Seeds of a Huge Step Forward?

To coincide with NAIDOC Week, the NSW Environment Department has announced plans for Aboriginal joint management of the state’s national parks. The parks, which cover about 10% of the state, will be returned to traditional ownership, subject to lease-back to the NSW government.

The newly announced plan is entering an 18-month consultation phase. It is projected to be implemented over the next 15 to 20 years.

Currently, around 30% of NSW national parks are co-managed with traditional owners. However, just 2% of Parks & Wildlife land is legally owned by indigenous people.

That may have been set to change. One-third of the national parks estate is subject to ongoing native title claims. So the current process may be seen as a way to control an already inevitable transition to indigenous ownership. 

In the announcement, the NSW government also claims “it is not in a position to pay market rent” to traditional owners for the entire national parks estate. NSW Parks & Wildlife is instead touting the plan as bringing “employment opportunities” for indigenous people “as well as strengthening the role of Aboriginal communities in national park decision-making and enhancing the protection of cultural heritage.”

Bush tucker in Arakwal National Park: Parks & Wildlife are promoting the “cultural tourism” benefits of indigenous co-management.

Will There be More Indigenous Fire Management? 

Parks & Wildlife seem at pains to confirm that they will continue to fulfil their legal requirements around hazard reduction burning, which are enshrined in NSW law. This may be a nod to the misconception that “green”-associated politics inhibit hazard reduction burning.

But if the existing legal framework is not up for discussion, it is hard to say that the proposal will truly amount to “co-management.” There has been no specific comment about expanding cultural burning from Parks & Wildlife.

Co-management of national parks is well-established in many countries, particularly in Amazonia and Central America. Some conservationists, sadly, have been dismayed at indigenous groups winning control of these territories. 

Indigenous knowledge often operates with a place-specificity that clashes with the standardised testing and procedures that are predominant in conservation science. It will be fascinating to see how Australia navigates cultural differences in thinking about country over the coming years.

The national parks plan came alongside another NAIDOC week announcement: the indigenous population of Australia has reached 1 million. The 23% increase represents an acceleration in the number of Australians disclosing indigenous identity in the census. From a bushfire management perspective, the teaching of relevant knowledge is more important than how people identify in the census.

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