Indigenous Protected Areas under threat

Morgana Russell

Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) are an untold success story of Australian conservation. IPAs are areas of Indigenous-owned land or sea where Traditional Owners have entered into an agreement with the Australian government to promote biodiversity and conserve cultural resources.

Indigenous Australian's have a critical role to play in conservation of Australia's natural environment. They have thousands of years of knowledge that has been passed down about how to live at one and sustainably manage the land. Their cultural heritage is closely interconnected with the natural land around them and the protection of natural places is often vital to their cultural practices and beliefs.

Indigenous-owned land includes some of the most biodiverse and ecologically intact parts of Australia. They have the potential to sequester 82 million tonnes of CO2, helping in the fight against climate change. IPAs are critical for Australia to meet our national and international nature conservation targets.

There are currently 60 declared IPAs that cover 48 million hectares, which make up one third of the National Conservation Reserve System and protect 5% of Australia's total land mass. The IPA program is part of the federal government's Working on Country program and is widely recognised as providing real social, cultural, economic and environmental benefits to local Indigenous communities.

The Working on Country program currently employs 680 Indigenous Rangers across 95 Australian Indigenous land and sea management groups. The positive health impacts of Aboriginal land management in one community were estimated at $270,000 annually. Research says that 85% of IPAs report that their activities improve early school engagement in their communities.

The average federal government support available to IPAs is about $0.50 per hectare for operating expenses. IPAs are a cost-effective management scheme for Australia's environment, while also benefiting Indigenous communities and culture. They are vital for managing our environment sustainably into the future and they need adequate, long-term secure funding.

From 2014, there is no funding available to establish new IPAs, and funding for existing IPAs is only guaranteed until 2018. The IPA estate, its biodiversity and the Indigenous livelihoods it supports face major threats from climate change, invasive species, changed fire regimes, pollution, overgrazing, erosion and funding insecurity. Friends of the Earth Australia support the creation of new IPAs and increased and long-term funding to Traditional Owners who are managing and protecting vast areas of Australia's precious environment.

Morgana Russell is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth's Barmah-Millewa Collective.

From Chain Reaction #123, April 2015, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia,