Caring for country, caring for climate

Sustainable development of Aboriginal land

How do you build a sustainable industry on Aboriginal land that is economically viable and good for the land? This question has driven Rowan Foley for many years.

Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

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Rowan is from the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala people, Traditional Owners of Fraser Island and Hervey Bay in Queensland. He's a ranger by trade, and in this role he has cared for Australia’s traditional lands in Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory.

Rangers run cultural and natural resource projects on the traditional land, which is a world heritage national park. Their work supports the traditional landowners by enhancing their region’s unique biodiversity and cultural values.

Climate change challenges

Today, regions throughout Australia are feeling the effects of climate change. The rangers’ work is needed more urgently than ever.

Climate change is making Australia hotter, with more very hot days and with longer and more frequent heatwaves. Seven of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2002. There are more extreme fire risk days each year, and the bushfire season is longer.

Connected to the land

Australia’s First Peoples are deeply connected to their traditional lands. But these lands are located in some of the hottest areas of the country. Rising temperatures have increased the risk of devastating bushfires.

Wildfires are a real threat to the stability of the communities living on country. Fires harm the land, affecting the livelihood, health and wellbeing of the traditional landowners, and the future of their culture.

With carbon farming, sustainable economies on rural and remote Aboriginal lands are employing local people, and improving the environment. You can look after country, and it can be economically viable. It’s a realisation of a dream.”

Looking for an answer

Is there a way to care for the land so that the traditional owners can continue to live there, with a secure future? A new initiative has led Rowan closer to an answer.

In 2010 Rowan became the inaugural General Manager of the Aboriginal Carbon Fund, set up to support the sustainable development of Aboriginal lands. The Carbon Fund has attracted significant support in Australia, partnering with Aboriginal organisations, the business community and Caritas Australia.

Rowan tells the story

“The aim was to create a partnership between business and traditional landowners that would reduce climate change effects across the country.

We wanted to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere produced by wildfires, which warm the planet.

The Fund has set up a program where landowners undertake carbon farming to reduce national carbon emission levels. They sell these carbon credits to organisations that need to offset their own carbon liability or footprint. Payment for carbon credits give the remote communities a sustainable livelihood.

This program aimed at more than just financial gain. It is also intended to help traditional landowners maintain cultural, social and environmental benefits.

Bush fire

Fire management programs

Carbon farming is an agribusiness that can take the form of a savanna fire management program. We’re using our traditional practices. Over the last 40,000 years, the traditional owners in Australia actively managed the land, by making small fires in winter. This prevents very hot late-season fires.

And we’re expanding on the same practices now. For example, there’s the Oriners Forest Fire Management Program in Kowanyama near Cape York. The rangers have been working with the Kunjen/Olgol traditional owners; every year they burn the country, in the early dry season in June and July.

When it’s cold, that’s the time to light fires. Then you only produce a little amount of carbon  (greenhouse gases) that will go into the atmosphere. If we just let things take their course, all that
grass and vegetation on the ground would build up as fuel, and when the hot times come in November, we’d have big wildfires running across Cape York, burning out the region and its neighbours.

We can measure the reduction in carbon emissions that we gain from burning in winter. The amount of carbon saved through the process can be purchased as a carbon credit offset by the Government, or companies needing to reduce their carbon debt.

Together for a common purpose

Over the last few years, this program has prevented the hot summer fires, and it has also had social benefits.

The Kowanyama project gets people out on country and gives them access to bush tucker and other resources. It gets families and clans together, and helps with maintaining traditional knowledge and a healthy lifestyle.

It provides for better management of country. And it strengthens people’s connection with country.

Broad social and cultural outcomes

Traditional landowners are working as rangers, directly addressing climate change through other work in the community.

With the funds from carbon farming in the two coldest months, they can work to achieve broad social and cultural outcomes for the other ten months of the year. For example, they would undertake turtle tagging programs and participate in cultural programs.

A new sustainable industry

The earth is an environment to be safeguarded, a garden to be cultivated.”
Pope Francis

Carbon farming has put money in the bank for many marginalised First Australian communities. About 30 Australian organisations are buying carbon credits through this scheme, including banks, airlines, councils and universities.

Financial recognition has given traditional landowners a sense of pride in their work. People are holding their heads higher knowing the work they’re doing is of value. They’re generating income and protecting country and culture. They are feeling pretty good. And the community is realising its collective strengths.

These are the embryonic stages of a new sustainable industry on Aboriginal land.

It’s a clear signal to the business world. It’s a strong case for social return on investment — permanent jobs for traditional owners working in the sustainability industry in remote communities, using traditional knowledge and skills.

Building a bridge

This program has made greater interaction possible between traditional owners and non-Indigenous Australians. It has brought neighbouring Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups together for a common purpose — looking after country.

Carbon can build a bridge between black and white. Our work can help their business, and we can build a relationship. This program could be part of a reconciliation action plan or help organisations meet corporate social responsibility goals.

The question answered

With carbon farming, sustainable economies on rural and remote Aboriginal lands are employing local people, and improving the environment. You can look after country, and it can be economically viable. It’s a realisation of a dream.”

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