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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
17/10/2008
Natural resource management and conservation challenges

CHAIR (Senator Sterle) —I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport. The committee is hearing evidence on the committee’s inquiry into natural resource management and conservation challenges, and I welcome you all here today.

Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that, in giving evidence to the committee, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee, and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public but, under the Senate’s resolutions, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. If a witness objects to answering a question, they should state the ground upon which the objection is taken; the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, also be made at any other time. Finally, on behalf of the committee, I would like to thank all those who have made submissions and sent representatives here today for their cooperation in this inquiry. Welcome, Professor Altman and Dr Kerins. Do you have any additional comments to make about the capacity in which you appear?

Prof. Altman —I appear as an academic researcher and a private citizen.

CHAIR —Before we go to questions, does either of you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Prof. Altman —I would say just a few things to get the show on the road. We are both social scientists from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research and have backgrounds in economics and anthropology. I have been researching Indigenous economic development issues in remote Australia for over 30 years and have been based mainly at the Australian National University. Dr Kerins has a background in natural resource management in New Zealand with the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission and with the Northern Land Council in Darwin, where he managed the Caring for our Country unit.

Research undertaken at CAEPR was influential in the establishment of the Working on Country program in 2007 by the Howard government and its expansion by the Rudd government. Dr Kerins was instrumental in advocating for the Healthy Country: Healthy People schedule in the Commonwealth-Northern Territory bilateral agreement of 2005, about which we hear too little today.

We are involved in a project, which is funded mainly by the Sidney Myer Trust, entitled People On Country: Healthy Landscapes and Indigenous Economic Futures, which began in November 2007. We have four staff working on this project and are collaborating with eight community based ranger groups in the Top End of the Northern Territory. This project is applied to and looking at linking poverty alleviation with heightened Indigenous engagement with cultural and natural resource management. It is amazing how this idea has caught on in the last year or so.

This project has a challenging set of goals, including: firstly, to assist community based groups with capacity building so that they can collect and analyse data to demonstrate the environmental and socioeconomic benefits of their activities; secondly, to work with peak bodies, like the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance and the Northern Land Council, to ensure dissemination of emerging best practice and such activities to other groups; thirdly, to liaise with government agencies, like the Commonwealth Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts and the Northern Territory’s Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts, to ensure that some of the institutional barriers that may exist are reduced or addressed in relation to Indigenous land management; and, finally, to inform the Australian public about the national benefits that come from Indigenous caring for land and sea country so that more realistic public investments can be made in ensuring management of the vast Indigenous estate is in the national interest.

In our submission, we outline some of the factors that drive our work. It is thoroughly empirically grounded. I would like to submit, as an exhibit, a discussion paper that we completed last year as a precursor to this project. I have brought with me three copies of that discussion paper, which I will leave with the secretariat. But, if you would like more copies, we can certainly make them available to you. This discussion paper demonstrates that the Indigenous estate now covers 20 per cent of the Australian continent. It is now recognised that it has enormous environmental significance and high biodiversity values. Challenges to this estate are presented at the moment by climate change and the inevitable loss of biodiversity, but there is potential for the Indigenous estate to contribute to national emission reductions via abatement and sequestration. I think this makes the whole notion of Indigenous active engagement in providing environmental services of great national significance.

We have not made a lengthy submission but, as social scientists and people who are engaged in grounded work with ranger groups in remote Indigenous communities, we are keen to highlight the potential benefits that come from placing Indigenous engagement on a sounder footing while also being careful not to downplay the enormous challenges that Indigenous communities face in nurturing and supplying a healthy, appropriately skilled and productive ranger workforce that can meet the crucial and increasingly well-documented contemporary challenges posed by issues like wild fires, feral animals and exotic weeds on the terrestrial estate and by pollution, illegal fishing and biosecurity along the northern coastline.

Policies are being made or being considered at present that, in our view, could jeopardise some of the very recent gains that have been made over the last 12 months. These include threats to the Community Development Employment Project scheme, CDEP, organisations and to outstation resource agencies and an emphasis on depopulating the country of outstation residents who provide invaluable and often unvalued assistance to more formal ranger programs. In some situations, considerable effort will be needed to ensure that organisational infrastructure and robust governance are in place to underpin Working on Country, Working on Country Northern Territory and new Indigenous Protected Areas funding support, while in other places we are usually encouraged by output and outcomes measurement of environmental services being provided on agreed and contract bases to the department of the environment, AQIS and Australian Customs. Some groups are using new cyber-tracking technology that is greatly superior to the monitoring that is undertaken by mainstream agencies and national parks in any of Australia’s jurisdictions.

Again, I have brought along three annual reports from one of our partners that we work with, being the Djelk rangers in Central Arnhem Land. They have not published their latest annual report yet, but it will be out soon. Those annual reports document the programs and the sorts of activities that they undertake.

In conclusion, it is our view that, with time, the value of the Indigenous estate and the Indigenous owned coastal zone will be increasingly recognised. So we urge that regionally based assessment exercises be undertaken to audit regional environmental needs and capacities so that early investments can be made to ensure there is a supply of skilled labour equipped to deliver environmental services in the future. These investments will need to be made vertically into the education system as well as horizontally to ancillary services, like roads and airstrips. Rangering is an occupation that accords with the aspirations of many Indigenous landowners. It is where Indigenous and local knowledge as well as physical adaptability to thrive in environments that will become hotter and wetter give Indigenous people a competitive edge. In our view, such investments will prove to be in the national interest as well as in the Indigenous interest. It is also an area where public-private funding support, as in the West Arnhem Land fire abatement project, might be increasingly forthcoming.

CHAIR —I am sorry, Professor Altman, but does your opening statement go for much longer?

Prof. Altman —I have nearly finished. We do not see Indigenous participation in cultural and natural resource management as being a silver bullet to the Indigenous development challenge. But, as we see it, with proper investments and broad recognition of enhanced environmental values, this area can provide some difference to Indigenous conditions.

CHAIR —Thank you, Professor. I am sorry; I did not mean to sound rude, but we are on a tight timetable.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Between approximately 3,500 and 7,000 kids in the Northern Territory—the state will not own up to it—do not have access to a school. That is a state where they own about 45 per cent of the landmass. I struck one group of white fellas up there that had 17,000 cattle on a blackfella property and I said, ‘What do they get out of it?’ I was told, ‘Oh, we give them $10,000 worth of piss twice a year.’ In addition, there are 17½ million hectares in the Cape York Peninsula and, under the wild rivers legislation, they have locked up the first productive kilometre from all the rivers. The Indigenous fellows up there are not too happy about the heritage proposition. Are you members of a group that assumes or believes that we can have production while protecting the environment?

Prof. Altman —Absolutely.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Would you agree that in the north there is potential for economic enhancement for our Indigenous people, who over a couple of hundred years have been disgracefully treated? Do you believe that, because the global food task is going to double, there are mosaic development opportunities in the north for food production?

Prof. Altman —There is no question about it. However, I think we would look at those issues in terms of a diversity of approaches. For example, in Arnhem Land, there is a significant problem with feral buffalo; they are causing enormous environmental damage. Feral buffalo, for example, could be harvested by safari hunters, for local food consumption and for live export, or they could be culled to reduce environmental degradation. So I think you need to look at a diversity of approaches. We would emphasise that food shortages can be met through export of meat, but also there is a significant possibility for producing meat from feral animals for local consumption.

Senator HEFFERNAN —An abattoir is run on an Indigenous property out from Wadeye.

Prof. Altman —Yes, Palumpa.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Of course, the NLIS does not exist there. If we ever get a foot-and-mouth outbreak there, we will be in more trouble than Speed Gordon. Congratulations on your work. I am absolutely in tune with the need to do all of the things that you stand for. I guess, for white fellas to cooperate with the Indigenous, I see the need to take the emotion out of the argument about the north; there is a lot of emotional argument in that regard. There is fantastic potential up there for carbon offset plantings. There is that huge black soil plain that comes down from the gulf, which is full of spiny acacia. Around the likes of Wadeye, you have all that country that is suited to trees. Can you point out things to this committee that are being neglected at the moment about which we can send a signal to the government in order to fulfil the ambitions and aspirations of just the ordinary Indigenous people of the north?

Prof. Altman —In our recommendations, I think one of the things we say is that recognition for some of the community based rangering work has come quite recently. Prior to May 2007, there was not actually an option for Indigenous rangers to be paid a proper wage. We welcomed the Working on Country program that was strongly sponsored by Greg Hunt, who I think was the then parliamentary secretary for the environment. But we are just a little concerned about this new program being expanded in a systematic way that recognises that some groups have less capacity than others to fulfil the range of functions they need to fulfil under the program.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So, with the distribution of funds into the job-ready side, are you scared—I would be—that white fella administration could eat up the funds and the Indigenous on-the-ground work would be of a lesser consequence? It could be a bit like Landcare. With Landcare, all the money ended up being spent on computers, cars and seminars, and there was nothing left for the trees.

Prof. Altman —That is part of our concern. But our concern also is that there should not be excessive expectation of embryonic land management groups. They need support in terms of capacity development. While many of them have Indigenous and local knowledge, they also recognise that they need training and access to Western scientific technology to undertake this work.

Dr Kerins —A clear example of that can be seen with some of the Aboriginal pastoral stations in the Northern Territory where there is very little money around for people to do any participatory planning on country, sitting down and putting their 20- to 30-year vision together for getting their country back up and productive in terms of both being sustainable and managing cattle. But then there is no infrastructure or roads on some of these stations. So, where the cattle are being mustered, it is being done by fire. Fire is being lit early in the wet season to get a green pick; you get the cattle going to the new shoots that are coming through and, therefore, it is easier to muster them. But then you start to look at the fire scars on those properties. All those pastoral stations are being burnt every single year, which results in a huge collapse of biodiversity. If that situation is just left with no investment going into it, you are not going to have any sort of sustainable country to have cattle on in the future.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I would like to nail you down in this regard, if I could. Are good things happening on Elsey, which is an ILC property?

Dr Kerins —Yes, because they also have tied their cattle production to sustainable land management. They are looking at how you make links between Aboriginal land and sea management groups and running a cattle industry on property; so it is not a choice of either/or.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What is the name of the property out of Broome where they have training facilities?

Dr Kerins —I am not sure.

Senator HEFFERNAN —God help us; I must be getting dementia!

Prof. Altman —I know the one you mean.

Senator HEFFERNAN —They got into trouble for cutting one tree down to build quarters to quarter 20-odd Indigenous trainers. A huge fuss was made about the cutting down of one tree on a property with thousands of square kilometres of trees because they wanted to put up these quarters there. It is a beautiful property and it is a fantastic training, job-ready set-up for Indigenous people. I guess more white fellas live in the western suburbs of Sydney than the number of white fellas and Indigenous people who live in rural Australia, and they do not understand exactly what is going on. With the wildfire set-up, the average annual wildfire on Cape York Peninsula is 5½ million hectares; the largest one they have had is 11 million hectares. The chairman of the Northern Land Council came to the Cairns hearing of our task force. We asked him, ‘How big is the place that you live on?’ and he said, ‘Mate, I don’t know, but it’s 80 kilometres from the front gate to the homestead’—and the fences are all falling down and white ants are eating the house. I do not think that the average white fella understands what a rotten deal we have handed out. These properties have fantastic potential, if we get the training and infrastructure in place. I am right on your page.

CHAIR —I can certainly add that you are not alone there, Senator Heffernan.

Senator HURLEY —I am just wondering whether you have done any work on how much the kinds of programs you are talking about cost and what the interaction is between government funded ranger type programs and pastoral food production? That is kind of a big question, but I would like to get more of a handle on what kinds of figures we are talking about here.

Prof. Altman —The work that we are doing is mainly with groups that are providing rangering activities on the terrestrial estate and that is mainly on Aboriginal land. So we are not interacting generally with groups that are running pastoral stations; however, there is some exception there, which Sean might comment on. I guess the main comparative work that we have done has looked at what is invested in national parks like Kakadu in comparison with what is invested in adjacent land in Arnhem Land that has similar biodiversity values and shares similar threats, such as fire, which can move from one property to another and from the Indigenous estate to the national reserve estate. We find, of course, that that expenditure in Kakadu is in the region of $1,000 per square kilometre and in Arnhem Land, prior to the Working on Country program, it was somewhere in the region of $100 per square kilometre. So there is quite a significant—

Senator HURLEY —Is that by all government agencies?

Prof. Altman —It is, and that includes the CDEP payments. But that has now changed, with bigger investments with the Working on Country program. But I think there are still only 300 positions throughout the whole Northern Territory for Working on Country, so I suspect that there is still quite a difference between national parks and other land. Admittedly, Kakadu is a well-resourced Commonwealth-funded national park; nevertheless, it is a World Heritage area. We would say that some of those World Heritage values are also reflected in Indigenous protected areas of the Indigenous estate in Arnhem Land. You would want to be moving your investments in that direction.

Senator HURLEY —How much employment, would you say, would be generated by running some kind of ranger program in that area?

Prof. Altman —That, again, is one of the things that we suggest is a challenge. I think, to date, ranger employment has been made to fit the resources that are available rather than having a rigorous assessment done of what is needed to protect the biodiversity values of Indigenous protected areas or Aboriginal land. That includes managing for water quality; fire management; making sure that feral animals do not destroy wetlands; and dealing with outbreaks of evasive exotic weeds, like mimosa pigra, which, once it gets in, can take generations to get rid of.

Senator HURLEY —I suppose I am just concerned that, as always, there is a limited amount of funds available and there are competing requests for those funds. How do we determine the minimum? Unfortunately, you cannot just decide what would be the optimum and fund for that.

Prof. Altman —That would not be a bad way to start, though. At the moment we are really operating in a very ad hoc manner and we do get to some very, very crude metrics, like the ones I mentioned. We spend $1,000 per square kilometre in Kakadu; therefore, in similar environments, should we be spending the same amount of money? I realise that the likelihood of spending $1,000 per square kilometre in the 100,000 square kilometres of Arnhem Land may be wishful thinking because you would be spending five times more in Arnhem Land than you are in Kakadu, which is only 20,000 kilometres. But, if we get a sense of what should be invested to maintain biodiversity values, I do think that at least we can be realistic about what we can afford to put in and the extent to which we can expect to see outcomes that would approach optimality. That is one end of the spectrum, if you like. But at the moment we are operating in only a very ad hoc way, saying, ‘This community has X-number of CDEP positions; maybe we’ll give them 10 or 20 proper rangering jobs and let people exit into those.’ I think the groups that we are working with are covering enormous jurisdictions with literally only a handful of rangers. Some of the better resourced ones, like the Djelk rangers, whose annual report I have given you, now have eight vehicles and four boats: eight vehicles to manage 10,000 square kilometres and four boats to undertake services for AQIS and Customs across a coastline that is between 200 and 300 kilometres long.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I was thinking of—

CHAIR —I am sorry, Senator Heffernan. We have very little time and Senator Macdonald has a couple of questions.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Roebuck was the place I was thinking of.

CHAIR —Dr Kerins, do you wish to add to that previous answer?

Dr Kerins —Yes. In terms of employment opportunities, you should not just focus down on the labouring that goes on with land and sea management; there are enormous opportunities now with geographical information systems and all the data mapping that is coming in from satellites. It is incredibly important to use these tools in managing land, and not just Aboriginal land; yet these things do not come into the school curriculums in remote communities. There is a great detachment between what is taught in the schools and what is practised out on country. A lot of the new tools that are coming in for land management are web based; yet, when you go to the communities, there may be one computer with a dial-up internet connection. You cannot download any fire maps and you are really cut off from the information. Yet, when I am out on country with children and we pull out the fire maps, I find there is huge interest in how those maps were put together and how those pictures were taken. There are lots and lots of questions, yet you find that this is missing from the school curriculum. So there is a great disjuncture between what is being delivered and the potential that is there. Opportunities for young Aboriginal people should not be focused just on Aboriginal land in the future but on their giving advice to national parks and to pastoral properties. That is where their employment opportunities in the 21st century need to be linked.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Having something that they are interested in might create an opportunity to get them to attend a school, too.

Dr Kerins —Definitely. They want to come out on country because they are engaged with the satellite maps that we have.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Just on that point, the Northern Gulf NRM body, which I have some association with and which Indigenous people are involved in, has a lot of those tools. Do you think there is an opportunity for further and perhaps closer interaction between local Indigenous people and those Commonwealth-funded NRM bodies?

Dr Kerins —Yes, there definitely is. But getting money from the Commonwealth-funded ones is often a competitive process; you have to compete for it. Managing your country, you have to do one grant for feral animals, one for fire, one for threatened species and one for heritage management. They are large written applications. If you do not have any organisation or any governance structure in place, you cannot compete for such funding. So it is almost as though a class structure is starting to appear with land management in the Northern Territory. Those groups that are up and have organisations operating that are threatened by the removal of outstation resource centres can apply for the grants and compete; others that do not have anything are not even able to get in the door at the moment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —These are actually NRM bodies that have a fixed budget. The gulf body is in Queensland and is based on Georgetown, but it has a big GPS mapping system that Indigenous people are involved in, and I was wondering whether there were greater opportunities. But that was not really my question and I had better get to it. Again, coming from Queensland, I know that a lot of the cape area, one way or another, has been handed back to Indigenous people, but they now find that, having got it back, they cannot do anything with it. They cannot cut down a tree, as Senator Heffernan said; they cannot kill an animal; they cannot pick berries. The Hope Vale people are just one instance; in the last 12 months they have been complaining to me about this. This is because of wild rivers legislation, national parks, state parks—all the so-called environmental constraints. Sure, they have the land, but with these constraints they really cannot do anything with it. As you know, many of them would like to make that land productive. Do you see a solution for this? Again, without putting words into your mouth, all the best environmental thoughts come out of George Street in Brisbane or out of Canberra, but they are not what people on the ground want, and these people have lived in this country for 40 million years and know what it is all about. Do you have a solution?

Prof. Altman —It is 40,000 and not 40 million.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am sorry; 40,000.

Prof. Altman —One of the things that we emphasise very strongly is the need for a diverse approach to address people’s livelihood aspirations. Some people may aspire to getting into productive activities, like pastoralism. But you do get competition, even on the cape, between them and others who emphasise that the real value of the cape might be in ecotourism, cultural tourism or the arts industry—or, indeed, in horticultural activities, using allocations to water. It is my understanding that, under the wild rivers legislation, it is Indigenous people that have access to water for commercial use and others do not.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am not sure that is right.

Prof. Altman —I think you will find that they have hypothecation of allocation that others do not have. They could have an enormous competitive advantage from the fact that they can utilise water, particularly for horticultural purposes on the cape, which other people cannot. Such facts are in the statutes, so we could look into them. But I have been doing some work with an Indigenous water policy group in northern Australia; certainly representatives we have had from Queensland have suggested that there is an allocation for Indigenous interests on the cape.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is sort of on a backyard scale.

Prof. Altman —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —There is a serious restriction on the land.

Prof. Altman —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Are you saying that some people have access for unlimited commercial activity to the one water course that is there and other people have no access to it?

Prof. Altman —No, I did not say ‘unlimited’. As Senator Heffernan has said, allocation is limited.

Senator HEFFERNAN —It is backyard, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —There is a lot of concern in the cape. As you know better than I do, Indigenous people do not want to sit around and live on government grants, handouts and welfare. They actually want the ability to do things, but they are prevented from doing them because of so-called environmental things.

Dr Kerins —A lot of environmental groups look at the Northern Territory as the new frontier. Many of them have given up on our major activities down in South Australia and are focused now on the Northern Territory and are competing with Aboriginal people. They are purchasing land in the middle of Aboriginal lands and then are putting their own people in to manage it. They are starting to compete for funds, and they get funding from the government to enable them to do it. They are duplicating what Aboriginal people are already doing. They are not utilising and valuing Indigenous ecological knowledge. Aboriginal people cannot get the money that would enable them to do that. We are starting to see people from the outside coming in and doing it and locking up areas. I think there is a great problem with that, and it is expanding.

Prof. Altman —However, I also think that utilising the precautionary principle in terms of intense agricultural or pastoral activities in Northern Australia is sensible, given some of the ecological—

Senator HURLEY —Given how we have stuffed up the south.

Prof. Altman —I was going to be more polite and say: given some of the problems that we have had in the south-east of Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Yes, sure. The southerners have stuffed it up and made themselves wealthy out of it, but bugger the northerners; they can live in poverty forever.

Prof. Altman —Some of what comes out of our research is that there may be sunrise industries that are productive without degrading the environment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am not talking about large- or broad-scale agricultural or pastoral industries. Even things like taking advantage of the local knowledge of fruit, trees and berries are prevented by legislation. That is what they are telling me.

Prof. Altman —I do not think that is an accurate portrayal of what could happen in areas of Northern Australia. If I can just provide—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —We are talking about Queensland.

Prof. Altman —Yes, Queensland. But perhaps I can just provide the flip side of that. Even under native title legislation, Indigenous landowners have rights to utilise resources, and that can be for non-commercial purposes. But, if it is for commercial purposes, I think Indigenous interests have a lot of leeway under the law to put arguments—

Senator HEFFERNAN —But—

CHAIR —I am sorry, Senator Heffernan. I know that what you are asking is very important, but Senator Siewert has waited patiently. If there is a question on this—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Can I just follow up on that?

CHAIR —Yes, and then we will go to Senator Siewert.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Michael Ross is the bloke I was thinking of. As Senator Macdonald points out, there is an agenda to turn Cape York Peninsula into a World Heritage area. Are you aware of that?

Prof. Altman —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That World Heritage area includes the first kilometre from a lot of those wild rivers. Peter Beattie said, ‘Mate, it was just a deal that I had to do with the Wilderness Society for the inner city votes in Brisbane.’ It is a bloody disgrace. In amongst all that, there is fantastic potential, but they are locked out of it. There are 800,000 feral pigs, 20,000 feral cattle and 4,000 people in 17½ million hectares. It is a fantastic economic opportunity for blackfellas, and we ought to get into it.

CHAIR —I do not think we would argue with you there.

Senator SIEWERT —I think I will start from there, as a little bit of a divide seems to be starting here about—

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, there is not.

Senator SIEWERT —It seems to me that the line of argument being put is that we should develop the north at any cost.

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, that is not what we are saying at all.

Senator SIEWERT —There are all these laws in place that are stopping us from developing the north.

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is rubbish.

Senator SIEWERT —Let us bear in mind that Australia has some of the greatest biodiversity losses in the world. We are the only developed mega-diverse area in the world. I suggest—and I think we can all agree—that here we are trying to make sure there are economic development opportunities for Aboriginal Australians but not at the expense of the environment.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Hear, hear!

Senator SIEWERT —So let us bear in mind that these laws are in place because of the stuff-ups that we have made in the south.

Prof. Altman —Yes. I think Senator Heffernan and Senator Macdonald are suggesting that there may be potential for a Swiss cheese style development. I see that as being enormously challenging in some of the places in which I work because of the scale of the landscape and the difficulty, if you like, of corralling, for example, cattle, buffalo or other species. Especially with climate change and the wets that have occurred in Northern Australia, we have seen a proliferation of feral pigs, buffalo and cattle. I think some of the opportunity that exists there is in culling those species. But, if we are going to look at a diverse approach to livelihoods, we somehow have to find a way of having Swiss cheese type development. So far, I do not think anybody has really come up with a solution to that in these vast landscapes, which often are unfenced and have highly interdependent ecosystems. I think that is a real challenge.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I think if you went out to the Gilbert River and saw—

Senator SIEWERT —Senator Heffernan, I have been very patient with you.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Righto.

CHAIR —You have the call, Senator Siewert, for as long as you need it.

Senator SIEWERT —Perhaps we can go back to some of the direct NRM issues and the Caring for our Country and NRM programs, which this inquiry is about. Going to the issues around Caring for Country and Working on Country, you made a comment earlier about the current approach. You said that you are concerned, in that the programs should be expanded in a systematic way that recognises varying capacities. Is that just an overall concern that you are putting to the department, or is it a concern that you are seeing with the rollout of the programs?

Prof. Altman —I think it is both. The department recently released its plan for the next few years in terms of the rollout of Working on Country and Working on Country NT. Again, I think that is very sensible in terms of slowly scaling up the program. But I guess some of the challenges that we see are very much on the ground. As we know from the Northern Territory intervention, some of these communities really lack capacity. We are concerned that somehow there is not some sort of myopic view that these ranger programs can be sustained without having infrastructural support from other organisations in the community.

Senator SIEWERT —I am not trying to verbal you or the department, but is almost a one-size-fits-all approach being taken? Here is the program; it is about people having to fit into the program rather than looking at people’s needs.

Prof. Altman —I am sure that Sean has things to say about this as well. I think there is an assumption that, if you deliver what are highly desired and very popular positions to the communities, those positions will somehow be sustained without realising that behind those projects are organisations—the best of them are CDEP organisations or outstation resource agencies—that are not being supported at the moment. In fact, as you know, there are proposals now to fundamentally alter the CDEP scheme and outstations policy. I think we have to recognise that we are getting terrific NRM outcomes in situations where you have robust community organisations and support for people living on country. If you do not have those things, these 10 to 15 rangers will not be able to manage vast landscapes.

Dr Kerins —The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts were very diligent in putting the program together. They looked at what was needed on country and responded to Aboriginal initiatives. But you cannot have just one department being able to do it, because Environment and Heritage do not deal with how you make Aboriginal governance strong in the community to enable these programs to be run. Also, with training, at the moment there is a mismatch between what is being delivered and the Working on Country programs. It should not just be one department that seems to have got the idea of what is happening and be doing something about it and others not being there. In addition, there is what I mentioned before: this mismatch between the curriculums that are taught in remote area schools and these links; that needs to come into it. Also, you cannot have people who work full time and then go home to try to get a good night’s sleep in a house they share with 20 others. So all of these issues are going on. You need to weave a mat. You cannot do that with one piece of string; you need many. At the moment, all we have is one piece of string ready to weave that mat.

Prof. Altman —I would like to emphasise that we have spent a lot of time championing the need for recognition and resourcing of Indigenous natural resource management work; we are certainly not in the business of attacking what we see as being a tremendous move forward in terms of providing proper funding for Indigenous rangering work. But, as social scientists, we also do not want to see unrealistic expectations or things being established that might prove to be unsustainable. Again, we go back to this issue: we believe that there is both an Indigenous and a national interest in making sure that this vast, largely unpopulated Indigenous estate is properly looked after by Indigenous people, and that requires serious investment by government.

Senator SIEWERT —That leads me to my next question. In fact, I have dozens of questions and I might have to put a few more on notice for you.

Prof. Altman —Sure.

Senator SIEWERT —Ignoring the amount of money that we need to invest in training—I recognise that will be another component going in—and assuming that those lands are managed effectively, what do you believe is the degree of investment needed in actual NRM management, after which we would have to look at the training and all of those bits that then bolt on to it?

Prof. Altman —I think that work still needs to be done. I think NAILSMA and the Pugh Foundation have said that we easily could have 5,000 Indigenous rangers on country. That figure is a little bit like Andrew Forrest’s 50,000; it is a real stab in the dark. Certainly, with an Indigenous estate that covers 1.5 million square kilometres of Australia, 5,000 does not seem excessive. But we also do not want to overlook—this is what I am trying to emphasise—the fact that a lot of NRM work is undertaken by Indigenous people who live on country and who are not formal rangers. I think, again in the national interest, having that populated landscape where people are still involved, for instance, in wildlife harvesting results in enormous positive externalities in terms of NRM that could be underwritten by support for people living at outstations. That might come, for example, from the CDEP scheme, but it would require a comprehensive outstations policy that also delivered education, health, housing and community services to outstations. Part of what we are saying is that a populated landscape can integrate with, in some cases, a formal Indigenous Protected Areas program with Working on Country and, in other cases, Working on Country programs that are not in Indigenous protected areas but just on Aboriginal land that, according to the resource atlas assessments we have made, still has land and enormous biodiversity value.

Dr Kerins —When we talk about Northern Australia, I think it is important to keep in mind also the big picture that we are looking at—not how much cattle I can get off this piece of country but what ecological services this country provides in terms of ecosystem maintenance to wider Australia in terms of clean air and clean water. That is incredibly important. At the moment, that is not measured in the market. The externality that we have there is that Aboriginal people are doing fire management, which is the biggest conservation land management tool that Aboriginal people are doing. By doing early season burning, they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In our submission, we give the example of the Waanyi/Garawa people. They were moved off their country and now we are getting fires of 16,000 square kilometres that are burning, going through a boom and bust cycle. When you go on that country now, you see large areas of savannah heath just disappearing. They will only come back on an evolutionary time scale, and that is what we are talking about. That is exposing all the aluminous soil there. When the rains come, that soil—it is stone, really—or sand will just wash into the billabongs and creeks, and desertification will start to happen. To try to fix that up in the future will cost billions and billions and billions, if it ever can be fixed up. I think that is the bigger picture that needs to be kept in mind, particularly in times of climate change. Aboriginal people are delivering a service to wider Australia by doing this, yet it is not measured and not valued.

Senator SIEWERT —We spoke previously about the ILC properties. I have been on a number of them and the concern expressed to me repeatedly is lack of funds for their management. Quite often these stations were put on the market because they were non-viable in the first place.

Prof. Altman —Yes.

Senator SIEWERT —It seems to me that a lot of these properties are the ones you talk about in terms of their value for ecosystem services. Through the programs that you are aware of—I will ask the department this also—are these properties also being targeted by some of these resources from Caring for Country?

Dr Kerins —Yes. A number of ILC properties are also getting land and sea management funds through the Working on Country programs; they are together. The ILC has been working with Environment and Heritage through the bilateral Healthy Country: Healthy People schedule. My understanding is that the ILC was to commit $10 million to that process to match the $10 million coming from ABA, but I understand that we have not seen that ILC money come into that yet. I understand that now the ILC is saying, ‘Maybe we are not going to contribute to this.’ In 2006, the Northern Territory signed up to having a two-year time frame over which it would invest $20 million into the Caring for Country program; as at September 2008, we are still to see this rollout, although we have seen some early investment. So you have to say to yourself: this is a whole-of-government approach and many departments are involved—Northern Territory, federal and the land councils—all trying to work together. But the engine has stalled; why is that?

Senator SIEWERT —Is it because the ILC has not put the money in?

Dr Kerins —That is what I understand.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I could give you the answer.

Senator SIEWERT —I will ask you later.

CHAIR —You do not have to ask him, Senator Siewert; he is going to give it to you anyway—but not while you are using valuable time to question the witnesses.

Senator SIEWERT —Have you had any discussions with any government agencies around the specific issue of the mismatch with training?

Prof. Altman —We have. We have an ARC Linkage project that mirrors our People on Country project. It looks at junior rangers. It looks at case studies across Arnhem Land where some of the skills in terms of ecosystem services were brought into the schools and at some of the enormous successes there have been in terms of school attendance and kids looking for a career in rangering. That project has the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training, NTDET, as an industry partner; it also has a number of Indigenous communities and schools. We certainly hope that, when those results are available, we might see some development in terms of a recognition that school curricula need to be, if you like, tailored to suit the sorts of futures that the kids might like to pursue on country.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You actually have to have the schools, for a start.

Prof. Altman —Of course, you have to have the schools; I agree. Also, you have to have teachers with an interest and a capacity in this area. The school at Maningrida, which is one of those we have been working with, has won a Eureka Prize in relation to kids going out on country. I think their prize was for the collection of rare spiders whose venom is now being—

Senator SIEWERT —Yes.

Prof. Altman —You might have seen that.

Dr Kerins —And for identifying new species.

Prof. Altman —Yes. Again, they are some of the sunrise industries that we might see evolving on Aboriginal land, as we get people on country identifying species that we do not even know about and looking at some of the pharmaceutical and other potential beneficial effects associated with those species.

Senator SIEWERT —When did that project start and what is it is called?

Prof. Altman —I am not sure of its exact name. If you look on our website, you will see a link to it; it is called ‘education project’. While you are looking at that on our website, also look at our ‘people on country’ site. That site, which was launched only in the last month, describes the project that we have been talking about.

Senator SIEWERT —Thank you.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I am on board with this; however, they are still getting a rotten deal up there.

Prof. Altman —Absolutely. There has been gross underinvestment in Indigenous Australia now for a very long time, but it has probably been most pronounced in the last decade, during which this country had unprecedented surpluses of billions of dollars that were not adequately invested in the first Australians.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I do not want to get into that argument; it is about how the money was spent and whether it hit the mark.

Prof. Altman —I agree. Targeting has been enormously difficult.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Let me just tell you that the money was sent to—

CHAIR —I am sorry. I was just talking to Senator Hurley on another very important matter—

Senator HEFFERNAN —I was just finishing off—

CHAIR —You have had your turn, Senator Heffernan. If you want to get the witnesses back at a private meeting to give yourself another opportunity, I am sure you can do so.

Senator SIEWERT —I asked you about the level of investment and then, admittedly, I went off on another tangent with my next question. I assume that you are unable to quantify definitively the level of investment, but would it be fair to summarise by saying that the level of investment we are making through Caring for our Country at the moment is a gross underinvestment?

Prof. Altman —I think that is a fair summary and I think the historical data shows that on a comparative basis. I guess part of what we are saying is that it is trending in the right direction, but a significant gap still remains there that we believe needs to be filled. In relation to some of the suggestions I was making earlier about doing some assessment of what is needed, we are just about to embark on a project under the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge hub that will try to do that for two catchments in Central Arnhem Land. This is a two-year project; it takes time and money to do these things rigorously. As you know, some people are sceptical about the value of research, but our view is that you really need to start quantifying these things rigorously. Then, when you look at some catchments, you will be able to factor up on a much larger landscape scale and see what sorts of resources you might need.

CHAIR —Senator Siewert, do you have any other questions that you really need answered?

Senator SIEWERT —I have finished.

CHAIR —Do you want to put any questions on notice?

Senator SIEWERT —Yes, I probably will put some on notice.

Prof. Altman —We will be very happy to respond to them.

Senator SIEWERT —I appreciate that.

CHAIR —Senator Heffernan, we are wrapping up this session, but I will give you 13 seconds. Please do not lecture the witnesses; ask them questions.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I would just say to the witnesses that all Australians have been done a great disservice in recent days by that stupid, bloody John Doyle and Tim Flannery program; it absolutely emotively and factually misled the Australian public with what was a load of rubbish.

Senator SIEWERT —That was not a question but a statement.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Would you like to respond to that?

Dr Kerins —I thought Aboriginal people were invisible from that program.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, it was a disgrace.

CHAIR —For the record, I agree with Senator Heffernan on this occasion—and that does not happen very often. Dr Kerins and Professor Altman, thank you very much for your time.

Dr Kerins —Thank you very much.

[9.58 am]