Indigenous Rangers key to environmental and community well-being

Published on Mon 9 September 2019 11:42pm

The land management and conservation work done by Indigenous rangers is invaluable to the preservation and restoration of our environment, especially in Indigenous Protected Areas which make up almost half of Australia’s National Reserve System.

Mr Wilson (11:42) — I’m glad to speak to this motion, and I thank the member for Leichhardt for bringing it forward as a matter for discussion. It should really go without saying that the preservation of Australia’s environmental values is critical for our future. I’m pleased to see both sides of this place acknowledging the importance of real conservation work at a time of accelerating environmental damage.

It’s also the case that we’re not making progress that’s nearly good enough when it comes to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and indeed the gap, when it comes to participation in employment, remains stubbornly wide. For both of those reasons, the government should look to do more to recognise and expand the work of Indigenous rangers at a time when the people undertaking the work say that much more needs to be done, there’s not enough funding as it is and no funding certainty.

The land management and conservation work done by Indigenous rangers is invaluable to the preservation and restoration of our environment, especially in Indigenous Protected Areas which make up almost half of Australia’s National Reserve System. In 2015, a Commonwealth review found that a $35 million investment in ranger programs provided a return of over $96 million in environmental, economic and social outcomes and the review suggested, understandably, that the further increase in investment would accelerate those returns.

We all know that ranger programs instil pride and purpose in young people as they work on country and stay connected to culture. They provide real jobs where jobs are often hardest to find and they lead to healthier communities in areas where health outcomes are poor. Above all, we know that ranger programs deliver high-quality landcare outcomes at a time when our country is under pressure from new threats and old—from climate change in addition to land clearing and invasive species; from plastic waste in addition to the long-brewing extinction crisis. Let’s be clear: while Indigenous Protected Areas make up half of Australia’s recognised conservation lands, they only receive a very small proportion of Australia’s national conservation budget. Fair and better funding of this work is widely supported in the Australian community. I thank the hundreds of people in my electorate who have contacted me over the past two years to make that case.

Labor has responded to the compelling logic of Indigenous rangers by announcing, in 2017, a plan to double their number to 1,550 full-time equivalent positions by 2021. It would be great if the government would follow that lead. It would be great if the government would reverse the funding cuts that they have inflicted on the Landcare Program as a whole. I want to acknowledge the approach being taken in my home state of Western Australia. The McGowan Labor government has established its own state based Aboriginal ranger program. As a result there are 13 separate ranger groups that operate from as far north as the Dampier Peninsula to Esperance on the south coast.

Last Thursday night, I attended a showing of a documentary called Untrashing Djulpan which looked at the devastating plastic trash contamination of the coast in North-East Arnhem Land. Rangers from the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation have been doing their best to deal with the year in and year out deposit of tonnes of bottles, nets, fishing gear, thongs, cigarette lighters, shampoo bottles, oil containers and other plastic trash along this coast. In 2018, a crew of Sea Shepherd volunteers went to support their work and measure the extent of the contamination. Those volunteers, I’m happy to say, included a number of people from my electorate: Mike and Liza Dicks and Marina Hansen.

We all know the awful facts: there’s more and more plastic being produced and it is not being recycled. In this country, we barely manage 10 per cent in plastic recycling and now other countries are refusing to take our waste. If we can’t do better than that in a country like Australia, how can we expect the producers of plastic to do better in other countries, particularly in developing countries? And how can we expect those less-developed nations to stop their impact on our oceans? It’s estimated that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Microplastic is already rife within the marine food chain. Research on the south coast of WA shows microplastic in 30 to 60 per cent of certain bird species and in 50 per cent of fish. Apart from the terrible impact on the lives of these animals, don’t forget that chemicals in plastic, including colourants and fire retardants, are toxic to humans.

Indigenous rangers around Australia are doing essential environmental and landcare work and they are being engaged in training and employment that has deep and wide social, cultural and economic benefits. No-one can dispute the value of the program, but the government can and should support it to a much greater extent, with more funding and greater funding certainty.

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