  • environmental monitoring
  • cultural site maintenance
  • traditional knowledge recording and transfer from senior to junior generations
  • a “junior ranger program”— engaging local schools in their work
  • a schedule of training: supporting their rangers to grow their skills and qualifications

Regional Indigenous organisations

Regional Indigenous Organisations, such as Land Councils and Native Title Representative Bodies, represent regions or collectives of multiple Traditional Owner groups. Many of these organisations had their beginnings in the land rights movement, and over time have broadened their scope to provide a voice for the Indigenous people within their geographical jurisdiction on the full spectrum of issues facing their people. They work in advocacy and policy development and provide direct services including administration, governance, health, education, culture, and land and sea management. They are generally managed by a Board made up of representatives from the Traditional Owner groups in their region.

These Regional Indigenous Organisations often play an integral support role to on-ground Traditional Owner land and sea management groups, through the provision of administration and governance structures and other expertise, often, for example, administering grants and providing management planning support.

While Traditional Owner groups provide the expertise and workforce specific to their traditional land and seas, Regional Indigenous Organisations often provide the organisational structure through which funders and other groups engage with the Traditional Owners.

The extent and type of involvement from these regional organisations depends upon the needs and wishes of the Traditional Owners. The purpose of these organisations is to provide strength and efficiencies through shared administration, governance and some operations, particularly in support of remote Indigenous people navigating relationships with mainstream Australia. It is important to note, however, that democratically-elected or shared governance structures cannot replace traditional rights and responsibilities to culture and country. In any relationship between Traditional Owners and a larger Traditional Owner representative group, those involved are careful to ensure that Traditional Owner rights are not overtaken, and therefore, rights and responsibilities to manage specific land, sea and culture remains with the Traditional Owners.

Examples of this type of representative organisation include Land Councils such as Northern Land Council in the Northern Territory or Cape York Land Council in Queensland and Native Title Representative Bodies such as Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation in Western Australia or First Nations Legal and Research Services in Victoria.

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) is a different type of regional organisation. NAILSMA works throughout northern Australia including in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland across the regions of several Land Councils.

NAILSMA is an umbrella land and sea management specialist organisation which supports large-scale and complex projects that combine science and research, Indigenous knowledge and practical delivery for cultural, environmental and economic benefit. NAILSMA undertakes projects where multiple or many Indigenous ranger groups may be involved for the on-ground delivery aspect of the project.

Other alliances or networks between Indigenous land and sea management groups also occur throughout Australia where groups support each other through knowledge, skills and resource sharing and support. These may focus around an environmental or cultural issue that the groups have in common or be a way for neighbouring groups to connect across Land Council or other boundaries.

They may be informal or have specific funding or organisations created for their purpose.

“Ranger Exchanges”, where one ranger group spends time working and sharing experiences with another ranger group, may be facilitated through these networks, as are ranger conferences. Examples of these kinds of alliances include:

  • The Indigenous Desert Alliance, an alliance of 25 ranger groups across Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory supporting member groups to build relationships, share information, enhance skills, undertake formal training and develop regional projects on common issues.
  • The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project, a carbon abatement collaboration between Indigenous land and sea management groups in West Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
  • Ghost Nets Australia, a collaboration between Indigenous land and sea management groups and others to address the issue of “ghost nets”, fishing nets discarded in the ocean. It includes seven Indigenous land and sea management ranger groups across Arnhem Land, the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York in the Northern Territory and Queensland.
Fire management planning is undertaken by Mimal Land Management prior to undertaking carbon sequestration and environmental protection burns, Arnhem Land, NT. Photo: Mimal Land Management Ltd.

Government departments and agencies

Government departments and agencies at all levels support Indigenous land and sea management groups. Government support can be as funding, or through providing expertise.

The Australian Government

The Australian Government is the key source of funding to Indigenous land and sea management groups, both in terms of the amount of overall funding provided and the number of groups funded. Most funding is distributed directly, primarily through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and to a lesser extent the Department of the Environment and
Energy. In some states or regions additional funding may be available channelled through state and local agencies such as Natural Resource Management Boards. The Australian Government directly runs two key programs for the funding of Indigenous land and sea management activities: The Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous Rangers programs. These two funding programs provide basic support for Traditional Owners to form ranger groups to work on their land and sea.

While details of funding agreements vary, these programs generally provide for a salary to plan for and coordinate a team of rangers, casual or permanent wages for rangers, vehicle lease, fuel and maintenance and basic tools. The programs allow for Traditional Owners to set the priorities for works to be undertaken as part of the contract and, once agreed, progress is reported six-monthly.

These programs are managed on one-to-three-year contracts, and the security of the funding beyond the current contract is often not confirmed until close to, or after its end, which can make forward planning for groups difficult.

For most Indigenous land and sea management groups, funding from one or both programs is the only income they receive.

All Indigenous land and sea management projects funded by the Australian Government under these two programs can be explored on an interactive map.

Indigenous Protected Areas program

Indigenous Protected Areas are one of four protected area types within Australia’s National Reserve System, along with National Parks, Private Protected Areas and Co-Managed Protected Areas.

All areas protected as part of the National Reserve System are managed to the standards of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Protected Area Management Categories.

Through the Indigenous Protected Areas program Traditional Owners voluntarily dedicate their land and sea to the National Reserve System and in return the Australian Government provides funding to Traditional Owners to establish and manage their land and sea as a protected area.

There are currently 75 established Indigenous Protected Areas across Australia, which cover over 67 million hectares of land and sea. This makes up 44 per cent of Australia’s National Reserve System by area.

Indigenous Rangers program

This program provides funding to Indigenous land and sea management groups, primarily to support Indigenous employment in land and sea management work.

Its focus is to provide permanent employment to Indigenous Australians in land and sea management and, through training and development, increase participation in a broad range of employment and economic opportunities.

The Indigenous Rangers program currently funds 123 ranger groups which collectively employ 839 full time equivalent Indigenous ranger positions.

123 ranger groups and 839 ranger positions.

The Indigenous Land and Sea Management Corporation

The Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation is an Australian Government statutory authority with the purpose of supporting Traditional Owners to regain their land in areas where their rights through Native Title have been extinguished.

For Traditional Owners with ownership over or access to their country, it also provides support and funding for an array of land-based activities. Funding for on-ground activities from the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation is generally focussed on building on-country enterprises, such as pastoral businesses.

State governments

State governments often run their own programs which can support Indigenous land and sea management activities. These programs vary between states and also vary over time within each state. State governments also generally have a program for inviting Traditional Owner involvement on State-managed land and Indigenous land and sea management groups, where they exist, are often a core part of these programs. In Victoria, for example, the State Government is in the process of systematically forming Land Use Activity Agreements with Traditional Owners across Victoria as a means of reparation for historic dispossession.

These agreements include where there are opportunities for Traditional Owners to undertake Indigenous land and sea management with the benefits to Traditional Owners including, gaining access to additional areas of their country, employment and training and contracts to undertake management works.

Local agencies

Local agencies such as Natural Resource Management Boards and Catchment Management Authorities provide a range of smaller-scale grants and access to expertise in ecology, natural resource management and planning. These services are not consistent across, or even within, states. The best examples provide valuable additional resourcing to Indigenous land and sea management groups and can form long-term partnerships.

Photo: Mimal Land Management Rangers undertake fire management activities in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Copyright: Mimal Land Management Ltd.

Non-government organisations

Indigenous land and sea management groups are often also supported by non-government organisations and individuals. Partnerships with non-government organisations include neighbouring landholders, local industries, corporate organisations, not-for-profits and research institutions. These organisations may become involved at the request of Traditional Owners, who seek the financial support or expertise of the organisation. Otherwise an organisation seeing mutual benefits in working with Indigenous land and sea management groups may approach the group with a proposal to work together.

Not-for-profit organisations

Not-for-profit organisations, particularly environmental organisations, are increasingly working in partnership with Traditional Owners. Although these may include funding arrangements, they are more likely to be partnerships where both parties provide valuable resources, expertise or outcomes to the other for mutual benefit. Where the not-for-profit organisation is also a land-owning organisation, they usually also gain the benefit of Traditional Owner expertise on the properties which they manage, and the Traditional Owners gain access to more of their traditional country.

These relationships are generally long-term and have added strength and depth to the environment sector. Examples of not-for-profit organisations undertaking this work include Bush Heritage Australia, a large private land conservation organisation. Bush Heritage seeks to engage the Traditional Owners of each of the properties it owns across Australia in land and sea management work and has a program supporting Indigenous land and sea management groups on properties they own and manage. For example, Bush Heritage and Wunambal Gaambera, a ranger group in the Kimberley, have been in partnership for over a decade. Their collaboration has included Bush Heritage providing planning, ecological and mapping expertise, support and funding.

Corporate

Partnerships between Indigenous land and sea managers and corporate organisations are becoming increasingly frequent, occurring where the corporation is compelled to fund projects as part of environmental or cultural offset arrangements, or where the corporation voluntarily chooses engagement to raise their corporate social responsibility measures. These are generally with organisations such as mining companies, who have interests in a geographic region. Organisations in these relationships tend to primarily provide funding, though provision of expertise or other resources also occurs.

Indigenous land and sea managers benefit greatly through increased financial investment and through support and expectations for increased governance and management structures. One example of this kind of relationship is between Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa and BHP who have had a long-term partnership which has greatly supported the growth of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa’s work.

Research organisations

Universities have long studied Indigenous Ecological Knowledge practises. Today, these studies tend to involve working collaboratively to develop research proposals which Traditional Owners identify as important. Universities and other research institutions can provide scientific evidence for the need and effectiveness of Indigenous land and sea management practices which is integral to the renewal of funding arrangements. They also provide an avenue for traditional knowledge to be valued alongside western knowledge and for Traditional Owners to access western knowledge systems. These relationships are often long-term.

Learn more about Indigenous land and sea management