Map­ping and mind­ing shared lands

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Kim Mahood

Map­ping and mind­ing shared lands

They lit fires to burn out the an­i­mals for tucker mate, no other rea­son, and some­how or other the “good­ies” have ex­plained that away as car­ing for the en­vi­ron­ment in­stead of per­ma­nently al­ter­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. Peo­ple, usu­ally from the city or some ex­alted place, be­moan the state of the so called “camps,” and wring their hands but in ac­tual fact that is how these peo­ple lived as hunter gath­er­ers for they ate a sec­tion of the coun­try out, be­fouled it, and moved on to con­tinue the cy­cle for they knew no bet­ter and in fact had to do that to scratch an ex­is­tence. Give a bush abo­rig­i­nal the choice of a house or an open shed and he will pick the open shed ev­ery time.

As an open­ing quote for an es­say about Indige­nous eco­log­i­cal knowl­edge, this was too good to pass up. The lapse into bi­b­li­cal ca­dences as the writer hits his stride, the seam­less segues, the sweep­ing non sequitur about open sheds … Af­ter all the ad­vo­cacy doc­u­ments and aca­demic es­says I’ve been read­ing, to en­counter a com­ment so brac­ingly, unashamedly racist is a salu­tary reminder of the spec­trum of at­ti­tudes I’m writ­ing into. The scep­ti­cism

about Indige­nous peo­ple “car­ing for the en­vi­ron­ment” is shared by many who would not put their views so ro­bustly. The quote comes from a thread of on­line com­ments, posted in re­sponse to an ar­ti­cle in the Aus­tralian late last year, about a car­bon-credit ar­range­ment be­tween the North Kim­ber­ley Fire Abate­ment Pro­ject and Qantas. Work­ers em­ployed through the fed­eral govern­ment’s Indige­nous Rangers pro­gram carry out man­aged patch burns dur­ing the cool weather to pre-empt the fierce hot-sea­son fires that burn vast tracts of coun­try, de­stroy wildlife and habi­tat, and gen­er­ate car­bon emis­sions. The emis­sions created by the low-in­ten­sity fires are sub­tracted from the es­ti­mated emis­sions of un­con­trolled wild­fires, a base­line fig­ure es­tab­lished over sev­eral fire cy­cles where no man­aged burns have oc­curred. The dif­fer­ence con­sti­tutes the car­bon cred­its. High-emit­ting busi­nesses can vol­un­tar­ily pur­chase these cred­its to off­set against their own emis­sions. The money feeds back into the Indige­nous Rangers pro­gram that car­ries out the burn­ing.

Most of the com­ments that fol­lowed the Aus­tralian ar­ti­cle tar­geted the no­tion that cor­po­ra­tions could pur­chase cred­its that al­lowed them to con­tinue to pol­lute; sev­eral said that cli­mate change was a fur­phy so the whole thing was a waste of money; and one sug­gested that the young Indige­nous ranger fea­tured should get a real job. Oth­ers claimed that bush­fires in the hot sea­son were the norm, and that burn­ing in the cool weather was in­ter­fer­ing with na­ture:

Burn­ing in win­ter is not the same as what used to hap­pen nat­u­rally – hot large fires in sum­mer. It is ob­vi­ous why we pre­fer the man­age­able win­ter burns but that is not how na­ture used to do it. So al­ready we are “mess­ing with na­ture” so at least ad­mit it and stop fuss­ing when we re­lease CO2.

What­ever the origins and in­ten­tions of tra­di­tional burn­ing prac­tices, the ecosys­tems that early white set­tlers en­coun­tered were a re­sult of many thou­sands of years of de­lib­er­ate burn­ing. And while na­ture no doubt played its part in gen­er­at­ing fierce sum­mer bush­fires, 50 years of aerial im­agery doc­u­ment­ing fire ac­tiv­ity near the com­mu­nity of Parn­ngurr, in WA’s Western Desert re­gion, il­lus­trates the dif­fer­ence be­tween “nat­u­ral” and man-made fire. The Martu peo­ple con­tin­ued to live a tra­di­tional desert life­style un­til the 1960s, and re­turned to the desert in the early 1980s when the Land Rights movement es­tab­lished com­mu­ni­ties in their home­lands. Aerial im­agery sug­gests that the in­terim two decades, dur­ing which reg­u­lar burn­ing did not oc­cur and fires were gen­er­ated by light­ning, was a pe­riod of fierce hot-sea­son wild­fire. While this is ev­i­dence of what hap­pens when the re­gion is left to “na­ture”, it also shows that the Martu’s patch-burn­ing strat­egy was a de­lib­er­ate and ef­fec­tive way of avoid­ing such fires, and that hu­mans had prob­a­bly been in­ter­fer­ing with na­ture since they in­vented tools and lan­guage.

Grow­ing recog­ni­tion that the Aus­tralian eco­log­i­cal land­scape is a prod­uct of hu­man-gen­er­ated fire has pro­voked a shift in think­ing, ex­em­pli­fied by Gareth Catt. The fire man­age­ment of­fi­cer cur­rently work­ing with the Martu is of the opin­ion that “an ap­pro­pri­ate hu­man-driven fire regime is nat­u­ral, and a wild­fire regime should be viewed as feral”.

In late March 2012, I was based in Parn­ngurr while gath­er­ing ma­te­rial for an ex­hi­bi­tion called We Don’t Need a Map – a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Martu artists, the Mar­tu­mili Artists East Pil­bara Art Cen­tre in New­man and the Fremantle Arts Cen­tre, and bankrolled by BHP. The ob­ject of the ex­hi­bi­tion was to show the many di­men­sions of Martu cul­ture, both con­tem­po­rary and tra­di­tional. My job was to re­search the paint­ings in­cluded in the show, col­lect­ing as much in­for­ma­tion about their con­tent as pos­si­ble. Equipped with maps (the irony wasn’t lost on me), a Martu wordlist, and pho­to­graphs of the paint­ings and the artists who had painted them, I em­barked on what would be­come an eco­log­i­cal trea­sure hunt.

This was my sec­ond trip into Martu coun­try. Most of the artists in­volved with the ex­hi­bi­tion lived in the re­mote com­mu­ni­ties of Parn­ngurr, Punmu and Ku­nawar­ritji, and many of them be­longed to the gen­er­a­tion that had grown up in the desert, liv­ing a tra­di­tional way of life there un­til well into the 1960s. Their coun­try, east of the Pil­bara, over­laps the

The artists paint what they know and what they do: burn­ing coun­try, track­ing rep­tiles, gath­er­ing plant food.

Great Sandy, Lit­tle Sandy and Gib­son deserts, and oc­cu­pies a sub­stan­tial sec­tion of the zone la­belled “use­less” on a map drawn in 1926 to il­lus­trate Aus­tralia’s re­gions of hab­it­abil­ity and op­por­tu­nity.

Our trip from Parn­ngurr to Punmu, to talk to artists, had been can­celled be­cause of rain. The Parn­ngurr Indige­nous Rangers team was head­ing to the Can­ning Stock Route to do some con­trolled burn­ing, so I de­cided to ac­com­pany them some of the way, along with the Mar­tu­mili field of­fi­cer, Carly, and three Martu women. The youngest, Thelma Bidu, acted as an in­ter­preter for the two se­nior women, Kum­paya Gir­girba and Jakayu Bil­jabu, who had been adults by the time they moved from the deep desert to Ji­ga­long mis­sion in 1963. Within 20 years Kum­paya and Jakayu were back in their home coun­try. Their knowl­edge and author­ity were peer­less, and to go out on coun­try with them was the kind of serendip­i­tous chance you can’t plan for.

We con­voyed with the ranger team as far as Warn­tili, a mag­nif­i­cent red clay­pan near the Can­ning Stock Route, full of wa­ter af­ter the re­cent rains. The rangers con­tin­ued on, but the Martu ladies, Carly and I camped at Warn­tili for sev­eral days. It had been a good wet sea­son, and the coun­try was a boun­ti­ful mosaic of old and new growth. Any­where that the spinifex was ma­ture enough to burn, the old ladies set fire to it, re­veal­ing the bur­rows of par­na­jar­rpa (sand goan­nas), a food sta­ple in the tra­di­tional days and still a sig­nif­i­cant ad­di­tion to the diet. In a sin­gle af­ter­noon the three women caught and killed two dozen rep­tiles, some of which they ate the same evening. The rest they singed, evis­cer­ated and put into the car-fridge to take back for fam­ily. “On the way home we’ll show you a re­ally good hunt­ing place,” they told us. I won­dered what sort of coun­try could be bet­ter than where we were.

The re­ally good hunt­ing place, re­cently burned by the rangers, looked like the rem­nants of a scorched earth pol­icy. In­cin­er­ated wat­tles, a few dusty blood­woods throw­ing a thin shade, the red sandy soil coated with fine black ash in which the bright orange mounds of par­na­jar­rpa bur­rows stood out like sign­posts. We had barely pulled over be­fore the women were out of the ve­hi­cles and scur­ry­ing across the burned ground. Kum­paya and Jakayu, well into their 70s, were soon specks in the dis­tance. A cou­ple of hours later they were back with half a dozen rep­tiles each. They showed us how to re­move the in­testines by squeez­ing them out through the anus. Carly ac­quit­ted her­self well, but I was con­tent to be an in­ter­ested by­stander.

Sev­eral of the paint­ings I re­searched for the We Don’t Need a Map ex­hi­bi­tion re­ferred di­rectly to fire, de­pict­ing coun­try pat­terned with fire mo­saics. When I pur­sued this thread, a so­phis­ti­cated un­der­stand­ing of burn­ing prac­tices emerged. The dif­fer­ent stages of burn­ing and growth had spe­cific names: the newly burned ground so beloved of the old ladies was called nyurnma; the pe­riod when plants were fruit­ing and seed­ing was nyukura; man­guu was when spinifex was ready to burn again; and ku­narka was when the old-growth spinifex had taken over, elim­i­nat­ing diversity and set­ting up the con­di­tions for de­struc­tive bush­fires.

The Martu had worked for years with Amer­i­can an­thro­pol­o­gists Doug Bird and Rebecca Bliege Bird, who had been re­search­ing the im­pact of an­thro­pogenic burn­ing, and it was ap­par­ent that the ex­tended con­ver­sa­tion about fire had found its way into the Martu reper­toire of paint­ing coun­try. Not only did paint­ings show coun­try “cleaned” by fire, in­ter­spersed with new and es­tab­lished veg­e­ta­tion, they also showed spe­cific types of veg­e­ta­tion: solanums and aca­cias, eu­ca­lypts and gre­vil­leas, and seed-bear­ing grasses. My main in­for­mant was Nola Tay­lor, one of those in­dis­pens­able cross­cul­tural in­ter­preters who thrives on the stim­u­la­tion of work­ing with white peo­ple. Hav­ing worked closely with the Birds, Nola was used to com­mu­ni­cat­ing the finer points of burn­ing prac­tices.

This ex­pe­ri­ence of re­search­ing Martu paint­ings led me to a sim­i­lar in­ter­ro­ga­tion of Yar­rkalpa – Hunt­ing Ground, Parn­ngurr Area (2013), a paint­ing pur­chased by the Na­tional Mu­seum of Aus­tralia and ear­marked as a key work for its ex­hi­bi­tion Song­lines: Track­ing the Seven Sis­ters (15 Septem­ber – 28 Jan­uary 2018). The 5 x 3 me­tre paint­ing was the cen­tre­piece of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween eight Martu women, artist Lynette Wall­worth and singer Anohni (formerly known as Antony He­garty). Wall­worth used over­head time-lapse pho­tog­ra­phy to film the mak­ing of the paint­ing, and the im­mer­sive multi-screen re­sult shows the pain­ters ma­te­ri­al­is­ing, dis­ap­pear­ing and reap­pear­ing as they cre­ate the land­scape, dot by dot, on the can­vas.

The artists paint what they know and what they do: burn­ing coun­try, track­ing rep­tiles, gath­er­ing plant food. The Seven Sis­ters, known as Minyipuru, flit across the western side of the paint­ing, pur­sued by an an­ces­tral stalker called Yurla, in­tent on cap­tur­ing the sis­ters for sex. Their pres­ence in the paint­ing is just one strand in the fab­ric of Martu daily life. They are a sea­sonal con­stel­la­tion, their ap­pear­ance an in­di­ca­tion that the coun­try is dry and care must be taken with burn­ing. The com­mu­nity of Parn­ngurr is rep­re­sented by a tidy grid near the cen­tre of the paint­ing, with the sports oval to the north. Two rivers an­chor the com­po­si­tion and ori­en­tate the land­forms. The paint­ing is a to­po­graphic replica of the land­scape around Parn­ngurr: ranges and dunes and sand plains, creeks and rock holes and soak­wa­ters. Each artist painted a sec­tion of the can­vas from her own em­bod­ied

knowl­edge, de­scrib­ing places, mem­o­ries, an­ces­tors, seasons, re­sources, burn­ing, hunt­ing, liv­ing.

The paint­ing is an en­cy­clopae­dia of seasons, burn­ing prac­tices, re­sources and their uses. It is also a cross­cul­tural doc­u­ment in­flu­enced by many years of in­ter­ac­tion with ecol­o­gists, an­thro­pol­o­gists, ar­chae­ol­o­gists, lin­guists, land-man­age­ment ex­perts, artists, art projects, Indige­nous Rangers pro­grams and cul­tural main­te­nance projects.

Dur­ing my study of Yar­rkalpa – Hunt­ing Ground, Nola in­ter­preted for Kum­paya, who had painted strips of al­ter­nat­ing colour to in­di­cate sand dunes and swales, and the plants that grow on them. Nola, an artist her­self, spe­cialises in paint­ing fire scars, draw­ing on the satel­lite im­agery she is fa­mil­iar with through work­ing with the Amer­i­can an­thro­pol­o­gists. On Yar­rkalpa, she painted the mosaic pat­tern­ing of freshly burned coun­try, old and new growth, and the va­ri­ety of food plants that are de­pen­dent on fire. “Nyurnma,” she said, point­ing to black­ened patches of can­vas. “Good for par­na­jar­rpa,” Kum­paya said, chortling. The other fire-painter, Nga­maru Bidu, was less forth­com­ing. “Pretty flow­ers,” she said, when I pointed to a mul­ti­coloured sec­tion, pretty flow­ers be­ing the generic term for plants that have no spe­cific use. The area she painted writhes with en­ergy, like flames seething across the land­scape. Af­ter sev­eral days of con­sul­ta­tion my re­pro­duc­tion of the paint­ing was an­no­tated with plant names: where they grow, how they are used, what birds and an­i­mals they at­tract, whether they are eaten by camels or threat­ened by buf­fel grass.

Among the maps I used on my first vis­its to Martu coun­try was a re­pro­duc­tion of what came to be called the Wa­ter­hole map, orig­i­nally drawn on three doors in Punmu in 1987. Sue Daven­port, who was record­ing cul­tural ma­te­rial with the Martu at that time, fa­cil­i­tated an ex­er­cise in col­lec­tive mem­ory in which the names and lo­ca­tions of nearly 600 wa­ter­holes were put on the map. When com­pared to the wa­ter­holes found dur­ing sub­se­quent aerial and GPS sur­veys, the lo­ca­tions of the orig­i­nal wa­ter­holes that had been re­called through song and mem­ory proved re­mark­ably ac­cu­rate.

The paint­ings I was re­search­ing for We Don’t Need a Map were full of named sites, so it was a nat­u­ral step for me to lo­cate them on the Wa­ter­hole map. Along with fire, the tracks and ac­tiv­i­ties of the an­ces­tors, the sea­sonal routes peo­ple trav­elled in the pu­ji­man (bush­man) days, and ed­i­ble plants and an­i­mals, the paint­ings made ref­er­ences to un­der­ground streams that came to the sur­face af­ter heavy rain, and places where fresh wa­ter sprang out of salt lakes. An­other fea­ture was the con­ver­gence of sub­ter­ranean flows to a wa­ter­hole or soak­age. In­trigued by the ap­par­ent knowl­edge peo­ple had of un­der­ground streams, I ap­plied a satel­lite el­e­va­tional map­ping pro­gram to the area cov­ered by the Wa­ter­hole map. That an an­cient river, which formed the ex­tant Per­ci­val Lakes sys­tem, lined up with the sub­ter­ranean drainage chan­nels was no sur­prise, but so did all the mapped wa­ter­holes, in­clud­ing the wells of the Can­ning Stock Route, and the lo­ca­tions where peo­ple said un­der­ground flows came to the sur­face. The Martu knew the wa­ter­ways in their coun­try, both above ground and be­low.

In 2014 a group of nine Martu el­ders, in­clud­ing two se­nior men and sev­eral of the women who painted Yar­rkalpa – Hunt­ing Ground, pro­duced a paint­ing called Ku­lyu, now

housed at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Syd­ney. An­other 3 x 5 me­tre can­vas, Ku­lyu en­com­passes the en­tire Martu de­ter­mi­na­tion, an area of ap­prox­i­mately 136,000 square kilo­me­tres. It was painted in re­sponse to fears that the tail­ings from ura­nium min­ing would pol­lute the un­der­ground wa­ter sys­tem, and is re­mark­able for show­ing the in­ter-re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sub­ter­ranean wa­ter­ways and the ecosys­tems that they sup­port. To paint Ku­lyu, brothers Muuki and Waka Tay­lor first laid in the un­der­ground flows, which were then lay­ered over with mud-coloured paint, to rep­re­sent the earth above the aque­ducts. On top of this the artists painted the to­po­graphic fea­tures of the coun­try, show­ing how the un­der­ground streams fed the sur­face waters that sup­ported the ecosys­tems on which the Martu de­pended.

Paint­ings like Yar­rkalpa – Hunt­ing Ground and Ku­lyu re­flect the evolv­ing con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the Martu and the or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­di­vid­u­als who have as­pi­ra­tions for, and de­signs upon, their cul­ture and coun­try. As proof of

knowl­edge is re­quired, it is pro­vided in ever more so­phis­ti­cated ways, and it seems only fair that non-Indige­nous Aus­tralians try to de­velop an equal so­phis­ti­ca­tion in in­ter­pret­ing that proof.

The Martu have re­tained con­sid­er­able agency in man­ag­ing their af­fairs through two key or­gan­i­sa­tions: Kanyirn­inpa Jukur­rpa (KJ), which fo­cuses on land, law and cul­ture; and Mar­tu­mili, which fo­cuses on art. Both or­gan­i­sa­tions were es­tab­lished at the be­hest of se­nior Martu cus­to­di­ans, and both op­er­ate on a model in which the ad­min­is­tra­tion and man­age­ment are pre­dom­i­nantly non-Indige­nous while the ad­vi­sory board and on-ground ex­per­tise are Martu.

KJ first came across my radar dur­ing one of my stints as an in­terim co-or­di­na­tor at Paruku Indige­nous Pro­tected Area, in the south-east Kim­ber­ley re­gion. I found that the best ma­te­rial about desert-based Indige­nous pro­grams had KJ’s fin­ger­prints all over it. The more I learned about KJ, the more it seemed a model of an Indige­nous or­gan­i­sa­tion de­liv­er­ing what it had set out to do.

Al­though for­mally es­tab­lished in 2005, KJ had its origins dur­ing the re­set­tle­ment of the Martu home­lands in the mid 1980s. Re­la­tion­ships forged be­tween Martu peo­ple and par­tic­u­lar white­fel­las dur­ing that time per­sist to this day, and these pro­vided the foun­da­tion of mu­tual trust, re­spect and com­mu­ni­ca­tion that are the hall­marks of KJ’s suc­cess. Al­though the des­ig­na­tion of Martu coun­try as “use­less” contributed to it be­ing used for rocket test­ing in the 1960s, this also meant that it re­mained more or less pris­tine desert, apart from some min­ing ac­tiv­ity. The Martu had re­tained a strong sense of cul­tural iden­tity, and an ex­ten­sive tra­di­tional knowl­edge of cul­ture and coun­try. But they knew that the fu­ture de­pended on form­ing part­ner­ships that val­ued both white­fella and Martu skills and ex­pe­ri­ence.

The serendip­i­tous com­bi­na­tion of in­tel­li­gence, vi­sion, trust and skill pro­duced an or­gan­i­sa­tional model for KJ that is grounded in Martu cul­ture, adap­tive to new ideas and tech­nolo­gies, and com­mit­ted to cross-cul­tural part­ner­ships. The Martu di­rec­tors and ad­vis­ers are con­sis­tently en­gaged in de­vel­op­ing pro­grams and projects, and KJ con­tin­ues to at­tract high-func­tion­ing non-Indige­nous staff, rather than the mis­sion­ary/merce­nary/mis­fit va­ri­ety. Ef­fec­tive, pro­fes­sional peo­ple stay with the or­gan­i­sa­tion, cor­po­rate knowl­edge doesn’t get lost, and long-term part­ner­ships are main­tained.

One of those part­ner­ships, pro­vid­ing eco­nomic div­i­dends to the Martu and so­cial and cul­tural div­i­dends to the com­pany, is with BHP. The min­ing gi­ant con­trib­utes sig­nif­i­cantly to Martu projects and to the main­te­nance of KJ, which means that the or­gan­i­sa­tion is not de­pen­dent on govern­ment fund­ing to the same de­gree as many Indige­nous sup­port or­gan­i­sa­tions. The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy (a USbased en­vi­ron­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion) is an­other ma­jor part­ner, and the other sup­port bod­ies listed in KJ’s lat­est news­let­ter in­di­cate that it has de­vel­oped ef­fec­tive ad­vo­cacy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, and that keep­ing an Indige­nous or­gan­i­sa­tion func­tion­ing at op­ti­mum level is ex­pen­sive and com­plex.

I’m aware that by writ­ing at length about the Martu I risk re­in­forc­ing “the non-Indige­nous Imag­i­nary”, a con­cept at­trib­uted to Indige­nous aca­demic Larissa Behrendt, re­fer­ring to the stereo­type held by many white Aus­tralians that Indige­nous peo­ple are close to “na­ture”. But the Martu are proof that it’s pos­si­ble to live in, and main­tain, their coun­try. They ex­em­plify how it can be done, with part­ner­ships and com­ple­men­tary knowl­edge systems. Vari­a­tions on this theme are be­ing played out all over Aus­tralia.

In this ur­banised na­tion, most of the pop­u­la­tion – in­clud­ing most of the Indige­nous pop­u­la­tion – lives in ma­jor cities and large re­gional towns. This leaves the prac­ti­cal hus­bandry of the con­ti­nent to the hand­ful of peo­ple who oc­cupy the rest of it. How the farm­ing and graz­ing lands are man­aged is out­side the scope of this es­say. The rest, whether desert ecosys­tems, marginal pas­toral coun­try, coastal, sa­van­nah or ri­par­ian systems, Indige­nous Pro­tected Ar­eas, Abo­rig­i­nal de­ter­mi­na­tions, NGO con­ser­va­tion hold­ings, un­al­lo­cated Crown land, state forests or na­tional parks, needs to be man­aged for fire, fer­als, en­dan­gered species and weeds. The Indige­nous Rangers pro­gram has emerged to ad­dress that need.

The Indige­nous Rangers pro­gram evolved in an ad hoc fash­ion. It be­gan with com­mu­nity-based teams such Arn­hem Land’s Djelk Rangers, which were es­tab­lished in the early

The fu­ture de­pended on form­ing part­ner­ships that val­ued both white­fella and Martu skills and ex­pe­ri­ence.

1990s to deal with a grow­ing feral pig prob­lem. The Djelk Rangers (“djelk” means land or car­ing for land) soon be­came the on-ground work­force for all en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment is­sues in the sur­round­ing Indige­nous land­hold­ings. The team’s role ex­panded to in­clude the man­age­ment of in­va­sive weeds, fire and wa­ter buf­falo. Fund­ing came from var­i­ous sources, and was un­der­pinned by the fed­eral govern­ment’s Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Em­ploy­ment Projects (CDEP) pro­gram, one of many at­tempts to cre­ate a cul­ture of paid em­ploy­ment ver­sus the dole. By the end of the ’90s the Djelk Rangers were work­ing with a va­ri­ety of sci­en­tists, and de­vel­op­ing a suite of skills spe­cific to trop­i­cal sa­van­nah man­age­ment and the evolv­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges.

As Indige­nous Rangers projects gained trac­tion, so did the es­tab­lish­ment of Indige­nous Pro­tected Ar­eas (IPAs), a Howard govern­ment pro­gram im­ple­mented in 1997 to ex­tend the hold­ings of the Na­tional Re­serve Sys­tem, and to as­sist and in­flu­ence the man­age­ment of Abo­rig­i­nal land. Land rights, na­tive ti­tle and the home­lands movement had re­sulted in large tracts of land com­ing un­der Indige­nous ju­ris­dic­tion. The types of ten­ure var­ied from pas­toral leases, which al­ready car­ried cer­tain con­di­tions, to Crown land and near-pris­tine desert, and the Indige­nous cus­to­di­ans of­ten had nei­ther the re­sources nor the ex­per­tise to deal with the eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges that con­fronted them. In the ad­vent of Howard’s pro­gram, for land to qual­ify as an IPA, tra­di­tional own­ers had to com­mit to man­ag­ing their coun­try ac­cord­ing to stan­dards stip­u­lated by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture. While some Indige­nous groups were uneasy about adopt­ing these ex­ter­nally en­forced prac­tices, in spite of the sub­stan­tial fund­ing that would come with it, oth­ers took them up.

Indige­nous Rangers were a nat­u­ral ad­junct to the IPAs, and both pro­grams snow­balled. CDEP wages paid for the ranger teams un­til the Work­ing on Coun­try (WoC) pro­gram was es­tab­lished in 2007. (As you can gather, we are in the acro­nym zone.) WoC pro­vided ded­i­cated fed­eral fund­ing for the em­ploy­ment of rangers, and es­tab­lished the sta­tus of Indige­nous Ranger as a pro­fes­sional oc­cu­pa­tion, with train­ing in lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy, first aid, data col­lec­tion, firearms, fenc­ing, weld­ing, fire man­age­ment, chain­saws and pumps. These days, WoC supports 109 Indige­nous Rangers

pro­grams across Aus­tralia, pro­vid­ing 2500 full-time, parttime and ca­sual po­si­tions each year.

The Martu and the Indige­nous Rangers pro­gram were made for each other. KJ’s in­te­grated ap­proach to so­cial, cul­tural, en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic ob­jec­tives al­lowed for im­me­di­ate adop­tion of the pro­gram when it was for­malised. From a sin­gle team in 2009, KJ now runs seven – in­clud­ing three teams of women rangers – out of Parn­ngurr, Punmu, Ku­nawar­ritji and Ji­ga­long, em­ploy­ing ap­prox­i­mately 300 peo­ple. The knowl­edge of el­ders in­forms ev­ery pro­ject, and the Ju­nior Rangers pro­gram is an in­te­gral part of the school sys­tem.

Martu rangers, ad­vised by their el­ders and as­sisted by pro­fes­sion­als in var­i­ous fields, sur­vey and look af­ter wa­ter­holes and other cul­tural sites, cull camels and bait cats, mon­i­tor the sta­tus of threat­ened species (bilby, black-flanked rock wal­laby, great desert skink) and man­age habi­tat, pre­dom­i­nately by re­in­stat­ing “right-way” fire across the en­tire Martu lands.

The ranger pro­gram has mo­bilised an Indige­nous work­force with the po­ten­tial to de­velop a unique suite of skills, in part­ner­ship with land man­age­ment and con­ser­va­tion agen­cies, that are spe­cific to par­tic­u­lar ecosys­tems and tar­get the threats to those ecosys­tems. Of­ten the feral an­i­mals are not per­ceived as a threat, es­pe­cially when they have been in­cor­po­rated into the lo­cal diet (such as cat, camel and wa­ter buf­falo). Al­though peo­ple are san­guine about killing an­i­mals to

eat, the whole­sale culling of a food re­source is of­ten re­sisted. It is only through con­sul­ta­tion and the pre­sen­ta­tion of ev­i­dence that these im­pacts are ac­cepted as long-term threats to coun­try and cul­ture.

Fire man­age­ment emerges as cen­tral to the main­te­nance of healthy ecosys­tems in a large part of Aus­tralia, whether to pro­mote the growth of fire-de­pen­dent plants and main­tain diversity and habi­tat in the spinifex coun­try, or to limit hot-sea­son bush­fires and pro­tect fire-sen­si­tive species in the Top End. Peo­ple no longer walk the coun­try as they used to do, and the old burn­ing meth­ods tend to be re­stricted to ar­eas within easy reach of com­mu­ni­ties or along roads. The fire strate­gies im­ple­mented by Indige­nous Rangers re­quire an in­te­grated ap­proach that draws on satel­lite tech­nol­ogy and fire-scar map­ping, along with Indige­nous knowl­edge, and the use of four-wheel drives and he­li­copters to reach re­moter ar­eas.

Coun­try Needs Peo­ple, an ad­vo­cacy al­liance sup­ported by the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts, and com­pris­ing more than 30 front­line Indige­nous land and sea man­age­ment groups, re­cently pub­lished a re­port iden­ti­fy­ing key con­ser­va­tion work be­ing car­ried out by Indige­nous rangers. Ap­ply­ing many dif­fer­ent ap­proaches across vast and var­ied en­vi­ron­ments, ranger ac­tiv­i­ties in­clude fire-re­duc­tion strate­gies, re­mov­ing buf­fel grass, pro­tect­ing habi­tats for threat­ened species, and man­ag­ing feral an­i­mals, weeds, toads and other in­va­sive species.

It’s not a seam­less story of suc­cess, of course. Some years back, mem­bers of a ranger team were im­pli­cated in the sale of con­tra­band dugong and tur­tle meat on the lo­cal black mar­ket. As tra­di­tional cus­to­di­ans they could hunt the pro­tected species, and it was an ex­am­ple of en­tre­pre­neur­ial re­source­ful­ness, but it was il­le­gal given the en­dan­gered sta­tus of the dugong. And with each Indige­nous Rangers pro­ject there are al­ways per­son­al­i­ties and pol­i­tics to con­tend with: par­tic­u­lar fam­i­lies may dom­i­nate the ranger teams and IPA po­si­tions, caus­ing re­sent­ment and fric­tion; pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als stall progress by hold­ing on to jobs they don’t ful­fil; the com­pet­ing de­mands of fam­ily, foot­ball and fu­ner­als can make it dif­fi­cult to pin down the work­force. The rangers oc­cupy a com­pli­cated po­si­tion: flagged as the great Indige­nous em­ploy­ment suc­cess story, they are still sub­ject to the em­bed­ded re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of fam­ily and cul­ture as well as the pres­sure to meet Western ex­pec­ta­tions.

As an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor Jon Alt­man says in his con­tri­bu­tion to a re­cent col­lec­tion of es­says, Un­sta­ble Re­la­tions: Indige­nous Peo­ple and En­vi­ron­men­tal­ism in Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia, “They [rangers] need to con­stantly me­di­ate these two per­spec­tives while be­ing suitably def­er­en­tial to more se­nior landown­ers, their par­ents and im­me­di­ate fam­ily.”

Alt­man lays out the com­plex­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions of man­ag­ing the ex­plod­ing pop­u­la­tion of wa­ter buf­falo in the Djelk IPA. Com­pris­ing ten clan es­tates, the IPA cov­ers ap­prox­i­mately 1000 square kilo­me­tres, ex­tend­ing from the coastal flood plains and ti­dal river mar­gins to the Arn­hem Land plateau. It is an area of great bio­di­ver­sity and high con­ser­va­tion value. By agree­ing to have their lands de­clared an IPA in 2009, the tra­di­tional own­ers had com­mit­ted to man­ag­ing their coun­try for en­vi­ron­men­tal out­comes. In 2014, how­ever, an aerial sur­vey of wa­ter buf­falo in Arn­hem Land es­ti­mated that there were four times the num­ber of an­i­mals that had been counted in a 1998 sur­vey. Twenty thou­sand buf­falo oc­cu­pied the Djelk IPA, wreak­ing ex­ten­sive dam­age in the wet­lands, and con­tra­ven­ing the agreed con­ser­va­tion prin­ci­ples.

Alt­man’s es­say is a case study in the mul­ti­lay­ered com­plex­i­ties of deal­ing with what would seem to be a straight­for­ward en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue solved by culling. The in­tro­duc­tion of wa­ter buf­falo from Ti­mor to the Cobourg Penin­sula, western Arn­hem Land, is recorded as hap­pen­ing in the 1820s. How­ever, the Kun­in­jku are not con­vinced that wa­ter buf­falo are such strangers: the pow­er­ful and charis­matic an­i­mal pro­vides a high-protein sta­ple for the Kun­in­jku and sta­tus for hun­ters; it has an Indige­nous name, ngan­ab­barru, and links to myths and cer­e­mony. Ac­cord­ing

to older peo­ple, ngan­ab­barru has been in­cor­po­rated into the kin­ship sys­tem, and is thus con­nected to fam­ily and coun­try. This sets buf­falo apart from other feral species. (Ex­cept pos­si­bly the horse: I was once shown a horse­shoe-shaped im­print in a rock in the Tanami Desert and told that it was made by a yawarda, horse, in the Dream­time.)

Al­though the Kun­in­jku recog­nise the dam­age wa­ter buf­falo are caus­ing to the ecosys­tem, break­ing down the nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers be­tween salt­wa­ter and fresh­wa­ter systems, the fact that the an­i­mals have created an en­vi­ron­ment in which they thrive goes some way to com­pen­sat­ing for the loss of other habi­tats. Goan­nas and mon­i­tor lizards, a ma­jor food source with totemic sig­nif­i­cance, were al­most wiped out by cane toads, which ar­rived in Arn­hem Land in 2002. As buf­falo re­place the species peo­ple used to hunt and eat, Kun­in­jku are in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on them as a food source.

In spite of these com­pli­ca­tions, an agree­ment was reached to cull 5000 an­i­mals in 2015. But the lo­cal Baw­inanga Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion scut­tled this plan when the prospect of sell­ing buf­falo to the live ex­port trade raised the prospect of mak­ing money. While the idea seems rea­son­able, it had the hall­marks of dozens of money-mak­ing schemes that are cooked up be­tween Indige­nous cor­po­ra­tion man­agers (usu­ally white) and pow­er­ful lo­cal fam­ily in­ter­ests, usu­ally in op­po­si­tion to IPA con­di­tions. The peo­ple who come up with the schemes rarely have the ex­per­tise to de­liver what they prom­ise, and in­ter­nal pol­i­tics tend to sab­o­tage projects be­fore they get off the ground. It is not dif­fi­cult to read be­tween the lines of Alt­man’s cryptic ac­count in Un­sta­ble Re­la­tions, of the fail­ure of the Baw­inanga live buf­falo trade, caused in part by the sack­ing of the cor­po­ra­tion’s white se­nior man­age­ment be­cause they didn’t lis­ten to the tra­di­tional own­ers.

There are man­i­fest ten­sions be­tween the Indige­nous con­cept of “car­ing for coun­try” and Western prin­ci­ples of en­vi­ron­men­tal preser­va­tion. Richard Martin and David Trig­ger doc­u­ment this ten­sion in an es­say also in­cluded in Un­sta­ble Re­la­tions. It tells the story of Pun­galina, a re­mote pas­toral lease in the Gulf Coun­try and tra­di­tional land of the Garawa peo­ple, which was pur­chased in 2009 by the Aus­tralian Wildlife Con­ser­vancy and is now man­aged as a wildlife sanc­tu­ary by non-Indige­nous care­tak­ers. The Garawa hold na­tive ti­tle over Pun­galina, al­low­ing them ac­cess to hunt and fish, and on a trip with tra­di­tional own­ers in 2012, Martin and Trig­ger recorded the dis­com­fort ex­pressed by the care­tak­ers that the Garawa hunt­ing rights posed a threat to the wildlife. The Garawa in turn were con­cerned that the Aus­tralian Wildlife Con­ser­vancy planned to re­duce the cat­tle num­bers that still grazed on the pas­toral lease. “They be­long here now … same as buf­falo, pig, horse …”

In ful­fill­ing their roles, Indige­nous rangers find them­selves oc­cu­py­ing a place where tra­di­tional obli­ga­tions in­ter­sect with job ac­count­abil­ity. They have ac­cess to well­main­tained four-wheel drives, high-pow­ered ri­fles, and wages. But with this also comes in­creased pres­sure to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies and take part in cul­tural busi­ness. At the same time, their job obli­ga­tions, es­pe­cially the con­ser­va­tion val­ues they are trained to im­ple­ment, are of­ten in con­flict with the val­ues of their el­ders and fam­i­lies.

Hav­ing ac­cess to ve­hi­cles and money can trig­ger toxic jeal­ousies, ac­com­pa­nied by re­lent­less hum­bug, and for some rangers the pres­sure is too much. But the ro­bust­ness of the Indige­nous Rangers pro­gram, and its emer­gence out of a real and grow­ing need to man­age ex­ten­sive tracts of coun­try, has seen it evolve and strengthen. This is the live ground where con­tra­dic­tions be­tween con­ser­va­tion val­ues, eco­nomic ac­count­abil­ity and Indige­nous as­pi­ra­tions to make a vi­able liv­ing on their land re­main vis­i­ble, volatile and con­stantly evolv­ing. Rather than treat­ing this volatil­ity as a prob­lem, it should be part of a com­mit­ted, long-term con­ver­sa­tion.

As Tony Birch sug­gests in the clos­ing es­say of Un­sta­ble Re­la­tions, “dif­fi­culty, or even im­pos­si­bil­ity, is as good a place as any to be­gin a new con­ver­sa­tion”. While we are still some dis­tance from be­gin­ning a con­ver­sa­tion on im­pos­si­ble ground, start­ing from a point of dif­fi­culty is well within reach.

In a field lit­tered with fail­ures, the IPA and Indige­nous Rangers pro­grams are stand­out suc­cess sto­ries. There is noth­ing com­pa­ra­ble for cross-gen­er­a­tional en­gage­ment of Indige­nous groups from the deep desert to the ur­ban fringes. While the fo­cus tends to be on the desert re­gions, Arn­hem Land and north-west Kim­ber­ley, the ranger groups and IPAs are Aus­tralia wide. A ru­mour last year that the

In a field lit­tered with fail­ures, the IPA and Indige­nous Rangers pro­grams are stand­out suc­cess sto­ries.

Indige­nous Rangers pro­gram was to be down­graded to be part of the “work for the dole” sys­tem (a re­turn to the sta­tus it had a decade ago) sent a seis­mic shud­der through the agen­cies in­volved. Em­phatic de­nials came from the Min­is­ter for Indige­nous Af­fairs and the Depart­ment of the Prime Min­is­ter and Cabi­net, and com­mit­ments were made for fund­ing un­til the end of 2018, re­cently ex­tended to 2020. Fund­ing for IPAs, due to be axed in 2018, has just re­ceived a re­prieve, with fi­nan­cial sup­port un­der the Na­tional Land­care Pro­gramme ex­tended for an ad­di­tional five years.

Rather than this grudg­ing, un­pre­dictable and short-term ap­proach, on­go­ing sup­port for both pro­grams should be bi­par­ti­san state and fed­eral govern­ment pol­icy. The Indige­nous Rangers pro­gram should be em­bed­ded in ed­u­ca­tion (and not just Indige­nous ed­u­ca­tion), and cel­e­brated for its flex­i­bil­ity and po­ten­tial. The pro­gram is com­mit­ted to con­tin­ual adap­ta­tion and scru­tiny, and of­fers a fo­rum in which hard ques­tions can be asked about the co­nun­drums that plague both black and white un­der­stand­ings of re­spon­si­bil­ity, ac­count­abil­ity, con­ser­va­tion, cus­to­di­an­ship, au­ton­omy and de­pen­dency. It pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to tease out con­tra­dic­tions and chal­lenge some of the generic state­ments about car­ing for coun­try, whether they take the form of a com­ment post (“they ate a sec­tion of the coun­try out, be­fouled it, and moved on”), or the claim that Indige­nous peo­ple have an in­nate un­der­stand­ing of their en­vi­ron­ments and should be al­lowed to man­age them with­out in­ter­fer­ence from white­fel­las. This claim, de­signed to in­voke the “non-Indige­nous Imag­i­nary”, was made by an Indige­nous del­e­gate at a re­cent con­fer­ence called Map­ping the In­land. She was stay­ing on mes­sage to a room full of white­fel­las, and was con­fi­dent that no one would chal­lenge her, but I’m not sure she be­lieved the claim her­self.

IPAs now make up more than 44% of the Na­tional Re­serve Sys­tem. A glance at the map of es­tab­lished and pend­ing IPAs and other Indige­nous-owned lands, which can be found on the Depart­ment of the Prime Min­is­ter and Cabi­net web­site, shows a broad cor­ri­dor of IPA land stretching from the Nullar­bor to the Co­ral Sea: large Lego-shaped chunks of the Western Desert, the Pil­bara, the Kim­ber­ley and Cape York. The south-east quad­rant of Aus­tralia is no­tably free of large IPAs, al­though there are clus­ters of small dots that in­di­cate that the pro­gram can be adapted to fit the avail­able spa­ces.

Al­though new IPAs are be­ing de­clared all the time, the money to sup­port them is lim­ited and un­pre­dictable, hence the need for in­come streams to main­tain the ca­pac­ity for peo­ple to live on and man­age their lands. Part­ner­ships are fun­da­men­tal to this, where both Indige­nous and Western knowl­edge is re­spected, and where shared con­cern for the health of the land is ac­knowl­edged. It’s also nec­es­sary to find a bal­ance be­tween en­vi­ron­men­tal im­per­a­tives and eco­nom­i­cally vi­able ways to live on coun­try. For many Indige­nous peo­ple, min­ing roy­al­ties are cen­tral to their eco­nomic sur­vival, and pro­grams such as the car­bon-credit scheme re­ported in the Aus­tralian pro­vide en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits and an in­come stream that is not de­pen­dent on govern­ment. Some of these part­ner­ships have been in place for years, pro­vid­ing in­come sta­bil­ity for the ranger teams who carry out the burn­ing.

There are hard­line con­ser­va­tion­ists who be­lieve that to pre­serve wild places, peo­ple must be ex­cluded. To the Martu, in­deed to many Indige­nous peo­ple, such an idea is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. In her study of the Martu fire regimes, Rebecca Bliege Bird iden­ti­fies the Martu as a “keystone species” in the main­te­nance of the Western Desert ecosys­tem. Tim Flan­nery, in his Quar­terly Es­say ‘Af­ter the Fu­ture’, sug­gests that this keystone role is now the re­spon­si­bil­ity of all Aus­tralians, with an em­pha­sis on sci­ence-based field­work ex­em­pli­fied by non-govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Aus­tralian Wildlife Con­ser­vancy.

The Martu un­der­stand the need for a “two way” ap­proach, and have pro­vided a bench­mark for how to ne­go­ti­ate the fu­ture we share. The spe­cial­ist skills of white­fella pro­fes­sion­als are a re­source that the Martu recog­nise and value, while they bring to the part­ner­ship the de­sert­forged sen­si­bil­ity that tests and adopts what­ever is use­ful, and dis­cards what­ever is not.

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