Land and sea management and native title

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s ownership and stewardship of country is formally recognised through land rights, native title, and cultural heritage laws.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always managed and cared for their country as part of their everyday lives. Today formal state or federal funded Indigenous land and sea management, or ‘caring for country’, programs include a wide range of environmental, natural resource and cultural heritage management activities undertaken by individuals, groups and organisations across Australia.

Ngurrara rangers assist with protective burns around remote communities and infrastructure. Photos courtesy of Kimberley Ranger Network, a Kimberley Land Council-led initiative.

Female ranger lighting grass around an outstation.

Co-land management in Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs)

IPAs are areas of land and sea managed by Indigenous groups as protected areas for biodiversity conservation. They are formed through voluntary agreements with the Australian Government. There are currently 75 dedicated IPAs over approximately 67 million hectares and these account for more than 44 per cent of the National Reserve System.

There are 12 new IPA projects in the 2017-2021 program which will increase the total of national reserves by almost 20%, with an additional $15 million committed to the program. IPAs bring both environmental benefits and recognise the role traditional custodians - have in the management of country. They create jobs within Indigenous communities, linking conservation with economic development. The Mandingalbay Yidinji Aboriginal Corporation provides further information about IPAs and the work they are doing on country.

Nantawarrina IPA  was the first IPA in Australia created in 1989 as a pilot project. The existing Indigenous owned land was turn into an IPA and managed by the South Australian Nepabunna Community under the guidance of the International Union for Nature Conservation Categories (IUNC). The Adnyamathanha people have rehabilitated the land, previously used as a pastoral station, conserving both the environment and their heritage, as the land has great cultural significance to them. The Adnyamathanha people are proud to have been part of the IPA movement that has spread across Australia and received an international award for their excellence in management of their lands. The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) offers a map on IPAs and ranger groups funded by the Commonwealth.

In the Northern Territory, the Warlpiri and Gurindji people of the Northern Tanami Desert manage four million hectares of land in an IPA. The IPA supports the spiritual and social wellbeing of around 1,200 Aboriginal landowners from the Lajamanu community. The government provided ongoing funding to look after country, utilising a mix of Indigenous land management practises and western methods.

Joint management of national parks

National park joint management boards are established in a number of national parks across Australia. This has enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take a central role in planning and decision making in national parks on country while honouring obligations to care for country and keep culture strong.

Example - New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS)

The NSW NPWS outlines the variety of joint management arrangements with Aboriginal communities including those that:

  • cover one park
  • cover multiple parks
  • result in a change in ownership of the land
  • can be part of larger agreements with native title holders.

The aim is for Aboriginal communities to make decisions about national park management at a policy, planning and direction-setting level. Under joint management arrangements, the Aboriginal community involved can make decisions for a park through:

Other land and see management programs

PBCs run successful ranger programs across the country using a variety of funding sources including those from mining royalties, generated through their own businesses, fee for services contracts and state and the federal government.

Example - Ranger groups in central Arnhem Land

Ranger groups started decades before federal funding was made available in 2007. A central Arnhem Land group, in the catchment of the Glyde River, started as early as the 1970s. Others such as the the Bawinanga Djelk Rangers followed in the early 1990s.

The Bawinanga Djelk Rangers manage commercial contracts including carbon farming, a crocodile hatchery program and sea patrol to contribute to their financial stability.

Ranger groups often work together across community, clan and language boundaries to look after their ancestral lands. The Arafura Swamp Rangers brought a number of ranger groups together to work out a Healthy County plan 2017-27 to protect Aboriginal culture, knowledge and ecosystems across 1.2 million hectares of East Arnhem Land

Explore how this plan came about and more about the rangers work in this video:

Some of the long-running funding programs that support the important role of looking after country are listed here:

The Queensland Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger Program is a state specific program to care for country. Indigenous communities partner with the Queensland Government to care for land and sea country, provide jobs and training and engage future generations. The program employs, trains, and supports Indigenous land and sea ranger teams for conservation work and provides community activity guidelines across 24 regional and remote communities.

Queensland Indigenous rangers speak about the importance of the program in this video.

The Indigenous Rangers Program (formerly ‘Working on Country’) draws on the traditional knowledge and skills of Indigenous rangers and is funded by NIAA. It provides opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to care for country and protect and sustain the natural resources and cultural values of their country. It has also helped create meaningful livelihoods and developed the capacity of Indigenous organisations to manage their country. In early 2020 the funding for the Indigenous Rangers Program was extended. The NIAA interactive map shows ranger projects that are funded under this scheme and provides a short summary.

National Land Care Programs (NLP) support Indigenous people and organisations to participate in the delivery of Natural Resource Management (NRM). NLP produced guidelines on how to participate.

Land and sea management opportunities within the native title process

In the native title context, evidence of land and sea resource use and management is important to demonstrate the contemporary exercise of traditional laws and customs and a continuing connection to country.

A whole of country planning process can help with demonstrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural values in land and sea resource use and management while preparing for and working through the usual native title processes. For example, see the Gurnaikurnai and the Dja Dja Wurrung country plans. There are more examples below.

Country planning can assist in the establishment of a PBC by creating opportunities for families to meet and discuss their shared aspirations and identify their goals, priorities and vision for the future of their PBC This way a PBC can be established in a way that will meet the community’s expectations.

Country planning work can also provide the information base and understanding required for productive native title settlement negotiations. It can inform the content of ILUAs with government and other interest holders that set out how native title rights may be exercised on country after a determination.

Planning at the early stages of the native title process helps identify the resources that will be necessary to achieve the PBC’s goals. This may include collaboration and partnerships with other organisations and communities that will enable the PBC to establish a ranger program or manage an IPA. This planning can also provide the foundation for the development of joint management plans over national parks and reserves.

There are numerous examples around Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have built on the recognition of their rights under land rights claims and native title claims. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have established and built land and sea management arrangements to care for country and culture in more effective and comprehensive ways that provide meaningful livelihoods and significant social and economic benefits for their communities.

Written by Austin Sweeney, consultant native title lawyer (updated 10.10.2020).

The Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation experience

The Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC administers land on behalf of the Balanggarra People. Balanggarra people’s Country is over approximately 26,025 square kilometres of land and sea in the northern Kimberley region of Western Australia. Trisha Birch Chairperson of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation speaks about the various programs the rangers and IPA cover.

Further resources


Examples of whole of country based plans: