Indigenous groups rally for certainty for one of the ‘things that work’

By Stephen Easton

Monday April 3, 2017

Yet another report has come out praising the success of the federally funded Working on Country program in turning around environmental damage in Indigenous Protected Areas, most of which is caused by introduced animals and plants.

The Country Needs People campaign, a rallying point for about 30 organisations that support Indigenous rangers and IPAs, made its latest stand for a larger and more stable funding stream at Parliament House on Thursday.

The document they launched provides an update on the environmental value of IPAs and the role played by Indigenous rangers through 14 case studies. It’s just the latest in a line of reports suggesting the twin initiatives provide consistently positive social, economic and environmental benefits.

Last year, the Productivity Commission — in a report that lamented “a lack of rigorously evaluated programs in the Indigenous policy area” — listed them among just 34 programs it could identify as “things that work” in the portfolio.

A report the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet commissioned from Social Ventures Australia found a very strong “social return” on the investment in five IPAs.

Another report that PM&C published in 2015 spruiked the economic and employment benefits, alongside the environmental pluses, as did an earlier report commissioned by the CNP campaign in 2015.

The new publication’s purpose is to keep up the gentle pressure because, despite the policy’s strong support and evidence of its effectiveness, supporters still worry that its funding might dry up. It argues both programs “require expansion and long term [funding] security to fully address the scale of Australia’s environmental needs and maintain the environmental gains that have been made so far”.

Combined, the latest five years worth of federal funding was $425 million, according to Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion. Most of that — $352m, starting in 2013 — went to the Working on Country (rangers) program and runs to June next year.

The government has also committed to extend the rangers budget to 2020 but that money is still to be formalised, some of the campaigners were quick to point out.

“People are definitely waiting on those contracts to hit their desks, but that’s been understood and it’s a fantastic commitment,” said Patrick O’Leary from Pew Charitable Trusts, which runs the campaign, at the launch.

“With Indigenous Protected Areas, we still need to have an extension beyond June next year for our existing programs.”

O’Leary also thanked the government for “working across the chamber” with the Greens on a $100m Landcare deal that secured a further $15m for rangers.

There are also contributions from state and territory governments and, more recently, $600,000 out of Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper funds went to a wild dog eradication trial in Western Australia that will draw on the expertise of Indigenous rangers — but won’t fund any new areas or ranger jobs.

Ministerial… support?

Scullion only just managed to get out of the Senate on Thursday to accept the report in person and make a quick speech, before rushing back for another division. Like everyone else, he has a lot of praise for the programs.

“This is a program that will go on forever; it’s a program that everyone should support,” he told the gathering.

The minister thanked Rebekha Sharkie from the Nick Xenophon Team for sponsoring the catered event, and noted the strong cross-party support for IPAs and Indigenous rangers, as did O’Leary. The Mandarin counted eight federal parliamentarians — two from each major party, one from the Greens and three cross-benchers — including the host and the minister.

Scullion said it made him “very pleased” to know his party established the program and that it was “still going strong” 10 years later.

“I’m delighted now to have been the minister who continues that program,” he added. “This is a program that delivers so much.”

The minister noted that while the environment and Indigenous affairs are separated in government, Aboriginal Australians traditionally “see people and country as one” and that the threats to both were introduced by the settlers and their descendants, who lacked the “pure understanding” of how to live in harmony with the Australian bush.

“And it is just so important that the work of the rangers protects and ameliorates so much of that damage,” he added.

In fact, Scullion was so effusive in his support that a casual observer wandering into the House of Reps courtyard might have wondered why anyone sees a need to continuously lobby on the program’s behalf. The many positive stories showcasing the benefits of the program on government websites like would indicate that within the Indigenous affairs bureaucracy, it is considered one of the best success stories around.

Living and working on the land

In full-time equivalent terms, there are currently 783 Indigenous rangers in 110 teams looking after 75 IPAs that cover vast swathes of generally remote country. The new report says they cover “more than 67 million hectares, or an area 10 times the size of Tasmania” which makes up almost half of the entire national reserve system.

And, even if most are part-time or casual, the ranger funding creates meaningful jobs — an extremely rare and valuable commodity in remote Indigenous communities — for over 2600 people.

“The rangers program builds on the strengths of Aboriginal people through their knowledge of, and connection to country,” said Sharkie, who wants IPAs declared over places like Kangaroo Island in her South Australian electorate.

“And these are real jobs with a real, practical purpose, and they provide a benefit to all Australians through the protection of the environment.”

In his speech, the Minister said each group had its own ideas about how to protect its own country. “I listen very carefully,” he continued. “I’m very much led by the ranger groups about how they want to participate; what their priorities are on their country.”

Olkola Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Debbie Symonds then explained some of the challenges of running a group of four rangers looking after 860,000 hectares in Cape York with funding that is both meagre and uncertain. At the end of this financial year, she said, she will have to answer a familiar question once again:

“What do we need to do and how much time do we need to invest and put into making sure that these guys have jobs and that they’re doing the valuable work that’s required on country?”

It’s a struggle to keep new rangers coming through training programs, and often the money is supplemented by a “carbon farming” business with a rather variable income stream.

“So we have four rangers that have worked four years, and we have a pool of casual rangers that we try to train out of money that we get from carbon, and then when you have a bad year in carbon, you have to stop that training,” Symonds explained. “And last year was a bad year for us in carbon.”

“And so now we’re sitting there thinking, well, we’ve stopped our fencing program, we’ve stopped our junior rangers program, we’ve stopped hiring any casual rangers. We have enough funding to maybe get our four rangers through to the end of the year.”

Given the massive amount of land reserved as IPAs, Sharkie agrees with the campaigners that the number of rangers could easily be doubled. Even so, she said it would still only be “scratching the surface of what could be done” to fix the damage wrought by introduced species.

She also thinks the social benefits detailed in one of the PM&C reports show the government gets “a very handsome return” from the funding, although the minister has previously distanced himself from that piece of work.

The SVA report was not released publicly until senators forced it out last year, and Scullion later stated it was commissioned by the department without his “agreement or awareness” and not by the government.

Through maintaining clean waterways, regenerating natural vegetation and supporting endangered species, the program gives Indigenous rangers a powerful way to maintain their endangered cultures while performing a valuable role in modern Australia. Chris Sarra, one of the new members of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, comments in an introduction to the report:

“Up until recently, we have been led to believe that culture and connection to country is part of ‘the problem’ to be solved in Indigenous policy. In fact the truth is that culture and connection to country is an integral part of the solution, not only for Indigenous Australians, but for every Australian.”

Top image: Djelk Indigenous Rangers, first published by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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