IWD2019: empowering Indigenous women

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we will be publishing content on women, their experiences and the need to balance for better. We hope you enjoy it.

Few would disagree it is important to both empower Indigenous women and tackle Australia’s growing environmental crisis. But perhaps what is not so evident is the connection between the two issues and how each can benefit the other.

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Aboriginal people manage over 67 million hectares of Australia – an area ten times the size of Tasmania – through Indigenous Protected Areas alone. This includes some of our most ecologically intact land and sea country, such as the remote Kimberly region of north-west Western Australia, and the savannah woodlands of Cape York in far north Queensland. 

"Women on country mean so much more than just jobs – it’s about building communities.” - Symonds

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Source: PMC (2018)

In order to help safeguard these landscapes, Bush Heritage and other organisations have been increasingly investing in Aboriginal-led conservation programs.

An analysis by Social Ventures Australia of the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area in Western Australia found for every $AU1 invested there was $AU2.30 of economic, social and cultural gain. Supply Nation, a national directory of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses, quotes a similar line calculating $AU4.41 of social return.

Empowering women to help care for country can boost social and economic returns even further. Debbie Symonds, Chief Executive of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation in Cape York says: “Women on country mean so much more than just jobs – it’s about building communities, it’s about strengthening families, it’s about bringing a sense of pride and a sense of worth back to disillusioned groups.”

As active and well-respected members in their communities, indigenous women bring inherent leadership qualities to their work and they pave the path for younger generations to follow in their footsteps. Debbie, for example, leads an organisation helping to return more than one million hectares of country to good health, while also accessing business opportunities around carbon abatement, pastoralism and eco-tourism. At the same time, she is promoting gender balance within Olkola’s Aboriginal ranger program and supporting her staff to receive training and make the most of professional development opportunities.  

Empowered, sustainable communities

Bush Heritage invests about $AU2 million per year into its Aboriginal Partnerships program so the communities it works with have the resources necessary to manage the vast expanses of land (often millions of hectares) under their care.

As well as the conservation outcomes achieved through Bush Heritage’s Aboriginal Partnerships program, it also leads to the creation of more employment opportunities on-country, allows Traditional Owners to develop new skills and contributes to the economic sustainability of communities.

Ultimately, Bush Heritage want their partnerships to be characterised by empowered, sustainable and healthy Aboriginal communities who are strong in their culture and laws, and who are generating business and work by keeping their country healthy.

Aboriginal women also have access to important cultural knowledge about species, plants and landscapes. By supporting these women to access land management positions, it not only leads to better outcomes for country, it also helps to keep that knowledge strong so it can be passed down to younger generations.

In Western Australia, women rangers such as Martu Elder Rita Cutter are playing a leading role in the fight to save the bilby. Using their traditional knowledge and expertise, they are carrying out surveys to record data on bilbies, undertaking fire management to protect bilby habitat and food sources; and working to track and remove feral cats from their country. Rita is also on the Indigenous subcommittee to the National Bilby Recovery Team – the first ever Indigenous subcommittee to any national recovery team.

Examples such as these demonstrate the significant impacts women can make when they are empowered to look after their country through well-resourced and properly funded programs.

Cissy Gore-Birch is National Aboriginal Engagement Manager at Bush Heritage Australia 

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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