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Seeing Our Old Peoples' Visions Come Alive For The Girringun Region, Australia


Australia has a growing national network of protected areas (PAs) known as the National Reserve System (NRS) which extends over two (of many) exceptional World Heritage Areas (WHAs) in Australia’s north east: the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the Wet Tropical Rainforests of Queensland (WT). Biodiversity conservation (under legal protections of varying strictness) and multiple uses (set out by zoning and related regulations) apply in both the GBR WHA and the WT WHA. The GBR WHA was formally listed under the World Heritage Convention in 1975, less than 10 years after a national referendum was held enabling the Australian government to make laws for their benefit, and granting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ the right to be counted in the national census. The WT WHA was formally listed in 1988, Australia’s bi-centenary of European colonisation. Both WHAs were listed without the participation or consent of the traditional custodians of the lands or the seas included in them. Assertion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests and rights in the governance, management, protection, preservation and presentation of world heritage listed places in Australian jurisdictions remains well curtailed by state power and generally ignored by political will. The capacity of Traditional Owners to assert a comprehensive say over the future of their ancestral lands, seas and waters is further limited through complex legalistic and institutional arrangements, including (at times socially destructive) native title processes. Nevertheless, some progress has been made over recent years in the self-generated assertion of legally recognised bio-cultural resource conservation on Indigenous-held lands and increasingly in terrestrial and marine PAs. This example of best practice highlights the potential for alternative mechanisms of collaboration in the stewardship of PAs through Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) and Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements (TUMRAs).

Problem, challenge or context: 
This case study presents and shares learnings from an extended multi-year process of structured facilitation and community-based strategic planning to create and sustain the Girringun Region Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement (TUMRA) and the Girringun Region Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) through the primary agency of the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation. IPAs are recognised as part of Australia's network of terrestrial protected areas (PAs): the National Reserve System, with sea country (marine) IPAs now also part of our national network of marine PAs: the Commonwealth's Marine Reserve System. IPAs make up 35% of the entire NRS (2014 data). The Australian Government’s 5th National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity outlines the growing challenges the nation faces in maintaining and sustaining bio-diversity given the rapid transformation of terrestrial (land-based) and marine (sea-based) ecosystems and life-forms since colonisation some 228 years ago, now exacerbated by global warming. 


Key areas of concern identified in this 2014 report include: 

  • a major decline in mammals in northern Australia;
  • changes in species composition and loss of ecological integrity across a range of threatened ecological communities;
  • degradation in native vegetation;
  • substantial degradation in the east, south-east and south-west of the oceans surrounding the continent
  • substantial degradation in ecosystems near the coast, with bays and estuaries in these regions in poor to very poor condition
  • lack of [western] scientific data and understanding means resulting in difficulties in interpreting the relationship between the current state of biodiversity and the ecosystem services the environment provides
Identified threats include:

  • loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitat
  • climate change and climatic events
  • invasive species and pathogens
  • grazing pressure
  • altered fire regimes
  • changes to the aquatic environment and water flows
  • urban development and unsustainable use of natural resources
  • ocean change
Key priorities for action in Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy (ABCS) 2010-2030 are:  ) to engage all Australians [in biodiversity conservation]; 2) building ecosystem resilience in a changing climate; and  ) getting measureable results. Interestingly, the ABCS only explicitly links the first two priority actions to Indigenous participation and Indigenous-lead initiatives including IPAs. Yet in recent years significant research and analysis has been undertaken into the clear benefits generated by and through IPAs, and the quantification of their ‘value for money’ in terms of related public investments. The 5th National CBD Report states that a review [proposed for 2015 with no publicly available outcomes document known] will consider whether the targets or other elements of the ABCS should be amended, and where Australia can improve alignment between the ABCS, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. The Girringun TUMRA and IPA initiatives, together with the establishment of the Girringun Aboriginal Rangers, clearly show that better collaboration between Aboriginal Traditional Owners and government management authorities is not only possible, but can lead to significant benefits in terms of bio-cultural diversity protection, on-ground PA management effort, knowledge sharing and skills development. These arrangements do so by bringing diverse management agencies together at the one table with Traditional Owners to build a holistic management capacity at land and sea-scape scales. They encourage and discipline agencies and partnering organisations to collaborate across jurisdictions, across sectors and within agency ‘silos’. These initiatives have also directly lead to measureable improvements in Aboriginal health and wellbeing, livelihoods, enhanced socio-economic stability and career development opportunity. They also fulfil the Old Peoples' vision for a strong role for Girringun Aboriginal Corporation in re-asserting the active presence of Traditional Owners on country.

Specific elements of components: 

Girringun Aboriginal Corporation (Girringun) has represented the regional land and sea management interests of 9 distinct Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups: Djiru, Gulnay, Girramay, Jirrbal, Warungnu, Warrgamay, Bandjin, Gugu-Badhun and Nywaigi peoples; whose traditional land and sea country extends over exceptionally significant bio-cultural landscapes (770,000ha) including 170kms of coastline abutting the GBR WHA. The ancestral custodial rights and interests of these Girringun-affiliated Traditional Owner groups are regionally recognised through negotiated boundary agreements between member groups, and those with neighbouring Traditional Owner groups. Management of PAs within the GBR WHA and the WT WHA has historically taken place in complete isolation of these continuing Aboriginal interests, with both WHAs declared without any prior consultation or involvement of the lands’ or the seas’ Traditional Owners. Management agencies seek to engage with Aboriginal peoples but rarely apply (or amend) policy to more effectively involve Aboriginal peoples in PA governance and operational planning, let alone empower Aboriginal management of ‘public’ PAs as ecosystem services.

New and innovative approaches were required to move beyond the significant original barriers for direct Traditional Owner involvement in marine and terrestrial PA governance, strategic management and on-ground operations. This was originally initiated by Girringun's founding Elders in the mid 1990s, who sought to have the name of the then Lumholtz National Park changed to better reflect Aboriginal connections to the land. Carl Lumholtz was a Norwegian naturalist who spent some time with local Aboriginal people in the early 1880s, he subsequently wrote a book titled "Among Cannibals" describing his experiences. Girringun's founding Elders were concerned that having the PA named for him would continue to entrench profound misconceptions and the denigration commonly experienced by their peoples. Through Girringun's efforts the PA is now named Girringun National Park, and forms part of the Girringun Region IPA collaboratively managed by the Girringun Aboriginal Rangers and the Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service.

The action taken: 
Overcoming institutional inertia against pro-active policy change

Before commencing negotiations between its 9 member Traditional Owner groups, and between its members and external agencies involved in local PA management, Girringun:

  • secured funds to commence a 2 year IPA consultation program; 
  • engaged a professional facilitator with a positive working history with the organisation and its member groups;
  • making sure the facilitator had a strategic understanding of the many diverse challenges ahead; 
  • simultaneously established an Aboriginal Ranger program; and
  • secured resources under contract by State and Australian governments for multiple years. 
Politicised agendas and the revolving door of elected government

Negotiations around the Girringun IPA commenced in 2009, with a State election due in 2012 and a federal election due in 2013. Both elections were seen as likely to usher in a change of government (which did indeed happen). With these critical dates in mind, Girringun adopted the following strategic approach:

  • Preparation of Agency Discussion Paper (2009) clearly setting out the intent and benefits of the proposed IPA;
  • Rapid establishment of an IPA Steering Committee at the start of negotiations
  • Involving only senior departmental officers and policy decision-makers;
  • Ensuring parity with Elders’ decision-making;
  • Including a range of relevant government agencies and NGOs;
  • Providing the Agency Discussion Paper to all participating agencies;
  • Seeking their early comment and suggestions on the Paper;
  • Briefing all relevant State and Australian government ministers;
  • Briefing all relevant shadow (opposition) ministers before each election;
  • Briefing ministers and their advisors after a change of government; and
  • again in the immediate lead-up to the IPA’s declaration in mid 2013.
Involving everyone with an interest from the very beginning:

  • All of Girringun’s 9 Traditional Owner member groups;
  • State and Australian government agencies with regulatory powers in the Girringun region;
  • These were: GBRMPA, WTMA, Qld Parks & Wildlife Service, Qld Marine Parks, Qld Fisheries;
  • Local governments within the Girringun region (5 separate Councils);
  • Regional natural resource management (NRM) bodies for the Wet Tropics and the Dry Tropics bioregions;
  • Private landholders partnering the IPA; and
  • Other relevant and interested organisations (e.g.: environmental NGO)
Key lessons learned: 

Austerity in public investment measures / lack of investment: 

In recent years, political mileage has been made at all levels of government in Australia about government debit and budget deficits. Comparatively Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and borrowing rates for government have never been more favourable. Ideological political agendas based on a perceived need to dramatically reduce public expenditure and a rejection of established climate science have seen public investment in biodiversity conservation, climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts fall away. In terms of Australia meeting related Aichi Targets, current fiscal, Indigenous and biodiversity-related policy settings acutely jeopardise the many benefits generated by IPAs. Disastrous attempts since 2013 to consolidate all Indigenous programs under the umbrella of a single agency placed in the Prime Minister’s office have also seen the IPA program removed from the federal Department of Environment. To this end, the current policy chaos enveloping the IPA program success story and retarding its expansion requires that chronic under-investment in IPAs be addressed and remedied. Demand to expand the IPA program is abundantly clear across the country.


Being flexible and moving with change:

Be aware of the political and legal context, and regularly monitor these to anticipate and plan for actions which can sustain a complex regional facilitation and planning process over multiple years. Without the extensive briefing approach described above and the encouragement of related goodwill, it may well have not been possible to have successive administrations of differing ideology / policy intent support the declaration of the Girringun IPA.


Supporting stronger communities into the future

The Girringun Region was centrally and severely impacted by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi (Australian category 5 system) in February 2011. Girringun’s offices are located in Cardwell which experienced a 5m+ storm surge during the cyclone. Other Indigenous Ranger groups from northern Queensland came to the Girringun Aboriginal Rangers aid and assisted the region’s rural communities to remove debris, make access safe and support recovery following this catastrophic natural disaster. This experience lead directly to the adoption and implementation of improved regional disaster response policies and built stronger working relationships between Girringun and emergency services managers.

Impacts and outcomes: 

The Australian continent and associated contemporary jurisdictions are considered to be amongst Earth’s most mega-diverse continents – it’s extent, it’s diversity of endemic and other marine and terrestrial species, it’s superb bio-cultural diversity, it’s unique Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. With 560,000 species known to inhabit our continent’s lands, seas and waters. Australia’s marine territorial waters extend over 13.86 million km2 of which some .2 million km2 of ocean being managed primarily for biodiversity conservation, in part also open to other uses subject to regulation / use zoning. Some 36% of marine territorial waters are protected within 300+ marine PAs. Terrestrial (land-based) PAs cover about 16.25% of the continental landmass - over 10,000 areas in 2013, with about 54% protected as IUCN categories I-IV and 46% as IUCN categories V or VI (allowing human use and occupation). The Girringun Region IPA is Australia’s largest co-managed IPA and the only IPA to include significant areas protected within two WHAs – one terrestrial and the other marine. It is supported by MOUs with all partnering bodies including with all statutory WHA / PA management agencies. The Australian and Queensland governments’ response to the crisis facing the GBR WHA has generated a suite of investment measures including Reef Rescue 2008-2013, which included a AU$10 million commitment towards the Reef Rescue Land and Sea Country Indigenous Partnerships Program aimed at actively engaging Indigenous communities in managing and protecting the reef’s marine resources and cultural diversity. The programme engaged traditional owners of the GBR to work on establishing TUMRAs with the GBR Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Between December 2008 and June 2013, the GBRMPA expanded its TUMRA program from four TUMRAs to eight agreements (seven TUMRAs and one Indigenous Land Use Agreement). Without the original Girringun TUMRA as an example it is unclear how this greater Reef Rescue initiative would have developed over the years. In addition, the Girringun TUMRA provides for the legal acknowledgement of Girringun Saltwater Traditional Owners' country, thereby grounding the Girringun IPA within the GBR WHA statutory framework.

Contact details: 
Ellie Bock
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