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Support behind caring for country

Published 20 Mar 2014 

Late at night the feral pigs appear, snuffling and pawing at the pristine white sand on the beaches near Amban, Cape York. They come in search of buried treasure: olive ridley and flatback turtle eggs that are waiting patiently to hatch and whose numbers across the peninsula are being decimated by such predators.

Flatback turtle hatchlings. Photo byJean-Paul FerreroFlatback turtle hatchlings. Photo by Jean-Paul Ferrero 

But on Amban beaches these pigs are facing their last meal as rangers from the nearby community of Aurukun conduct ‘ground truthing’ surveys of the turtle nests and distribute deadly grain that targets such scavengers. The local program has dramatically reduced predation rates from 100% in 2012 to 23% last year.

This project is one of many indigenous conservation initiatives supported by the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation – an umbrella group working on the Cape York Peninsula, a vast area that covers 137 000 km2. Their community development work supports around 50 indigenous language groups to manage and work on their traditional lands and seas.

Emma Ignjic (second from left) coaching Healthy Country Planning at a workshop in Coen, Cape York. Photograph by Ellie AustinEmma Ignjic (second from left) coaching Healthy Country Planning at a workshop in Coen, Cape York. Photo by Ellie Austin

Cape York is also home to a mosaic of largely unspoiled ecosystems: from wetlands, monsoonal rivers, heath lands and dune fields to extensive tropical savannah woodlands and the largest remaining tract of unlogged tropical rainforest on the continent.

Since 2006, thanks to your generous support, Bush Heritage Australia has partnered with Balkanu to help fund strategic positions in their Caring for Country Program and support indigenous communities on Cape York to implement Caring for Country activities focused on conserving their distinctive natural and cultural landscapes.

Since working together we’ve helped the Balkanu Corporation meet one of its biggest priorities: the addition of 50 new ranger positions across Cape York.

Naomi Hobson (second from left) and Joanne Omeenya (fourth from left) facilitate Healthy Country Planning with Umpila families. Photo by Stuart CowellNaomi Hobson (second from left) and Joanne Omeenya (fourth from left) facilitate Healthy Country Planning with Umpila families. Photo by Stuart Cowell

During the past six months, Bush Heritage has developed new partnership agreements with two of our key indigenous partners – the Warddeken people of Western Arnhem Land and Balkanu, an Aboriginal owned incorporated organisation for Cape York Peninsula.

Through these partnerships and others across Australia, Bush Heritage has helped Aboriginal people to identify some of the conservation threats they face on their estates, plan their strategies, source federal funding, and develop some of the skills and resources that they need for the long-term sustainability of country.

But with the recent agreements to extend these two partnerships for another five years we hope to achieve much more – and we couldn’t do it without your help.

Warddeken Country

High up on the Northern Territory’s West Arnhem Plateau lies the ‘stone country’ of the Warddeken people. Its heart-stopping escarpment and rocky gorges encompass sandstone rainforests, mixed eucalyptus woodlands and floristically rich sandstone heathlands, making it a home for threatened species such as the northern quoll, black wallaroo and the Arnhem Land rock-rat.

Bush Heritage began working with the Warddeken people in 2007 after recognising the need for our organisation to move beyond the acquisition and restoration of land to the establishment of partnerships that would help indigenous landowners to manage estates that were often vast, remote and rich in biodiversity.

For the Warddeken people, this support helped lead to the declaration of their almost 1.5 million hectare estate as an Indigenous Protected Area in 2009. Now extended for a further five years, we hope our agreement will continue to support the conservation of this spectacular country.

- Emma Ignjic, Bush Heritage’s Indigenous Partnerships Manager Northern.

According to Emma, these new threats and management challenges mean that unique partnerships that combine Aboriginal knowledge with western scientific know-how can help to achieve the ecological, cultural and social imperatives of indigenous people.

Bush Heritage worked hard with other groups to develop a conservation-planning process that met the needs of Aboriginal people. With this process we work with Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups like the Umpila people of Cape York, to create Healthy Country Plans which include clear action plans and monitoring programs.

“Country is an Aboriginal term that means the land, the water, the air, the spirit, the language and everything that exists within your estate. It’s a more personal and spiritual relationship,” says Emma. “When we’re working with Aboriginal people, we have to keep in mind that they are not doing just land management – they’re caring for country. Healthy country includes the plants and animals, education and employment, the relationships between old and young people, and people’s physical and spiritual wellbeing,” she says.

It is our cultural adaptability and willingness to work with others, combined with conservation know-how, which has led Balkanu and Warddeken to continue their partnerships with Bush Heritage.

“Bush Heritage is an organisation that shares many of our aspirations and is willing to engage in terms suitable to indigenous people,” says Terry Piper, Balkanu’s Chief Operating Officer.

It’s a long-term relationship that Terry says will help indigenous communities to manage their land, create economic independence and to develop resilience.

“People ultimately want to work on and manage their own land,” he says.

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