Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) are areas of land and/or sea that have been voluntarily dedicated by their Indigenous traditional owners, recognized by all tiers of Australian governments as protected areas, and managed by a combination of legal authority and other effective means, consistent with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s protected area definition and guidelines.

My involvement in the IPA story began at a coffee shop in Canberra in 1995, where I met with Steve Szabo and Richard Thackway, from the Australian Government’s Environment Department.  Steve was a former school teacher with experience in Aboriginal Ranger Training; Richard was a was an environmental scientist engaged in mapping Australia’s biodiversity regions.  The meeting focused on one question: Would Indigenous landowners be interested/willing to voluntarily dedicate their land as a protected area in exchange for Government land management funding?  The question arose because in December 1992 the Prime Minister of the day, Paul Keating, had committed to establishing a National Reserve System (NRS) of terrestrial protected areas that would include representation of Australia’s 80 biodiversity regions – a goal that could only be achieved by the inclusion of Indigenous owned or leased land, which at that time comprised about 15% of Australia’s land area.  This background is discussed further here.

Following that initial discussion, I was contracted by the Environment Department to undertake consultations with Traditional Owners and their representative organisations around Australia to determine the extent, if any, of support for this proposal, and to seek advice from Indigenous people on how to develop the proposal further if there was support to do so.  These consultations culminated in a national Working Group Meeting of representatives from major land councils and other peak Indigenous organisations, as well as representatives from State and Territory conservation agencies.  This meeting, held in Alice Springs in June 1995, proved to be a turning point in the IPA story.  It provided an opportunity for a frank exchange of ideas, concerns and aspirations, and also a forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to discuss among themselves the pros and cons of the IPA concept.  While there was wide support for the proposal, a key concern was that the IPA concept would only benefit Indigenous groups whose traditional Country had been returned to them through successful land claims and other legal processes.

The key outcome of the Working Group meeting was the further development of the IPA concept was supported under the two conditions:

  1. That the IPA project seek to achieve recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests in the management of existing protected areas (such as national parks and marine parks) throughout Australia; and
  2. That a Task Force be established and funded by the Australian Nature Conservation Agency to provide ongoing advice on the development and implementation of the project.

At a hastily convened meeting of senior Commonwealth Government representatives attending the meeting, these conditions were agreed to, and the IPA Program was formally established soon after.  The consultation process, and a parallel project exploring potential legal barriers and opportunities for Commonwealth Government funding support for Indigenous land and sea management (undertaken by consultant lawyer Johanna Sutherland), are detailed in our consultancy report Indigenous Protected Areas: conservation partnerships with Indigenous Landholders.

The consultancy report also contains the membership of the Indigenous Task Force established to guide initial IPA policy development and the selection of the pilot IPAs to receive Commonwealth Government funding.  With representation from all states and territories, as well as Torres Strait, the Task Force was critical to the successful establishment of the IPA Program.  In subsequent years, advice from Indigenous people was provided by the IPA Sub-committee of the Environment Department’s statutory Indigenous Advisory Committee (IAC), established by the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.  The role and current membership of the IAC are described here

The first IPA was established at Nantawarrina in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia in 1998.  Support for the IPA program for successive Commonwealth Governments has continued to grow over the last 23 years.  There are currently 78 IPAs across Australia totalling 74 million hectares, comprising more than 46 per cent of the National Reserve System.  14 of these IPAs include marine areas which contribute a total of 7.3 million hectares to Australia’s marine protected area estate.

Several independent evaluations of the IPA Program (in 2006, 2011 and 2016) have documented strong support by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for IPAs, and funding applications to establish new IPAs have continued to outstrip demand even as budgetary support for IPA has continued to grow.  Benefits of IPAs as reported in these evaluations include:

  • Improved access and connection to Country by Elders and Rangers;
  • Improved health and wellbeing outcomes for Rangers and their families
  • Improved protection and maintenance of cultural values, including language, sites, knowledge and practices
  • Improved information about and protection of biodiversity and other natural values
  • Improved collaboration between Traditional Owners, government agencies, conservation NGOs, philanthropic groups, and others.

The IPA Program, and associated support for the employment for Indigenous Rangers, is widely regarded as one of the most successful Indigenous policy initiatives undertaken by the Commonwealth Government.  The evaluation of the IPA Program undertaken by Social Ventures Australia in 2016 found that between the 2009 and 2015 financial years, an investment of $35.2m from government and third parties generated $96.5m worth of social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes, and that 28 of 35 program outcomes directly aligned with government strategic priorities.

Ingredients of IPA success