Indigenous Lands: Joint Management at Kakadu National Park (Australia)

Bas Verschuuren

The governance of ecosystem services and the benefits they provide involves an understanding of how ecosystems are linked to human well-being (Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). This becomes particularly apparent in the governance of Kakadu National Park where joint management between contemporary and culture-bound institutions involves a continuous process of defining and sharing responsibility for looking after the land and the ecosystem services and benefits is provides.


Location and World Heritage designation

Located in the remote Alligator Rivers Region of Western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory Kakadu is Australia's largest National Park of almost 2 million ha. It was found in 1975 and in 1981 it became Australia's first inscribed World Heritage site with additional inscriptions in 1987 (stage 2), 1999 (stage 3) and another extension in 2011 ( Kakadu contains the largest diversity of ecosystems of all Australian protected areas including a part of the world's largest tropical savannas. These grass and woodlands are alternated with open forest, floodplains, tropical rivers, mangroves, tidal mudflats, coastal areas, monsoon forests and impressive escarpments of up to 330 meters high.

Kakadu is recognized as an outstanding example of the "combined works of nature and man" but with relatively little influence from western settlers (UNESCO 1972, p. 2). The first guiding principle of the Kakadu Plan of Management therefore is: "culture, country, sacred places and customary law are one, extend beyond the boundaries of Kakadu, and need to be protected and respected" (Kakadu Board of Management 2007, p. iv). Aboriginal people known as Bininj have lived in Kakadu for over 50,000 years and their rich rock art sites are part of the world's longest continued and living art tradition (Chaloupka 1993). Some 5,000 art sites have been recorded and a further 10,000 sites are thought to exist (Kakadu Factsheet undated). This art tradition reveals insights into hunting and gathering practices, social structure and ritual ceremonies of Kakadu's past and present Indigenous societies. It is complemented by songs, stories and ceremony which together are a manifestation of the dreamtime, a time in which the earth and all beings were created by ancestral or mythological ancestors such as the Rainbow Serpent Bula, Lightning Man Namarrgon and Earth Mother Warramurrungundji. The Bininj believe that these ‘mythological' beings created the land, sea and everything in it and that they laid down the traditional law for Bininj people that still plays a role in every day management of Kakadu.


Main ecosystem services provided by the site

Kakadu National Park provides a range of ecosystem services to a diverse group of beneficiaries. These include supporting services in the form of nursery and habitat function necessary for the reproduction of commercially viable species such as the Baramundi (Lates calcarifer) and other fish that are favoured by sport anglers in the park (Palmer, 2004). The underground water basins recharge seasonally and provide water to communities over the dry season (Finlayson et al., 2005). Kakadu is also home to many different Aboriginal peoples whose livelihoods, languages, traditional knowledge and worldviews are intimately linked to the land and constitute an extraordinarily biocultural diversity (Hill, 2010).

Aboriginal peoples enjoy many different types of use such as hunting, gathering, the use of construction materials but also the use of medicinal, ornamental and genetic resources. However, what makes Kakadu truly unique are its cultural ecosystem services - not just its Aboriginal cultural heritage and art tradition with associated intangible spiritual and religious values but also its capacity for inspiration and recreation of the many visitors it receives annually. Knowledge generation and education functions are also important benefits provided by the site alongside its role as a natural laboratory for scientific research (deGroot et al 2008).

Governance and management system

Approximately 50 per cent of Kakadu National Park is Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Most of the remaining area of land is under claim by Aboriginal people. Title to Aboriginal land in the Park is held by Aboriginal Land Trusts that have leased their land to the Director of National Parks (under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999) for the purpose of being managed in accordance with the park's management plan and relevant decisions of the Kakadu National Park Board of Management. A majority of Board members represent the park's Traditional Owners (BMT WBM, 2010). The Traditional Owners engaged in this arrangement because they felt that having their land managed as a national park would support them in looking after their land in the face of growing and competing pressures.

The joint management system of the Kakadu National Park showcases how 'joint management' can combine ancient but dynamic culture and modern conservation practice. Bininj landowners have two leading responsibilities – looking after country gunred and looking after people guhpleddi (Gundjemjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, 2014). Understanding and communicating these interests within the current framework of joint management is seen by some Aboriginal and state protected area managers as one of the largest challenges for the future conservation of Kakadu.

In an attempt to engage with broader society, the new management plan being developed for 2014-2024 will go through a period of public comment and consultation with Traditional Owners, allowing different perspectives to be included (Planning Steps, undated). The new plan aims to conserve natural and cultural values, protecting the interests of the park's traditional owners and it provides safe visitors experiences. It also sets out the development of partnerships between government, the private sector and traditional owners that provide new business opportunities for local Aboriginal people. Essentially some of these opportunities lay in land management itself. As the new plan also focuses on the importance of weed control and traditional fire management Indigenous Ranger group are increasingly being established and are taking on management tasks using traditional practices whilst guided by a solid management plan and thousands of years of traditional knowledge and experience.