18th Biennial Conference Alice Springs Fred Chaney address

Thank you for the invitation to address the conference. Thank you for the welcome to country, a relatively recent innovation marking changes of enormous significance to the rangelands. I’ll return to its significance to the matters addressed in this conference a little later.

This conference has all the ingredients to live up to its ambitions as expressed in the conference brochure ”…you will engage with the question of how to live sustainably in the Rangelands”.  Delegates will share their ideas and experience of how to nurture, then develop and share, innovative solutions to the challenges of living successfully in our rangelands environments, where climate extremes, remote urban decision making and small, isolated communities are common. What advances can we build on to ensure the social, cultural, economic and environmental wellbeing of people, businesses and communities who depend on our natural landscapes?

Both the nature of the land and the people who live here have generated many imaginative and practical solutions to living in the rangelands. This is the opportunity to hear about these solutions and consider what else needs to be done.”

The rangelands are out of mind for most people.  Australians hug the coast. 85% of us live within 50 km of the coastline including I suspect many of those here today. This conference brings together people with a working interest in the rangelands, the Outback, Desert Australia, Remote Australia call it what you will. Everyone participating has an interest in the 70% of the Australian continent where less than 5% of Australians live.

My hope is that the conference will energise everyone by demonstrating that good things are happening across the rangelands. New ways to work are being found in pastoralism, environmental management, indigenous communities and mining.  These point the way to better social, economic, cultural, and environmental outcomes. This conference wants the nation to be aware that the rangelands are important economically, environmentally, and culturally and that there is good stuff out there which is, or should be, of national interest.

We should celebrate every success because by demonstrating that success is possible it  encourages us to add to those successes.  Success is empowering.

 Links to recognition, caring for country

As understanding of the Indigenous estate has grown Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and caring for country programs have been established.

Aboriginal ranger groups, working in Indigenous Protected Areas and parks on aboriginal-owned lands, manage than 50 million hectares of the outback– an area more than twice the size of the state of Victoria –using a combination of modern and traditional methods. The growth of IPAs over the past 10 years, and the beneficial impact on the environment and local communities, has been one of the success stories in the development of remote Australia, particularly for Aboriginal communities.  (The Modern Outback, brief form p27 Pew Charitable trusts)

I am familiar with several examples of this work in the Central Desert and East Pilbara. As a director of Central Desert Native Title Services I am proud of the work we do with native title holders to ensure that there are social economic environmental and cultural benefits flowing from native title.   Our near neighbor operating with the Martu native title holders in the east Pilbara, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa more commonly known as known as KJ does this on a larger scale.

KJ’s activities with Martu are built on the Commonwealth Ranger program, under which it employs 35 permanent staff and another 200 casually each year. This engages communities in activities that deliver environmental value while allowing people to fulfil cultural obligations and teach their young about their country.

While commonwealth funded ranger teams provided a foundation for KJ’s initial growth, KJ’s continued development and future sustainability will be reliant on diversified income streams that are not limited to government programs and initiatives.

KJ’s income is now approximately 50% from non-government sources thanks in large part to strategic relationships with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and BHP Billiton.  Those two organisations – one, the largest conservation NGO in the world and the other, a leading global resources company - provide a range of capacity building, program, financial and in-kind support to KJ.

TNC and BHP Billiton partner with KJ on the Martu Living Deserts Project.

This is an innovative corporate partnership for Indigenous land management in Australia, which contributes to significant conservation, social, cultural and economic benefits. The project helps enable the Martu traditional owners to manage their country, which is one of the world’s largest, most ecologically and culturally significant arid landscapes, by integrating their deep traditional knowledge of country with contemporary natural resource management practices.

Key to this is supporting Martu aspirations which include balancing looking after country for its natural and cultural values, and harnessing economic opportunities.

We will hear in more detail about that project in the Martu Living Deserts Project presentation on Thursday

Despite the time that has passed since Mabo and the establishment of a native title framework, some scientists and governments still seem to struggle with the concept that Indigenous Australia need to be on board with proposals and projects. They also seem to miss the point that cultural values are one of the key motivators for traditional owners.

It is not simply a matter of ticking the box on an application form but genuine partnerships that enable and build capacity for Indigenous groups to manage their own country.

On a practical level, there is an ever decreasing amount of government funds available for projects and while government agencies may have legislative responsibilities for threatened species, fire and weeds etc., without financial resources they are severely limited in what they can do. Partnering with traditional owners not only increases the potential to access other funds (e.g. private partners) but leverages their commitment, skills and knowledge to manage country in the long term.

Building capacity, guiding and supporting traditional practices with contemporary NRM is a smarter way to go.  The work that KJ and Central Desert Native Title services do are good examples of this.  Historically there was very little contemporary NRM done on-country before their land management programs commenced.

Social Ventures Australia completed an independent assessment of these programs and measured the social return on investment. I don’t wish to trespass on the Thursday presentation by KJ and TNC but the saved years of incarceration, reduced cost of alcohol related crime and improved school attendance are part of the measured $55m of social benefits from $18m of Commonwealth, corporate and philanthropic funding over 5 years, exclusive of environmental benefits.  It is an impressive story.

No one will claim that these indigenous driven activities are a complete answer to environmental issues on the rangelands. But they are a significant contribution which can be grown. There will be opportunities for discussion about this later in the agenda of the conference. My purpose now is to remind  participants of some of the factors which made these innovations possible in Australia as a guide to future action.

The factors are many and include:

  • The new intellectual framework for action resulting from many influences including the Civil Rights movement and decolonization affecting both elite and public opinion.
  • The assertiveness of the native peoples themselves, their willingness to fight very publicly for recognition of their rights.
  • New understandings of our history the importance of which is illustrated by the counter attack of those opposing a “black armband” view of our history.
  • The role of champions Indigenous and non Indigenous, many of them unpaid, in dealing with the community, the courts, the governments and parliaments.
  • The partnerships between academics lawyers and civil society agencies, including importantly churches as well as the native peoples themselves.
  • The use of the media, civil society, the political system, and the legal system as seems advantageous at any time.

Another lesson is not to expect perfection of the solutions devised and implemented. The imperfections of Land Rights and native title are often discussed and exposed. Every solution will be imperfect and has to be a learning experience, every program needs to be part of a learning system.

Achieving Land Rights since 1976 and native title more recently has not been as successful as supporters would have wished at achieving social economic and cultural gains.  But caring for country is an area of progress and hope, restoring people as well as the environment.


To download the full address click here