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The Arafura Swamp Rangers

Published 27 Mar 2018 

Bush Heritage and Traditional Owners are proudly working in partnership to return the Arafura Swamp region to good health.

ASRAC sea ranger Florence Biridjala. Photo Daniel Hartley-Allen.

Stretching across 70,000 hectares of Arnhem Land is one of northern Australia’s largest freshwater ecosystems, the Arafura Swamp or Gurruwiling. Here, you’ll find peeling paperbark trees, glossy green water lilies, Barramundi, turtles, crocodiles, and, in the wet season, as many as 300,000 birds.

The Yolngu and Bi people of Gurruwiling are intricately tied to this landscape and it to them. It's their supermarket and freshwater supply, and the classroom in which they learn lessons passed down from their ancestors.

In return, they keep this country healthy: controlling weeds and feral animals, minimising the threat of damaging wildfires, and working to mitigate saltwater intrusion. But just as those threats are becoming more pressing, there are fewer people on country to control them.

“A long time ago, when the dry season came, we would be going out to hunt for goanna and burning patches here and there to get our food,” says Arafura Swamp senior ranger Solomon O’Ryan. “That practice collapsed ... If you look at the new world now, we see everyone in town.”

ASRAC sea rangers Brendon Warrinyinba Gaykamangu (L), Florence Biridjala (R), and senior ranger Solomon O’Ryan (C). Photo Daniel Hartley-Allen.

Solomon is part of a partnership that’s helping to return people to country, while also building environmental, cultural and socioeconomic sustainability across the region. Recently, that partnership resulted in the Arafura Swamp Rangers Healthy Country Plan 2017-2027.

Incorporating the combined knowledge of 33 Yolngu and Bi clans, the plan is a roadmap for the Arafura Swamp Rangers to manage 1.2 million hectares of land and sea under the auspices of the Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation (ASRAC).

Formed in 2013, ASRAC has partnered with Bush Heritage Australia and others to build its profile, strengthen its governance structures and develop its Healthy Country Plan.

“Bush Heritage's role in this collaboration is about bringing in additional resources to strengthen ASRAC and enable its work,” says Peter Saunders. As Bush Heritage Healthy Country Manager for Arafura Swamp, Peter is based in the township of Ramingining, on the edge of Gurruwiling, where he's now strengthening ASRAC's capacity to achieve its healthy country goals.

Feral buffalo threaten the health of the Arafura Swamp region. Photo Daniel Hartley-Allen.

The Arafura Swamp Rangers’ work is focused on reducing threats to the key targets identified in their Healthy Country Plan. Of those threats, feral buffalo are one of the most damaging.

They spread weeds, trample wetlands, increase erosion, and open up channels that enable seawater to intrude on freshwater ecosystems.

“There are lots of feral animals doing big damage to this area,” says Solomon. “We used to have lots of water lilies, now it’s just dirty water.”

Currently, an external party is contracted to carry out regular buffalo mustering in the region, but it’s hoped ASRAC will have greater control and input into such contracts in coming years.

Another major part of the rangers’ work involves implementing right-way fire to lessen the impact of late-dry season wildfires in the September to December storm season. In doing so, they contribute to reductions in Australia’s carbon emissions, earning them about $1 million a year in carbon credits through the Commonwealth Government’s carbon abatement program.

That money funds vital management activities such as consultations, fire control and equipment purchases, while also building the local economy. It's a glimpse of what's possible with a strong, stable and well-resourced ASRAC.

“Bush Heritage has a long-term commitment to this partnership, and we're dedicated to supporting ASRAC as it works towards its healthy country goals,” says Peter. “One of the biggest threats to country and culture in this region is the ever-changing nature of the political and funding environment that these communities are trying to operate in. We are providing this corporation with consistent support, which contributes to the Arafura Swamp rangers' delivery of long-standing environmental outcomes.”

Bush Heritage has 24 Aboriginal partnerships across Australia. For more information see our Aboriginal Partnerships page.

One of Australia’s largest and most valuable freshwater ecosystems is at threat. Working together, we can help return Arafura Swamp to good health. Please join us in this powerful partnership. Donate now.

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