Caring for country: Australian Aborigines and natural and cultural resource management

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This conservation resource was created by Warren Mayer; Janak Rai; Nicholas Shaw; Anna Wong. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

The government of Australia has carried out numerous acts to ensure the protection and conservation of Aboriginal land, and culture. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1983, (ALRA) was introduced to ensure the recognition of the traditional ownership and occupation of the land. [1] Therefore, the ALRA recognized the social, spiritual, cultural, and economic importance of the land to the Aboriginal people of New South Whales. Some of the main functions of the ALRA and can be found in section 3 of the act and include but are not limited to the following; provide land rights and representative Aboriginal Land Councils for Aboriginal persons in New South Whales, to vest land in those Councils, to provide for the acquisition of land, and the management of land and other investments by those Councils, and lastly to provide for the provision of community benefit schemes on behalf of those Councils. [1] Since the ALRA was introduced, many of the decision-making powers were gradually given to the Aboriginal people, allowing them to pursue traditional interests and protect those interests with the legal ownership of the land. The ALRA provides many sustainable options for Aboriginal people in Australia, such as self-funded and self-regulated work. As of December 1st 2016, there has been 41,986 lodged claims since 1983. 2,846 of these claims have been granted, while 30,265 have yet to be resolved. [2].

The Native Title Act (NTA) of 1993 shared many similarities with the ALRA, but also had many differences too. Due to the passing of the act by Commonwealth, the process for the determination of native title by the Federal Court of Australia. The aim of the law was to seek past injustice by providing a process to recognise and protect native title as well as providing processes to reach agreements and provide compensation between the Federal Court and Aboriginals. [2]. Any native claims can be made on behalf of the group of Aboriginals that hold rights to land and waters in accordance with traditional laws and customs. This is one of the major differences between the ALRA and the NTA. Native title will only be given where Aboriginal people are the traditional owners for the specific area to be claimed. Traditional connection does not need to be presented for land to be granted under the ALRA. The land granted under the NTA can be recognized in vacant crown land, National Parks, State forests and crown reserves. [1] Land that is privately owned cannot be subject to native title with few exceptions. Under the NTA, eight successful native titles have been granted, with 21 applications yet to be determined. [2].

In 2008, the long overdue apology from the Federal Government acknowledged the damaging interactions between the white Australian people and the Aboriginal people. Communities in Australia came together as one to heal the relationship between indigenous communities and the rest of society. [3] The reconciliation was not just an outcome the government was looking for, it was a way to ensure the well being of both aboriginals and settler nations.

Provided the many setbacks, and backlashes between the native, and not native communities, Australia has come together as one country in the past 25 years and have built strong relationships between the government, native groups and non-native groups. [3]. These relationships are built on a strong foundation comprised of reconciliation, and numerous acts to ensure the aboriginal people of Australia are given the rights and ownership to their traditional land. The resiliency of the Aboriginal people is plays an invaluable role in the success of the relationship between the different legal groups and cultures.

A controlled burn of a small grass patch. By Robert Kerton of CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0

Natural Management

In Northern Australia the Aboriginal people used controlled fire techniques to manage the land. Towards the beginning of the dry season, a plan is created for the upcoming year’s burning cycle. Areas that need special attention are outlined, and as the cooler winter months approach the burning begins. Burning generally begins on higher ground and moves to lower areas as they start to dry up during the beginning of the dry season. The fires tend to be small in size and intensity. This burning system creates a mismatch of burned and unburnt land throughout the season. Some areas however, like creek beds and kangaroo hunting regions, are tended to more. As the dry season comes to an end, the burns become even more controlled to prevent runaway fires.[4] This particular burn tradition was observed on an estate, Dukaladjarranj, which belongs to a Gunei language-group that continues to thrive on their traditional lands. Their techniques keep the level of fuel for wildfires low, promote the growth of fire-sensitive plants, which attracts a diverse range of animals, including rare, range-restricted species.[4] It was also found that in regions where Aboriginal people lit controlled fires that diversity of invasive exotic species, including plants and animals like rats, were lower than anywhere else where they have been established in the country.[4] This is, in its essence, conservation. The landscape where these Aboriginals practice burns is free of new invasive species and is high in biodiversity, in keeping with the ecosystem that one may have seen generations ago, with no sign of degradation on the horizon.

Aboriginal management of the land through fires promotes the surrouding kangaroo populations. It was also found through a study of human interference on hill kangaroo populations that the populations of macropods peaks at intermediate human interference.[5] The burns create varying patches of land in different stages of growth. The diverse and young sprouting plants growing shortly after a burn attract the animals, and the burn patterns increase the range of advantageous areas within the kangaroos’ daily foraging range. This population increase is moderated by Aboriginal hunting of the animals.[5] Hunting is made easier on the Aboriginal people as well. Since the pattern of burning creates patches of new growth, which attract kangaroos, next to older patches containing taller grasses, that can be used for hiding, coming in close proximity to the kangaroos becomes a much easier task.[5] As kangaroo population in proximity to burning areas increase, it logically follows that hunts of the animals will increase. This was found to be true but hunting only increases due to the burns creating new foraging areas for kangaroos. The uptake in hunting does not negatively affect the kangaroo population due to its rise from increased foraging areas created from the burns, to an extent. Once hunting levels reach a certain level, described as “intermediate” in Codding et. al.’s study, kangaroo populations do begin to decline.[5]" The Aboriginal people tend to hunt within this “intermediate” range, or if they do overhunt, they move to a new patch and allow kangaroos to return to the overhunted area before they begin to hunt in that area again.[5] Controlling benefits other animals in addition to the kangaroo such as wallabies, in a very similar way.[5] Aboriginal practices promote healthy animal populations.

Hill Kangaroo. By Michael Barritt & Karen May via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

The Aboriginal people in North and Central Australia use controlled fires to prevent the extremity and abundance of wild fires, leading to more heterogenous environments with high biodiversity, particularly of native species, while discouraging the invasion of exotic species. These controlled burns increase animal populations by providing areas rich in desirable food sources. These populations can be kept in check by hunting practices. Overall, the Aboriginal people practice conservation through their use of controlled fires to maintain an environment of high biodiversity in order to continue to thrive off the land they live on.

Cultural Management

These management practices do not only benefit the ecosystem, but also continue a tradition of cultural importance to Australian Aborigines. The land that the Gunei speaking people manage that was mentioned earlier is their traditional land.[4] They are continuing their ancestors’ legacy by continuing natural conservation practices that have been in place for generations upon generations. Since before British intervention Aboriginal peoples such as the Martu people practiced these same small burn techniques.[5] The range of the Martu’s ancestors spread much further into the desert due to their highly mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle, whereas their current range to practice the same burning techniques is limited by community lines and roads for vehicles. The traditional hunting system is also practiced today, the men hunt kangaroo while women hunt sand monitors.[5] By continuing to uphold traditional management and hunting practices, the Martu people hold on to their cultural identity.

Currently, the government of Australia is working on implementing environmental policies to help sustain the use of resources [6]. The Australian Government has come up with regional natural resource management (NRM) strategies and carrying out actions to promote sustainable resource use. Some important regional plans that the government has suggested is identifying key land resource assets by focusing on sustainable agriculture, identifying processes that are threatening key resources or how it is impacting the provision of ecosystem services and finding ways to protect and improve the condition of key resources [6]. Some protection and improvement actions the government is carrying out is improving the awareness and understanding of how land and water is degrading. In carrying out the awareness and having others understand this process occurring, the government is working alongside the Indigenous community in promoting regional NRM outcomes [6]. Not only is the government working on improving the awareness of resource degradation, but they are also focusing on mechanisms for relaying information to better practice soil and vegetation management [6]. With better practice, it helps with sustaining the use of resources from the environment. Natural resources such as land, water and air are vital in these practices as they contribute to the crops and livestock products [6]. With using these resources such as water, the government is focusing on working to improve the water quality and environmental condition in surface and ground water systems so that no resource is wasted. Another resource such as land, is examined so that they can protect and manage locations that have national environmental significance [6]. Some significances include threatened species in these locations and migratory species. The focus on land resources is important because species living in certain places has beneficial value that contributes to the environment. Another resource that the government is focusing on is vegetation. The vegetation on lands are being removed so that more space is provided for future improvement however the quality and quantity of native vegetation is necessary in maintaining and restoring the habitats for flora and fauna [6]. Protecting native vegetation benefits the land and local organisms inhabiting surrounding landscape. These future NRM policies requires the integration of biodiversity with specific objectives so that it helps with developing more accurate data in finding ways to fulfill the sustainability goals and determining a balance between protection and rehabilitation of natural environments without benefits from the economy [6].

The government of Australia has created a National Land-care Program to create projects with partners, such as the Indigenous people to take part in land and sea management that will benefit the landscape of Australia [7]. Aborigines in Australia grasp a great understanding of how their surroundings are interconnected and how to maintain the habitats around them with success. Although the government of Australia has created this program, Aborigine tribes have cultural as well as natural methods for how they maintain the land they live on. Aboriginal people in North and Central Australia use controlled fires to prevent the extremity and abundance of wild fires, leading to more heterogeneous environments of high biodiversity [4]. These controlled burns increase animal populations which can be kept in check by hunting practices. Overall, the Aboriginal people practice conservation through their use of controlled fires to maintain an environment of high biodiversity in order to continue to thrive off the land they live on. There must be an understanding between the government as well as the Australian Aborigines to ensure that resource management can occur and benefit both groups. Natural resource management is important however understanding cultural and historic traditions will be crucial for the inhabitants of the land (the Australian Aborigines).

  1. NSWALC & the LALC Network to Aboriginal Land Councils in NSW. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2018, from
  2. Comparison of Land Rights and Native Title in NSW. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2018, from
  3. 3.03.1 Castan, M., & Arabena, K. (2016, May 18). Indigenous reconciliation in Australia: Still a bridge too far? Retrieved April 10, 2018, from
  4. "Yibarbuk, D., Whitehead, P. J., Russell-Smith, J., Jackson, D., Godjuwa, C., Fisher, A., . . . Bowman, D. M. (2002). Fire ecology and Aboriginal land management in central Arnhem Land, northern Australia: a tradition of ecosystem management. Journal of Biogeography, 28(3), 325-343. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2699.2001.00555.x p.325-343" Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Yibarbuk" defined multiple times with different content
  5. "Codding, B. F., Bird, R. B., Kauhanen, P. G., & Bird, D. W. (2014). Conservation or Co-evolution? Intermediate Levels of Aboriginal Burning and Hunting Have Positive Effects on Kangaroo Populations in Western Australia. Human Ecology, 42(5), 659-669. doi:10.1007/s10745-014-9682-4 p.599-669"
  6. "Stoneham, G., Gainer, K., Lowe, K., Thackway, R., & Cork, S. (2007, August). Ecosystem Services and Australian Natural Resource Management (NRM) Futures. Retrieved April 12, 2018, from
  7. "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Natural Resource Management. (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 2018, from

Post image:  By Michael Barritt & Karen May via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 2.0