21 May 2022
INDIGENOUS PROTECTED AREAS ARE SAVING KEY AUSTRALIAN SPECIES FROM EXTINCTION
As global leaders gather at the second round of negotiations of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Nairobi to form an international agreement on how we will work together to protect nature, WWF-Australia is reflecting on an important strategy that’s getting surprisingly little attention in Australia – the vital role of Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs).
Map of Australia showing the location of Indigenous Protected Areas, existing registered Native Title claims, and viable koala habitat. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have established and built land and sea management arrangements to care for Country and culture upon the successful claim of Native Title. © 2022 WWF-Australia (Maps data courtesy of National Native Title Tribunal, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Commonwealth of Australia , Geoscience Australia, Collaborative Australian Protected Areas Database - CAPAD, Commonwealth of Australia and Australian Land Tenure).
So what is an Indigenous Protected Area? Here we explain, and reveal why supporting the expansion of IPAs should be central to caring for Country, as Traditional Owners have done for generations.
The role of traditional knowledge in protecting biodiversity
Freshwater cascades over polished granite boulders at Murray Falls, in the heart of Girramay National Park. This cool haven in Far North Queensland is steeped in cultural significance, and rich in natural beauty and native species.
Djiru woman Whitney Rassip stands on a rock near one of the crystal-clear pools and savours the view deep into the tree-filled valley below.
The team of First Nations rangers and Elders she supports as Coordinator of the Girringun Region Indigenous Protected Areas are rightly proud of this place and all they have done to safeguard it.
“Our knowledge of Country defines who we are and where we come from,” Whitney says. “The birds, animals and plants all have a part to play in our knowledge systems … and we have a cultural obligation to protect all living things within nature.”
Thanks to the Girringun Region Indigenous Protected Areas, a breathtaking landscape spanning 1.2 million hectares, the region’s Traditional Owners are empowered to do just that. From the rainforests of the Wet Tropics to the magnificent Great Barrier Reef, the Bandjin, Djiru, Girramay, Gulngay, Gugu Badhun, Jirrbal, Nywaigi, Warrgamay and Warrungnu peoples are ensuring that their ancient knowledge and cultural values inform the management of a diverse estate.
WWF-Australia has worked alongside the Girringun rangers on various conservation projects over the past decade.
We’ve witnessed the Elders’ delight at teaching young future Traditional Owners about healing Country; we’ve seen landscapes and species rebound following the re-introduction of traditional burning; and we’ve taken part in turtle and dugong surveys that directly support modern science, and so much more.
On IPAs around Australia, First Nations ranger groups are playing a similar role in addressing threats to our environment – by limiting the impacts of feral animals and invasive weeds, controlling wildfire and helping to recover native animals.
“Country needs First Nations people and First Nations people need Country,” Whitney says. “That is a solution for us all to move forward.”
What is an Indigenous Protected Area?
An Indigenous Protected Area, or IPA, is an area of land or sea cared for by Traditional Owners, who enter into a voluntary agreement with the Federal Government to manage the area for biodiversity conservation.
They commonly do this through skilled teams of local rangers, who practice traditional ecological knowledge and land management in ways that are both sustainable and economical.
By creating jobs and delivering education and training, IPAs change more than landscapes. As more than 2,600 Indigenous rangers are demonstrating in communities large and small, they provide financial stability and rewarding career paths.
But the return on investment is even greater still. A 2016 Social Ventures Australia report confirmed the role of IPAs in strengthening local communities, achieving large-scale conservation outcomes, and catalysing the development of a First Peoples’ land and sea-based economy.
Why we need more IPAs
Australia now has almost 80 IPAs, covering more than 74 million hectares of land and 4 million hectares of sea country. They have become vital to tackling pressing environmental threats.
In the Kimberley, four of the 10 mammals most needing protection survive in IPAs. Through research and monitoring, fire management, feral animal control and fencing, the Kimberley Ranger Network is helping to protect the golden bandicoot, brush-tailed rabbit-rat, black-footed rock-wallaby and greater bilby, which lives almost exclusively on Indigenous owned or managed land.
But it’s just a start.
The bulk of IPAs in Australia are in more arid, less populated regions. As the animation below shows, if we are serious about protecting iconic threatened species including the koala, then we need IPAs in more populated areas of higher natural value, too.
Whitney Rassip appreciates their power to keep Country and culture healthy and strong. “But we need to do more,” she says. “We need to expand the IPA network nationally."
“Aboriginal knowledge of Country and how it should be managed offers a solution to the climate crisis. IPAs don’t just benefit Aboriginal people; they benefit all Australians.”
Australia's nature laws are currently undergoing a once-in-10 year review.
We've already lost so much in the fires - help us advocate for stronger nature laws before it's too late.
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