Arnhem Land: Indigenous Australians Protect the Past

Covered from head to toe in a ghostly shade of ochre, members of the White Cockatoo Performing Group dance among the tall grasses and rocky escarpments of Arnhem Land in northern Australia.

These Indigenous Australian dancers are celebrating an historic event — the declaration of two new protected areas that together span 5 million acres and conserve ancient rock art paintings that tell incredible stories of an intricate connection between the Indigenous people and their natural world.

The new areas — known as the Warddeken and Djelk Indigenous Protected Areas — are protected by a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the Pew Environment Group, the Australian Federal Government and Indigenous landholders. And, with ongoing support from the Conservancy, traditional landowners will continue to manage these massive reserves through the work of Indigenous rangers.

“It’s just great to be here, to be part of such a wonderful event,” says Michael Looker, director of the Conservancy’s Australia program. “It’s wonderful because yes there are conservation outcomes, but what is really wonderful is that we are working with the Indigenous communities in a meaningful way that will make a difference.”

“This is the land that I have inherited and I have to look after it,” Dean Yibarbuk, Indigenous ecologist and elder with the Warddeken Rangers, explains.

A Conservation Milestone for Australia — and the World

The Warddeken and Djelk Indigenous Protected Areas are more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park and include sandstone gorges, pristine rivers, tropical savanna and coastal wetlands that stretch from the high country of the Western Arnhem Land Plateau to the islands off the Northern Territory coast.

Added to these important natural areas are the region’s famed rock art paintings depicting the world’s oldest living culture, which dates back more than 40,000 years. This valuable ecological and cultural pedigree gives the area a significance that extends far beyond the Northern Territory.

“These Indigenous Protected Areas, along with Kakadu National Park, provide one of the great conservation corridors of our continent and one of the most important areas of rich cultural rock art and conservation anywhere in the world,” Peter Garrett, Australian Member of Parliament, says.

“This is a major milestone for conservation in Australia,” Looker adds. “The region has remarkable natural and cultural value, including dozens of locally endemic plants and unique animals found nowhere else on Earth, thousands of rock art sites dating back 40,000 years, and spectacular scenery.”

Planning a Partnership

The declaration follows several years of consultations, which the Conservancy assisted by providing financial assistance as well as scientific expertise and strategic advice. The process involved members of more than 137 Indigenous clans in the region and helped develop detailed management plans that will guide future land practices.

Central to the region’s maintenance is the reintroduction of traditional burning practices that have been found to cut greenhouse gas emissions by preventing large uncontrolled bushfires. Other management approaches include control of feral animals, particularly buffalo, which cause serious damage to the region’s wetlands.

Dreams of the Future

The Conservancy is dedicated to protecting the connection between Indigenous Australians and the lands they have watched over for millennia.

“Indigenous people understand this land, they know what needs to happen and we can achieve a lot together by working through partnerships,” Looker says.

Both the White Cockatoo performance and the nearby paintings tell stories about the ‘Dreaming,’ or the indigenous history of how Australia began. Now these new protected areas not only protect the past but allow Indigenous Australians to dream of the region’s future.

“I will try to keep it this way for my children as well to look after — for them to look after it in the natural system,” Yibarbuk says. 


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