Senate debates

Tuesday, 24 November 2015


Indigenous Affairs

7:49 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with great pleasure that I rise tonight to speak on incredibly important and successful programs, and those are the working-on-country Indigenous ranger programs. These programs offer unique benefits to individuals, communities and our rich natural heritage. They enable processes in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' traditional management skills, knowledge, cultural practices, science and environmentalism complement and work with each other. Under the Indigenous Ranger programs rangers work on the land and at sea doing things like managing cultural sites, fire control, data collection and controlling feral animals and weeds.

An important part of this program is its intimate connection with the Indigenous Protected Areas program, where rangers often work in Indigenous protected areas with traditional owners of the particular area and have responsibility for managing natural resources. The Indigenous Protected Areas program is a significant success along with the success of the Indigenous ranger programs. The Indigenous Protected Areas program contributes to conservation of our important natural areas but, very particularly, important cultural areas and has enabled the protection of significant areas of the country.

At the end of last year there were 70 declared Indigenous protected areas. I have been to the launch of many of those. They total about 63 million hectares, with more being planned. The Indigenous ranger programs have economic, employment, cultural, social, and health and wellbeing outcomes. I will come back to some of those outcomes shortly. I would first like to outline just a few of the programs that are currently running and the successes.

The Martu rangers in my home state of Western Australia have been undertaking incredibly valuable work to conserve the threatened black-flanked rock-wallaby. Their traditional tracking skills have been crucial in protecting this endangered species from invasive species. Now their work is showing promising results as the population starts to increase after three years of hard work.

The Anangu rangers have been working promoting biodiversity through traditional fire management practices. Their work helps protect important habitats, particularly for vulnerable species. The Yirralka rangers monitor a rich and biodiverse coastal area, including controlling feral species like buffalo and pigs through aerial and ground culling. The Nimbin Rocks Aboriginal Rangers women's team in New South Wales collects, stores and spreads seeds from the local region and hosts school and community days. This helps protect a significant community cultural site. These are but a few of the examples across Australia. They show the breadth and depth of the work that is happening across land and sea habitats. I have had the pleasure of meeting some of the sea rangers who are working not only on marine biodiversity issues but also are helping with marine surveillance.

The Indigenous ranger programs provide significant benefits to the communities in which they operate. Two weeks ago, a number of Indigenous rangers came to Canberra where the Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a breakfast where we met with the rangers. It was an absolute pleasure to participate. We learnt firsthand of the values of the program and the work the rangers do. You could tell by the way people spoke about the work they do how much benefit the programs have been at a personal level in terms of people's connection to culture and the protection of cultural values, of handing on cultural knowledge and management practices and managing the environment. One of the reasons they came to Canberra was to release Working for our country: A review of the economic and social benefits of Indigenous land and sea management. That report highlights the significant benefits of the programs. It pulls together a number of evaluations which have been undertaken and provides an overview of the values.

There are the equivalent of almost 800 full-time positions under the Indigenous ranger programs, and in fact a larger number of people are employed because many people work part time. This flexibility has been one of the features that have made the programs such a success. In many communities, there are more applicants than jobs. The programs are so popular that they cannot keep up with the demand of people wanting to work as rangers. While they retain a lot of the rangers and have an 80 to 85 per cent retention rate, people move on very often to the mining industry. So people are taking those skills to the mining industry and to other industries where they are very popular. When the rangers were in Canberra, a call was being made to provide more funding.

The programs can improve people's self-confidence and equip them with valuable skills they can apply in other roles. Some ranger groups regularly visit schools and can provide great role models. As the PEW report highlights:

A key feature of Working on Country and the IPA programs is the engagement these programs foster between community elders and younger generations and the capacity to pass on traditional ecological knowledge. This serves to enhance connection to country and family obligation.

Another important benefit of the Indigenous ranger programs is the health benefits they provide for participants. Active, out-door work and other factors such as improved diets and in some cases better access to medical services through the programs can help to and have improved rangers' health. It is also important when we know from the Closing the Gap report that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health outcomes lag behind in all indicators. So this plays such an important part in improving people's health.

I have visited many ranger programs. I would particularly like to mention the work being done in my own state of Western Australia and the ranger groups hosted by the Kimberley Land Council network. I cannot speak highly enough of the fantastic work they have been doing. Their funding goes through to 2018. Funding to date has been about 2.8 per cent of the overall funding contributed to Aboriginal programs across government. My strong argument and the argument that comes through this report is that these programs are one hell of a value for money considering the multiple benefits, not only the management of country but the jobs that are generated by the spin-off effects—health and wellbeing, social outcomes and land management outcomes.

The argument here in order to continue this program further, to continue to provide job opportunities so that we are meeting people's needs, is that this ticks the boxes in terms of real jobs. Unfortunate in the past there has tended to be the approach that these are pretend jobs. These are real jobs with real outcomes on the ground, jobs that manage areas of Australia that need to be managed in a culturally sensitive and ecologically sensible manner. It also provides an opportunity for elders to mentor young people and to provide a forum to pass on the cultural knowledge which science is clearly demonstrating is really important for land management.

The call is for government to look at and to provide certainty for this program beyond the funding cycle, to develop a 10-year strategy to ensure there is ongoing security for Indigenous rangers because they have played such a vital role.