Meet the Indigenous rangers keeping our country healthy

Through the Indigenous Ranger Program, Aboriginal people like Celia Bennett and Reeny Hopiga are leading their people by example, and fulfilling their cultural responsibilities through meaningful employment.  The rangers work to preserve their culture and keep their country healthy- but their future is uncertain. 

It’s only 8am, but inside the Troop Carrier it’s already beginning to swelter.  The soak holes and scrub flickering past the window have been parched dry by the searing heat.   We’re a few hundred kilometres south of Broome, near the Bidyadanga community, and Karajarri Senior Ranger Jess Bangu is taking us ‘out bush’ to collect samples for a biodiversity survey.

Kimberley Land Council officer, and driver Ben Cavuoto is carefully forging a new track through a dense ti-tree thicket.  As we venture deeper into the scrub, he begins to glance around nervously.

“Have you got a GPS tracking system?” he asks Jess.  She laughs at him, shaking her head.  She knows her country like the back of her hand. 

Jess is one of 14 Karajarri rangers responsible for managing 33,000km2 of Indigenous Protected Area.  They must work with their ‘old people’ – the elders and traditional owners of the land – and the Kimberley Land Council to deliver a land management regime incorporating traditional and scientific methods.

This is the modern version of Indigenous land management, but for Aboriginal groups like the Karajarri people, the responsibility to care for country is binding and inviolable.  Through the program, Jess and other rangers have been leading their people by example and strengthening their communities.  

Jess was one of the first Karajarri rangers when the program began in 2006, and one the first female rangers in the Kimberley.  Her work has helped paved the way for Aboriginal women living in remote Australia. 

“I remember at one of the first ranger forums we went to, I was the only woman there,” she says.

“Now we’re almost half-half with the men.  It’s not just the ranger program that’s been growing, but our women and our communities too.”

Karajarri Senior Ranger Jess angu collects samples for a biodiversity survey, near Bidyadanga community.  Jess was one of the first female rangers in the Kimberley, and is leading the not only for her people, but Aboriginal women around Australia.

Back at the office in Bidyadanga, Indigenous Protected Area co-ordinator Sam Bayley is planning the rangers schedule for the week.  Sam pads each task with plenty of time; he knows the difficulties in managing such vast and ferocious country, and life up here is not ruled by the inexorable calendar. 

For the 170 million hectares of Aboriginal freehold land in Australia, there are only 777 full-time equivalent ranger positions, or only one ranger for 2,000km2.  PEW Charitable Trust spokesperson Patrick O’Leary says more must be done to secure viable futures for Indigenous Australians living on their traditional country.

“The ranger program is one of the most outstanding programs that has ever worked at the grassroots level right across Australia.  These models are world leading models and create a working partnership between indigenous peoples, government and other agencies to deliver better environmental management at the scale that we need it,” Mr O’Leary says. 

“This is something that wins for the environment, and for people. We need to grow the program to the scale that the land needs, and create more jobs where they’re needed most in Australia.”

The federally funded program is regarded as one of the most successful Aboriginal-employment related policies, and while the current government will fund the program until 2020, commitment beyond that remains unclear. 

The Coalition was the only significant political party not to make any federal election commitment to continue or increase the funding of rangers, while a Labor government would double the number of available ranger positions. 

The ranger’s responsibilities go beyond keeping their country healthy.  Aboriginal people share an overriding concern when senior members of the community pass away, knowledge is lost, and the rangers work to preserve their culture for future generations. 

Jess has been digitising the Karajarri dictionary, recording the five different dialects spoken by her people. On the biodiversity surveys she has been leading, the rangers record important ecological knowledge pertaining to their culture.   

Jess’ work has paved the way for younger rangers, like Sheen Kitty.  Sheen left his home when he was 18 to pursue a plumbing apprenticeship in Melbourne. He struggled to adjust to life in a foreign city, and quit midway through to return home, unsure of his future.    

Now, through the ranger program, Sheen is able to learn new skills without having to sever what is important to him. 

“Being able to stay on Country and work, that’s a big bonus,” he says. 

“This is my home, and I’ve been making my family proud with all the good work I’ve been doing.  They grew me up, and now I get the chance to give something back and show my people the right way.”

“That’s worth more than all the money in the world to me.” 

Ranger Sheen Kitty sets out across the mud flats in search of a traditional fishing net, which poses a threat to local wildlife.  The rangers manage harsh and often inaccessible country – on a recent cultural knowledge transfer trip they had to make their own road through 300km of bush, which took 3 days and 10 flat tyres just to get there. 

The rangers are role models in their community, and work with low-attendance students from the local school on cultural learning programs. Indigenous Protected Area co-ordinator Sam Bayley says these mentorships have been highly effective in re-engaging students at school, but progress has been limited by available resources. 

“For these kids, it’s important they’re formally schooled in the education system, but they also need to learn skills that are relevant to who they are and where they come from,” Mr Bayley says. 

“A lot of the kids see the rangers taking pride in their work and realise becoming a ranger is a really desirable option.  But without a formal program in place, we don’t have the resources to be consistent in making a difference for these kids.”

A ‘Learning on Country Program’ has been already been implemented in schools around Arnhem Land, with proven practical outcomes.  An independent report commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Office found the program had been demonstrably successful in improving attendance rates, engaging the wider community in schooling, and providing young people with a pathway from education to employment.

The Karajarri rangers have also been working on a growing tourism program, based on successful models from communities on Cape Leveque.  A permit system introduced last year provides a small source of income for local economies, and helps manage the rangers to manage cultural impacts of tourism.

Tourist Shane admires a bough shed built by the rangers.  The rangers have been building bough sheds at community beaches to facilitate a more enjoyable experience for tourists, and their fellow community members.

While the program is mostly active in remote Australia, Mr O’Leary says there is potential for Aboriginal people living in large cities to access on country work – if the funding is there.    

“Where the program is active, we’ve seen reductions in alcohol related issues, welfare dependency and lower incarceration rates. The more security and consistency we can give, the more we can allow the groups to get stronger and build their own skills,” he says

 “There is all sorts of work to be done, but as a country we need to get behind the idea this is a really good way to get people involved that have in the past missed out.”