A Rainforest Rescue Research Project
Elle McDonald, Research Intern, Rainforest RescueThis article is part of a wider research project undertake by Elle McDonald for Rainforest Rescue to help better understand issues and opportunities with indigenous communities and rainforest protection.
National parks are widely
considered untouched ecosystems. Many of Australia’s national parks have
however, been shaped by a rich history of Indigenous culture and management.
Protected area management is moving toward an understanding of this, which has
seen the development of partnerships for the Traditional management of national
parks and other protected areas.
In the Wet Tropics, Queensland the Cape
York Peninsular Heritage Act 2007 has enabled the creation of national
parks and nature refuges over Traditionally Owned land. The new class of
protected area may apply to both existing national parks, as well as new
national parks established through this framework. The program secures about half
of all land handed back to Traditional Owners as Queensland National Parks. So
far, this has seen approximately 2.2 million hectares in the Cape York
Peninsular returned to Traditional Owners, with 1 million hectares of new
national park land established.
Ongoing evaluation of the social and
cultural issues associated with joint management arrangements is essential, as
participation in protected area management has not always shown favour to Indigenous
communities, who must often forgo many benefits of land ownership in
negotiating with government agencies. Where successful partnerships are
cultivated however, a range of cultural, economic and environmental benefits
can be achieved. The success of such partnerships may be determined by I) the
degree to which Indigenous land rights are recognised, II) the ongoing funding
allocated to the scheme and III) the level of self-determination promoted for
Secure tenure of forestlands for Indigenous
communities has a range of ecological benefits such as reduction in pest
species, improved threatened species management, hydrological services, nutrient
retention and carbon sequestration, and decreased levels of deforestation. In
Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia alone the tenure security of forests within Indigenous
territories will prevent the emission of 1.19 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide
emissions over the next 20 years.
Management of protected areas by
Traditional Owners can also have a range of beneficial economic impacts for
both Indigenous communities and investors. An Australian social return on
investment report indicated that an initial investment of $35.2m in Indigenous
Protected Areas from Government and other third parties generated $96.5m in
social, economic and environmental values from 2009-2015 financial years.
Joint management of protected areas
provides employment and increased opportunities for economic development in
Indigenous communities. Warddeken
Indigenous Protected Area for example, has secured considerable revenue for
Traditional Owners through the establishment of a successful carbon offset
program. Caring for Country is also associated with a number of health
benefits for Indigenous Australians.
One issue often involved in Indigenous
partnerships for protected area management is “eco-colonialism”. Many of such
partnerships have encompassed a dominance of modern ecological principles over
traditional ecological knowledge, as well as the exclusion of Traditional
Owners from the decision-making process.
Natural and cultural values are
usually separated in protected area management, and conservation often takes priority
over cultural heritage. Only 4 of Australia’s 19 World Heritage areas for
example are listed under both natural and cultural values. But many heritage
sites listed only for natural values, such as the Wet Tropics World Heritage
Area, encompass a living history of Indigenous culture.
There is great contention as to
whether joint management arrangements in Australia successfully facilitate
self-determination for Traditional Owners. While they provide excellent
opportunities for economic and community development, they still face much
criticism. In many cases, they could be considered a government response to
Native Title claims that impose conditions upon which the Traditional Ownership
of lands may be recognised; most arrangements require an immediate lease of
lands to government as national parks.
Joint management models in
Australia often incorporate strategies that encourage Indigenous autonomy over
protected areas, such as boards consisting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander majorities. The structure and conduct of such boards however are largely
bureaucratic, meaning they can tend to serve government, rather than Indigenous
The research also looked into inconsistences
in Queensland’s legislation for biodiversity, land rights and mineral exploration,
and the implications they pose for the security of Indigenous land ownership. The
permitting of mineral exploration and extraction on nature reserves in
Queensland is a quintessential example of this. There are currently 273 mineral
exploration permits within the boundaries of Nature Refuges. The Cape York
Peninsular Heritage Program has established 17 nature refuges, totalling 560,
000 hectares, on Traditionally Owned lands, which under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (Qld) are
not exempt from mineral exploration.
Mineral exploration and extraction
has been, and continues to be, one of the most influential industries in the
dispossession of land for Indigenous Australians. While the Queensland
government hands back land to Traditional Owners as National Parks, it
continues to approve projects such as the Carmichael Coal Mine on Traditional
Lands. This project was approved against the will of Native Title Claim groups,
the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners, through the National Native Title
Tribunal. The Federal Government has also moved to make amendments which could
weaken Native Title laws, following a recent Federal Court decision that threw
into question the validity of Indigenous Land Use Agreements.
Some recent developments in
Queensland’s protected area strategy do suggest it may be moving forward in
protecting conservation covenants from mineral exploration. A Draft Queensland Protected
Area Strategy released in February this year proposed a new class of privately
owned protected area called “Special Wildlife Reserves”. The reserves will
consist of higher-level protection than Nature Refuges, consisting of ‘national
park’ protection status on privately owned land. This protection status would
preclude mineral exploration within the boundaries of Special Wildlife Reserves.
The security of privately owned protected areas such as conservation covenants
would therefore be strengthened should the Queensland Government proceed with
would like to acknowledge that I do not speak for, nor do I understand the challenges
faced by Indigenous communities. This research was undertaken rather to assist
in informing Rainforest Rescue on best practice in, and potential opportunities
for partnerships with Traditional Owners. Rainforest Rescue has previously
worked in partnership with Girringun IPA and with the Daintree Jabalbina
Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation through projects such as restoration works in
the Wet Tropics, Queensland."
Elle McDonald, 2017