Indigenous land and sea management

A new briefing note is in progress.


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.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have actively managed their lands and waters for tens of thousands of years to protect the environmental and cultural significance of their Country.  

Today, Indigenous titled lands cover over half of Australia’s land mass spanning a rich diversity of ecosystems. The environmental significance of these lands is likely to increase, as Australia faces ongoing development and environmental pressures.  

Caring for Country

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their land and their resource management activities play a crucial role in addressing many of the issues facing Australia’s environment, from arresting biodiversity decline to mitigating climate change impacts. Traditional Owners have unique knowledge of their Country which, when combined with western science, makes for a powerful force in managing the environmental health of land and sea.  

A strong correlation exists between land that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people own and manage and places with high biodiversity and ecological intactness. This ecological richness depends on the local knowledge, practices and cultural connections of First Nations peoples, so it is in the national interest to support Traditional Owners and Indigenous Rangers to protect and manage native flora and fauna, sequester carbon through fire management, and protect waterways and the marine environment.   

While Indigenous land and sea management groups receive funding from a range of sources, including significant Commonwealth and State Government programs, this does not currently  meet demand and is insufficient to maintain the environmental health of the vast Australian continent.    

It is essential that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are supported to continue caring for their Country so that Australia’s significant cultural and biological diversity can be adequately managed and protected.   

For environmental funders, the case to support Indigenous land and sea management is compelling, with evidence of benefits to biodiversity, climate change mitigation, improved economic, social and cultural circumstances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and strengthened Indigenous knowledge systems.  

2021 State of the Environment report

Every five years, leading scientists collaborate to deliver a comprehensive assessment of the state of Australia’s natural environment — the State of the Environment (SOE) report. The 2021 SOE report includes an Indigenous chapter and Indigenous co-authors for nearly all chapters. In developing the report, various Indigenous communities and leaders across the country provided input and expertise.

To summarise the report’s key findings:

  • the health of Country and people are deeply interconnected;
  • Indigenous people care for country as kin, and their knowledge and sustainable cultural practice are key to environmental management;
  • Indigenous voices must be heard; and
  • self-determination is key — Indigenous-led and governed caring for Country, undertaken via holistic and long-term programs, is critical to future success.

Read the report’s Indigenous chapter and watch the chapter briefing for more information.

What philanthropy can do

For environmental funders, the case to support Indigenous land and sea management is compelling, with evidence of benefits to biodiversity, climate change mitigation, improved economic, social and cultural circumstances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and strengthened Indigenous knowledge systems.  

While government has made a significant contribution to funding Indigenous land and sea management programs, there is an important role for philanthropy to play. Public funding is not necessarily given on an environmental-needs basis and there is an urgent need for additional resourcing.  

When seeking to support this work, funders should consider whether the project or program:  

  • is conceived, driven and delivered by the Traditional Owners of the Country, meeting the needs of their Country and the economic and cultural prerequisites of their people
  • has limited access to other sources of funding. For example, most public funding does not extend to cultural mapping, gatherings to connect, share and collaborate between ranger groups and communities, testing new approaches and technologies, and certain types of critical infrastructure like vehicles and ranger bases.
  • aims to achieve greater impact beyond the project by creating a new or approach model, providing seed funding to establish new groups or programs, telling a powerful story or building capacity  
  • supports advocacy to both grow and embed the long-term future of government funding of Indigenous land and sea management programs  
  • demonstrates the viability of expanding the Indigenous land and sea management programs to new areas, for example urban and regional, and on different forms of land tenure 
  • helps groups to explore and develop opportunities in natural resource markets and services like carbon abatement, carbon sequestration, biodiversity and fresh water  
  • will achieve important environmental outcomes
  • is undertaken by First Nations organisations with good governance practices and the capacity to deliver the work 

Respectful engagement with First Nations organisations and principles to consider   

Philanthropy continues to learn and evolve how best to engage with and fund Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander  organisations and communities.  While much good work has been done, it is fair to say that this is a developing area and there is further progress to be made.   

The following are guiding principles for undertaking respectful First Nations funding:  

  • Listen and be guided by the leaders, organisations and communities that you are funding — ensure that you are supporting projects that are conceived, led and/or controlled by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that they affect.   
  • Take the time to build strong relationships with your grantees and their communities that are based on trust and reciprocity.   
  • Be willing to take a journey of learning and be aware that you do not hold all the answers.   
  • Take responsibility for building your own cultural awareness.   
  • Listen carefully and deeply to what you are told.  
  • Consider the ways that you can become more culturally supportive in your every-day activities.   
  • Don’t expect a quick fix — give projects and programs time to develop and work towards meaningful and long-term change.   
  • Be mindful that the amount you are giving is commensurate with your communications and reporting expectations.  
  • Consider geographic equity  —  many funders are based on the south east coast of Australia but there are over 200 Indigenous groups and nations across Australia.   

If you would like more information about funding Indigenous land and sea management contact Ione McLean: (03) 9663 7844 or  

Past events

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.