Indigenous land and sea management

A new briefing note is in progress.

Overview of Indigenous land and sea management

Indigenous-titled lands cover about four million square kilometres of land and sea Country – over half of Australia’s land mass. These areas represent a rich diversity of ecosystems — in some cases, ecosystem types and species found nowhere else on earth.

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 Aboriginal knowledge

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 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.

Aboriginal 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 Indigenous land and sea management 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 Aboriginal people to be involved in similar work.

Some Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal customary marine tenure and aspirations to manage sea country.
    Appreciate that Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal land owners need help to look after their lands.
  • Acknowledge and respect the substantial contribution that Aboriginal knowledge is making in tackling Australia’s environmental problems.
  • Make sure funding for work on Indigenous lands is fair.
  • Support Aboriginal aspirations to live on country as an effective way of looking after the environment.
  • Fund further research on Aboriginal environmental care from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives.

What philanthropy can do

At the AEGN conference in March 2021, Melbourne members were treated to a wonderful conversation between Bruce Pascoe and his son Jack and moderated by Karrina Nolan from Original Power.

Members were asked to put their thoughts on large coloured dots and the following is a summary of their ideas and key take-aways from this conversation.

10 ideas from members on funding Indigenous agriculture

So, what could the role for philanthropy be when it comes to Indigenous agriculture? Here are just 10 ideas that AEGN members came up with while listening to Bruce and Jack speak:

  1. Help Black Duck Foods and help to scale to other organisations and regions.
  2. Find new cooperative forms of property and land ownership so land can be actively managed by Indigenous people.
  3. Fund projects that bring Indigenous people back to their land.
  4. Set up a fund to purchase, lease and access land. We could collaborate to buy land to put in the hands of  Indigenous people to care for.
  5. Invest in First Nations businesses.
  6. Fund programs to change the primary and secondary school curriculum.
  7. Field trip to Indigenous food sites such as Black Duck Foods.
  8. Ask, listen, be patient.
  9. Leave less funds to our children and give now.
  10. Fund core capacity building and support for Indigenous people.

Key take-aways

Members shared their reflections and the key messages they took from the conversations between Bruce, Jack and Karrina. An overarching theme was that we need to shift the way we view land ownership and management if we are to restore nature, sequester carbon and sustain ourselves and the world around us:

  • It is essential that we employ the wisdom of our First Nations people and recognise that “Mother” must come first and our relationship with the land must come from a kinship not ownership perspective.
  • We need a new version of the triple bottom line approach where sustainable food production, carbon sequestration and culturally respectful land management leads. Mother first!
  • To care for our country we need the right relationship – “Mother comes first”, right people and knowledge to manage the land and the right plants for agriculture; Indigenous agriculture is inherently regenerative – no tilling or toxins required.
  • “There are wonderful benefits from employing Indigenous techniques across country,” said Jack Pascoe
  • Many native plants are perennials such as kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) and are drought proof, sequester carbon through their huge root structure and don’t need fertilisers or ploughing.
  • The native white orchid was once one of the most common plants in Melbourne.
  • Kangaroo grass produces a dark grain (hence Dark Emu beer).
  • Addressing climate change mitigation requires Indigenous knowledge.
  • Fire is central to land management. We need planned burns and less destructive burns.
  • What’s next for Indigenous agriculture? Thanks to Dark Emu – consciousness has been raised but how can this be translated into action?
  • For some First Nations communities their culture has been washed away by the tide of history. We don’t want this to happen to the knowledge that is still with us, so we need to act now.
  • Partnerships between non-Aboriginal and First Nation’s people are essential.
  • We need to bring the knowledge holders back to share their wisdom on how to care for country and to improve conditions for Indigenous people and the country.
  • The engagement burden sits with knowledge holders and this engagement expectation has led to engagement fatigue and is an enormous problem.
  • Indigenous people need access to land to practice their land management techniques. How can this access to country be found? Is it government or private land or a mix of both?
  • There are some examples of great partnerships. For example, land restoration in the Otways in Victoria has used both modern and traditional methods.
  • Only one per cent of bush foods are made by Indigenous people.

Indigenous land and sea management funder group

Indigenous land and sea managers are providing significant contributions to addressing this national challenge. And yet Aboriginal people are not necessarily resourced to access and manage their lands. Discuss how we can fund this issue and more.