When it comes down to it, the relationship between indigenous people and their land is pretty simple, says Yirralka ranger Makungun Marika.
“Our land is who we are, it’s what we are and it’s where we are from.”
A new study released by the National Environmental Research Program this week shows that ranger work in remote indigenous communities has enormous social, political and economic benefits which could have positive implications for reconciliation.
As governments look for innovative ways to manage the natural environment, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that indigenous people have something different to offer, said CSIRO anthropologist Dr Marcus Barber.
He worked with the Yirralka Rangers in northeast Arnhem Land, who cover almost 7000 square kilometres across 17 clan communities.
They manage sacred sites, control fire, feral animals and weeds, patrol the coast, monitor biosecurity and biodiversity, and run educational programs.
The Yirralka Rangers reported feeling healthier and more physically active in a job that is consistent with the key cultural principle of caring for land, Dr Barber told AAP.
The programs are also evidence of the viability of life in remote parts of the country, and Dr Barber said they should be a fundamental part of understanding the future of regional and remote Australia.
“People were able to live in the places that mattered to them,” he said.
“There were jobs on country, significant for them but also for their families, as they are able to keep children away from some of the pressures and challenges that might arise from being in town.”
Rangers play important leadership roles in communities, caring for cultural sites and conducting ceremonies.
“The community feels good when the rangers are out patrolling the country,” Mr Marika said in a locally-filmed video about the Yirralka Rangers.
Dr Barber said ranger work provides the opportunity to take on formal leadership roles, and gives people governance and administration skills they’re able to apply to other community organisations.
“It could be something as simple as going into the bank and negotiating with an issue to do with your bank account,” Dr Barber said.
The programs also give people the sense of a future they want, with the rangers keenly aware of their role model status in communities.
“You ask almost any child in a small Aboriginal community what they want to be when they grow up, and most of the time the answer is they want to be a ranger, male or female,” Dr Barber said.
This helped encourage them to pursue an education.
“I’ve worked around Australia, and any place that doesn’t have a ranger program wants one, because they understand that caring for country is a fundamental part of indigenous perspectives on the world, and being valued for that activity by society at large is hugely significant for self-esteem,” Dr Barber said.
“These activities are shaping the way the rest of Australia understands who Aboriginal people are and what they do.
“If done well it has consequences for reconciliation and attitudinal change amongst other Australians.”