As the project progressed it became clear that it was highly ambitious. It is challenging geographically, thematically and in terms of the administrative complexity of Indigenous affairs and ecosystem management.
It is geographically challenging since each of the catchment areas is large in itself and has a diverse and dispersed population, and the three catchment areas are widely distant from each other. Distance, population dispersal, cultural and historical discontinuities within and between case study catchments - all of these presented difficulties for in-depth research within the timeframe.
The project was also thematically challenging since it deals with three very broad and complex areas of Indigenous public policy: whole of Government service delivery; catchment management within the broader theme of Cultural and Natural Resource Management; and Indigenous futures, embracing employment as well as cultural maintenance, adding up to sustainable livelihoods. Each of these topics is complex. The amount and nature of previous research in each of them is variable, and the period of previous research is crucial as each theme is within a continually evolving area of policy development.
Thirdly, the project is ambitious in terms of the administrative and governance arrangements it aims to cover. It traverses the three Australian jurisdictions – national, state/territory, local government – but these differ markedly for each of the catchments. The Northern Territory, for instance, has much closer integration with the Commonwealth than the other two state jurisdictions, and the relationship of Aboriginal people to local government differs across the three catchments. Statutory management groups or advisory organisations, the catchment management groups established by legislation or administrative order, are also distinctly different in each case. Added to these are Aboriginal reference groups, community-controlled service organisations (local ranger groups, regional land and development organisations), and community-controlled representative organisations. Among these NAILSMA is cross-jurisdictional, while others such as the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), the Northern Land Council (NLC), Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation (Balkanu) and the Northern Gulf Indigenous Savannah Group are regional or sub-regional.
Because of the challenging scope of the project within the time scale the project took the approach of analysing the appropriate literature on CNRM, particularly the Working on Country program, and current progressive scholarship in the theory of public administration. It used the insights drawn from site visits to a range of CNRM stakeholder groups in each of the catchments to inform the selection and interpretation of the scholarly material, arriving at the twin conclusions that a complex administrative environment is not detrimental to effective management if adaptive or pragmatic experimentalist management (Sabel 2004) is encouraged at the local level.
Recent Analyses of Efficiency in CNRM
Fortunately, there is much good quality recent work for this project to draw upon. The Coombs Policy Forum has produced a literature review of NRM programs (mainstream and Indigenous) which is arranged historically (Clayton, Dovers, Harris 2011). It offers a useful outline of policy periods and NRM programs since the early 1980s, with succinct outlines of the strengths and weaknesses of each initiative from the perspective of major research appraisals. While this summary is not specifically concerned with Indigenous programs, May (2010) has produced a detailed analysis of the Working on Country programs which is particularly useful for understanding the diverse sources of funding and administration of this major Indigenous NRM funding source. May concludes that the Federal government investment in Working on Country represents a degree of success of government programs to adequately match local needs and aspirations for land management. May finds that in formalising systems of Indigenous cultural and natural resource management, there is a greater need for government to support community-driven initiatives.
Working on Country is administered by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPaC, formerly DEWHA). SEWPaC channelled this funding from diverse sources and their efficiency has been evaluated by the consultancy firm Walter Turnbull (2010). This evaluation is positive about the aims of the WoC program but critical of some of the inefficiencies in delivery. The report found that feedback for the program was overwhelmingly positive. However key weaknesses of the program were identified as: the vulnerability of caring for country activities without secure funding beyond 2013; an overt emphasis on employment, which overlooks the wider community benefits of caring for country and how these contribute to the objectives of Closing the Gap; the lack of funding for community engagement, which would allow rangers to achieve cultural legitimacy for their programs; a lack of funding for capacity building of the organisations which support the rangers, with a recognised need for investment in governance and administration needs; and a lack of flexibility within the program to allow for the type of activities that support caring for country, such as a limited availability of vehicles (WalterTurnbull, 2010: 2-5). FaHCSIA, a major funding source at the time of the report, responded positively to these criticisms.
Several recent publications also discuss the inherent inequities in the delivery of mainstream NRM funding, particularly through regional distribution mechanisms. Hill and Williams (2009) discuss the allocation of 3% of NRM funding to Indigenous communities and native title holders, who hold responsibilities for 20% of the land mass, as a policy failure. They emphasise the need to work through the native title and land rights systems to not only avoid conflict in deliberative processes, but to support the anticipated benefits from the recognition of Indigenous native title, and work towards a resolution of Indigenous environmental rights issues. They advocate for a separate stream of NRM funding being directed towards Indigenous engagement with a focus on Indigenous-specific planning, linking in with Indigenous Land Use Agreement’s and establishing an Indigenous NRM civil society.
Contested Representation: the Daly River Aboriginal Reference Group
The Daly River Aboriginal Reference (DRARG) Group is a consultative body for the Daly River Management Advisory Committee (DRMAC). DRMAC is a stakeholder reference group established by the Northern Territory government to advice on sustainable use and conservation of the Daly catchment. DRARG has twenty-two members and three of these sit on DRMAC. DRARG produced an Indigenous Management Framework for the Daly in 2006. Since then, however, its members have become frustrated by perceived lack of progress and support for their aims.
Members of DRARG say that the NT Department of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport has allocated $75,000 to the NLC to support the Reference Group, but say that they are struggling to find the resources to meet regularly and pursue their common aims.
Similarly, Lane and Williams (2009) analyse the effectiveness of the National Heritage Trust (NHT) to support the management of Indigenous lands, and find, conclusively, that the NHT failed to accommodate the needs of Indigenous land and sea management. They suggest that this failure stems from a lack of awareness and recognition of not only the size of the Indigenous ‘estate’, but of the need to engage adequately with Indigenous land holders. Lane and Williams find that rescaling governance is not a guarantee for more equitable outcomes across diverse regions, that there is a need for greater investment in Indigenous community engagement, and that the capacity issues of Indigenous communities need to be accommodated in any system of funding.
In addition to these appraisals of NRM policy and funding there are also good assessments of local and regional Caring for Country or Working on Country initiatives. Sithole, et al (2008), conducted an extensive community driven evaluation of Indigenous land and sea management initiatives and found that the culturally relevant processes required for success in Aboriginal land and water management programs include strong cultural connections, alignment with the aspirations of Traditional Owners, inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and involvement of the Elders. They also found that identity, self-esteem and hope were articulated by Aboriginal people as perhaps the greatest benefit of land and sea management ranger programs.
A review of caring for country activities in the Kimberley region (Griffiths and Kinnane, 2010) found, through extensive consultation, that there were a range of recurring themes emerging from successful programs, namely: access to country; right people for country; transmission of law, culture and language on country; respect for Indigenous rights and Indigenous knowledge; managing country; economic opportunities on country; governance on country, cultural blocs and regional Aboriginal organisations; information management for country; partnerships for caring for country; and protocols for caring for country. An assessment of the economic and employment outcomes of the Federal government’s Working on Country program was conducted by Allen Consulting Group in late 2011. The report delivered a comprehensive economic analysis of Working on Country and found that the program’s true cost is significantly lower than the budget cost of the program. This is attributed to savings found through decreased welfare costs and increased tax revenue. These results are driven by the high unemployment and low labour force participation rate in the areas in which the program operates. While the economic outputs of the program are wages, spending and employment, the economic outcomes of the program are positive impacts on the local and broader economies. Whilst difficult to quantify, socio-economic and environmental values are also derived from the program, with the greatest savings likely to be found in reduced public health and incarceration costs, alongside the environmental benefits from conservation and land management. Additionally there is a recognisable benefit to social capital through improved levels of empowerment, wellbeing and quality of life – however the subjective nature of these benefits makes this an especially difficult value to quantify.
Many members have previous experience in NLC-funded ranger groups working on their traditional country. They have mixed feelings about these groups relationship with the NLC, which has varied according to its ability to consistently provide appropriate facilitators for the groups. Some members have left to work in the more stable environment of the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service.
In general, members of the DRARG want to pursue their role independently of the NLC as they feel they have different aims and priorities. Some want to establish autonomous local ranger groups with a wide mandate for the preservation of traditional knowledge as well as practical management activities. Others want to establish small businesses. Most feel they have unfulfilled potential as a representative voice for sustainable management of the Daly catchment, while the NLC has much wider responsibilities and is not perceived to be as community-based.
Levels of Government and Levels of Community Control
While governments largely provide the funding, the actual land and water management, both in terms of planning and hands-on stewardship, is largely delivered by statutory and community-controlled organisations. None of these is well-resourced and some are not properly funded at all. The regional bodies in particular, the KLC, NLC and Balkanu, are working at the limit of their capacity. This will always be the case, since the demands on them are almost limitless while their resources will always be finite (see Lipsky 1980). Consequently they suffer communication problems with other Aboriginal groups that also consider themselves to have legitimate interests in CNRM. These communication problems can encourage a climate of suspicion and allegations of bad faith that makes effective management difficult (see text boxes on NLC and DRARG). The regional Aboriginal representative bodies are an essential link in the chain of management. They tread a fine line in maintaining a relationship of trust with outside funding agencies, mainly governments, while resisting their transformation into a mere outpost of these agencies. They must also manage their relationship with the local environmental management groups that they administer and with their wider membership, some elements of which are usually vociferously dissident. It is unremarkable that they sometimes feel embattled and can seem to overreact to perceived threats in a heavy handed manner.
In general the local Aboriginal environmental management groups want to match cultural objectives, such as youth support and learning, with environmental objectives. In some areas this limits the membership of local ranger groups to descendants of Traditional Owners, while in others, such as the Yirriman project in Fitzroy Crossing, the scope for youth recruitment is wider. In both cases, however, the wide range of livelihood aspirations at the local level comes up against a narrow understanding of wage employment and training enforced from above. Local Aboriginal aspirations may not mesh well with regional and national program needs. For example a program for weed eradication may be all that is available to a local ranger group that also wants to eliminate feral animals and control tourist fishing. Equally, there is often a mismatch of capability and aspirations. Regional bodies often cannot find a suitable local partner in an area of need, while other nascent local groups looking for support cannot find it. Finally there are cultural considerations. These tensions between local, regional and national objectives concerning environmental management, employment and cultural continuity, are compounded by complex and confusing processes for program implementation and reporting.
Northern Land Council – A Regional Aboriginal Representative Body
The NLC has been allocated about $25m from SEWPaC for Working on Country programmes for the six-year period from 2007 to 2013 and about a further $3m for 2009-2013 (SEWPaC 2011). This funds sixty-one full time positions in sixteen ranger groups. The Indigenous Land Corporation provides further funding, bringing the total number of full-time rangers employed by the NLC to eighty-six in twenty-one ranger groups. This is only a fraction of the 290 positions allocated in the Northern Territory. The others are administered by local Aboriginal community organisations.
When the WoC programme began the NLC had to rapidly establish capacity to administer it and is still stretched to fulfil its aspirations. The Land and Sea Management unit employs about thirty staff apart from the rangers, but also receives ‘off-book’ in-kind support from other staff in the organisation. The Manager of the unit particularly mentions NLC anthropologists as invaluable support and attributes the NLC’s culture of informal multi tasking in aid of the land and sea management team to the direct support of the CEO for its work.
The ranger groups devise their own work plans and put these to SEWPaC for approval through the NLC. Once approved, they are on a six-monthly funding cycle. SEWPaC staff conduct site visits and establish relationships with the ranger groups, but do not carry out detailed inspections of work undertaken. Work supervision is the responsibility of NLC WoC Facilitators. Some tension arises between NLC and SEWPaC staff over the tendency of SEWPaC to ‘micro-manage’, but in general the relationship is good.
The NLC also receives some funds from Territory Natural Resource Management – one of the fifty-six ‘regional’ NRM bodies funded by SEWPaC.
The ILC has an emphasis on economic development, allows fee-for-service activities, and envisages ranger groups moving on from reliance on its funding. SEWPaC does not. It has been a slow process to negotiate the use of NLC ranger groups that are funded by SEWPaC for fee-for-service work, for AQIS, for example.
The NLC has a flexible cooperative relationship with the Aboriginal controlled shires. While it explicitly denies responsibility for activities within community/town boundaries, such as weed control, it is often pragmatic about this where there is an obvious unmet community need and dangerous outcomes can be foreseen, such as fires or the spread of noxious weeds to other areas. The Shires also cooperate with the NLC in a flexible ad hoc manner over safe storage of plant and equipment and sometimes its maintenance.
A ranger team typically consists of local Traditional Owners guided by a Senior Ranger, who is Aboriginal, and a Facilitator, who usually is not. Senior Traditional Owners would like to see these Facilitator positions occupied by local Aboriginal people and the Land and Sea Management Unit employs a training officer for this purpose. The Aboriginal Benefit Account, a territory-wide mining royalty equivalence fund, provides capital for infrastructure such as staff housing.
The NLC is currently concentrating on consolidating the performance of its existing ranger groups rather than expanding the programme. It sees the long term success of the programme as depending on reliable work practices. Local groups used to the relatively flexible work attendance requirements of the previous CDEP scheme are being encouraged to formalise members of the workforce as either full-time, part-time or casual, and to be consistent within these categories. Where cultural needs intervene provision is made for formal cultural leave. These requirements, and unavoidable churn in other management positions, often lead to program underspend in the Land and Sea Management Unit. Re-application of funds is negotiated with SEWPaC. The Manager feels that strict application of work performance standards is more important than pushing funding out regardless of a local groups ability to productively use it.
The NLC is continually reviewing its program. Currently ten local groups are applying to join the program, but the NLC does not feel it currently has the capacity, both in terms of funding and administrative support, to expand its workforce in this area. It does have a formal review process for both commissioning and de-commissioning ranger groups, but the NLC’s capacity constraints are not well understood beyond its immediate staff.