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Why Australia’s outback is globally important

Indigenous rangers at the Fish River Station in the Northern Territory. Indigenous Land Corporation

There are places in Australia that are awe-inspiring, spectacular, mysterious; they touch our spirit and help define our nation.

Kakadu is one, Uluru another, the magnificent red sandy deserts, the Kimberley. These are part of our country’s essence, and they provide a rare lens into the wonder of nature and the timelessness and value of our land.

But these places are embedded in a wider landscape and are dependent upon that landscape for their future.

We haven’t really had a name for it, but the Australian outback fits. It’s both the wonderful sense of space in remote Australia, or the humdrum monotony of the Australian bush.

This place faces numerous challenges — one of the worst extinction records in the world, ongoing biodiversity declines, and neglect. But there are also opportunities — global recognition, and the rapid expansion of land managed and protected by Indigenous Australians.

This place, and its coherence is important to us, but it is also internationally significant, as one of the world’s last remaining large natural areas.

Outback defined

Australia’s outback has been defined. Pew Charitable Trusts

The “outback” is a quixotic term that has sometimes more shifting myth than reality. In a new study funded by Pew Charitable Trusts assessing remote Australia, we mapped and defined the outback on the basis of explicit criteria: distance from major population centres, relatively intact natural environments, low human population density, relatively infertile soils and low productivity.

So defined, the Australian Outback comprises 5.6 million square kilometres, or 73% of the Australian land mass. It is of course the Red Centre, but also the monsoonal north and the semi-arid fringes.

It includes less than 5% of the Australian population, but a relatively high proportion (more than a quarter) of that population is Indigenous. Many of these geographical, climatic, demographic and environmental factors are richly interconnected.

Conservation on an outback scale

So, why define such a concept? It is because we are being forced to re-imagine how conservation works, and how we live in this land.

Leichardt’s grasshopper, found in the monsoon tropics. Craig Nieminski

Regrettably, it is now clear that even large national parks — established to protect and provide access to tourist icons, to conserve threatened species and to represent the diversity of vegetation types — are losing components of their biodiversity. Such parks are necessary and good, but insufficient.

They weren’t designed to look after the ecological processes that underpin biodiversity — the continental-scale ebb and flow of species dispersing to track shifting resources, the interplay of drought and flood, the large-scale workings of fire regimes, the metastatic spread of weeds and pests throughout our land.

If we want to retain our extraordinary and distinctive wildlife, we need to break conservation out from beyond the bounds of National Parks to think and manage far larger landscapes. The outback works at such a scale.

Learning from the past

In the little over 200 years since European settlement, our nation has lost 30 of its endemic mammal species, more than 10% of the wonderful legacy we had inherited, and that rate of loss is continuing.

This is an extreme outcome, not simply a normal consequence of societal change. For example, European settlement of north America wrought far more substantial environmental change, and far more systematic and intensive hunting pressure, but resulted in the extinction of only one land mammal.

Our rate of biodiversity loss is clear evidence that we have not yet learnt to fit into our land. We are living unsustainably. The way that we have been managing our land, water and wildlife resources is not working. We need to think differently about our land, our environment, our society and our future.

Bilbies are just one of the threatened mammal species that live in the outback. Kathie Atkinson

Globally important

We still have an extraordinary opportunity. Research by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network has shown that the Australian outback is one of a handful of very large natural areas remaining on Earth, along with the boreal forests and tundra, the Amazon Basin and the Sahara.

These are the places that are most likely to maintain biodiversity over long time periods; that will allow ecological processes to operate over large scales; that allow us to see our fit to nature; and that bring health to our planet.

In this context, the extent and condition of the Australian Outback is of international significance, far above that of simply the sum of its iconic tourist attractions.

Indigenous land-owners living comfortably in a land of fire in Arnhem Land. John Woinarski

Backyard neglect

But the outback has profound and pervasive problems that are currently eroding that value, and that will extinguish such opportunity. Threats to biodiversity, and consequential biodiversity loss, are pervasive.

There are also social, institutional and economic problems, and these factors are linked and chronic. For much of the history of our country since European settlement, the outback has been treated as a neglected backyard. Indeed, recent analyses of health, employment, education and other indices conclude that it has the hallmarks of a “failed state”.

Intermittently, when troubled by outback problems, or dreaming of its potential riches, governments have sought to impose large-scale transformative developments upon this landscape. Most have failed, leaving a legacy of environmental loss.

Even the apparent cases of successful development have fitted poorly, as many major mining ventures treat the outback as a moon-base, with artificial domiciles for fly in-fly out workers and little organic regional benefits enduring beyond the mine life.

Hope and opportunity

For Indigenous Australians, the outback is a very different place. It is home and the wellspring of culture. Its lands define its people, and its people know and nurture the lands. Caring for this country is a profound responsibility.

And, rather than being a monotonous wasteland, it is a country full of meaning and value, with a delicate and intricate web of interconnections between places (most stunningly evident in dot pointings), and formative links between people and places.

Map of Australia’s Indigenous Protected Areas. Australian Government
The area of Indigenous Protected Areas has grown dramatically over the past 16 years. John Woinarski

This appreciation of country and of responsibility to it is the foundation for perhaps the largest and likely most enduring transformation we have seen for the outback, the extraordinary increase in the number and area of Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs).

These are voluntary agreements by Aboriginal land-owners to manage their lands for environmental and cultural objectives. Funding for these activities and for the establishment of Indigenous ranger groups is provided by government, NGOs, and some businesses, with income derived from a range of services.

The first protected area was established in 1998, and there are now more than 35 IPAs in the outback, covering an area of over 500,000 square kilometres, and these areas are managed by more than 700 Indigenous rangers. By comparison, Kakadu, one of the largest National Parks in Australia, is 20,000 square kilometres.

An Indigenous ranger holds a Chestnut Mouse in the Kimberley. Wunggurr Rangers

Research and monitoring has shown that IPAs produce impressive environmental outcomes, largely because there provide an organised group of people resourced to manage pests, weeds and fire over large areas in a strategic manner, using a combination of traditional and modern approaches and knowledge.

But that research has also shown that the IPA program has consistently produced very substantial benefits for remote communities’ health, employment, economy, education and governance. The IPA program offers hope and a foundation for a better future for the Australian outback.

The outback offers a meeting place, where Australians of European descent can learn from and respect this way of seeing, and caring for, our country. It offers our society a rare opportunity to take stock of its present and to re-imagine its future, for us to choose to learn more about our land, and care for it more deeply, over long timeframes and large spatial scales.

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