A Proving Ground for Proud Carers of Country
A quiet evolution has been occurring in remote Aboriginal communities over the last decade, with ranger programs enabling people to earn a decent income, support their families and experience the pride that comes with that.
Marcia Langton is right – some Aboriginal people in north Australia are breaking into the middle class and mining companies have been forced, kicking and screaming, to contribute to this. My own family has benefited from the Century Mine near my homelands in the lower Gulf of Carpentaria.
I hope mining and other economic development will continue to provide opportunities for Aboriginal people, but a quiet evolution has been occurring in remote Aboriginal communities over the last decade that isn’t well understood.
Up to now, indigenous-ranger programs have had bipartisan support, starting under the former Howard government and greatly strengthened by Labor. It’s an evolution because ranger programs are increasing the capacity of our mob and bringing them out of poverty, while also contributing to the evolution of attitudes in remote regions and healing the land.
We live in a relatively pristine natural environment in the Lower Gulf of Carpentaria, with only minor development pressures on the landscape so far. But threats degrade this landscape gradually. It is death by a thousand cuts: damaging uncontrolled wildfires, eroded rivers and wetlands, weeds taking over and choking out the local plants. The landscape is changing from what we knew as kids, and feral animals damage our sacred places, predating on traditional foods and bringing disease.
Indigenous ranger groups have been going for decades in some remote communities but it wasn’t until the Howard government brought in what is now the Working on Country and Indigenous Protected Areas programs, and also when the Beattie government established the Wild River legislation that a reliable source of funds was available for local rangers.
In the past five years, Carpentaria Land Council rangers have lit hundreds of thousands of hectares to protect country from late season wildfires, shot over 40,000 feral pigs in sensitive habitat and prevented the spread of serious weeds into the Northern Territory. Most important of all, we have 20 rangers that are now professional land and sea managers.
Contracting indigenous people by government to manage country in remote Australia is just common sense. We have a cultural obligation to look after country. In the Gulf we rejected the early half-arsed CDEP ranger programs where people were given uniforms and then asked to paint rocks white (”green welfare”).
We wanted real ranger jobs for our people. We wanted to provide a meaningful service. Our rangers are taught by the best whitefella scientists, and mentored by the best characters we can muster. Now, we have some of the best-performing rangers in the country using both traditional knowledge and science.
Working in the Gulf means getting along with our pastoral neighbours. I have not exactly been a great fan of the pastoral industry over the years because of the racist way they have treated us. But I realise a lot of pastoralists are willing to work towards a common goal. Through years of hard work on the ground, we now have a solid relationship with many local pastoralists. It’s ”practical reconciliation” Gulf-style.
Working hard and earning a decent income enables people to support their family and experience the pride that comes with that. Our rangers know they are as good (if not better) than whitefellas at their work, and that makes a big difference to self-confidence.
In the 2012-13 series of Boyer lectures, Marcia Langton says that Aboriginal opportunity is ”constrained by limited human capital”. Our rangers are building that capital, and will be able to work in other land-based industries like mining, tourism or agriculture if they choose. We are building professionals that will be employable in their chosen field, and human capital that will provide for a future economy: one that will be carbon-constrained and changed by climate.
Building a work ethic through rewarding employment gets results, having a job is a much better way to deal with alcohol problems than the paternalism of the NT intervention.
Mining is here to stay in northern Australia, but it’s no silver bullet. Mining jobs are limited and all booms eventually bust. Building an economy in remote regions of Australia requires longer-term vision.
There is a lot of unmanaged country out here. Our people want to get to work managing it. Indigenous rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas are a great success story providing real jobs and good management for our country.
In a federal election year I am calling on all leaders of state and federal political parties to support increased funding for these programs over the next decade. That’s a vision we can all support.
- Murrandoo Yanner is chairman of the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation. He is a Gangalidda man of the Gunamulla clan.