Our Voices

Antje Rilk

Federal Investment in Indigenous Conservation Delivers Major Benefits

As Canada works to protect at least 17 percent of lands by 2020, it can look to Australia for a proven model of partnership with Indigenous Peoples. Australia has announced it will invest an added $250 million AUD to support Indigenous Rangers who help manage the country’s natural heritage—including a vast network of Indigenous Protected Areas.

Australia’s new funding—on top of its existing support—is a testament to the success of these programs. Here in Canada, a similar investment in Indigenous protected areas and Indigenous guardians would also deliver major benefits, from conserving more lands to strengthening more communities and providing more clean water and vibrant lands for all Canadians.

Australia has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Indigenous Rangers programs to protect important natural and cultural areas, monitor biodiversity, and manage wildfires. (Photo: Parks Australia)

Australians have seen these benefits firsthand.

Almost 45 percent of Australia’s national system of parks and conserved lands are made up of Indigenous protected areas. Created through partnerships between Indigenous land owners and the Commonwealth Government, there are now 75 Indigenous protected areas covering over 67 million hectares of land and sea.

Most of these protected areas are managed by Indigenous Rangers. Indigenous Peoples have enduring relationships with the land and strong cultural responsibilities to care for it.  Australia recognized that their management would help fulfill the goals of Indigenous protected areas, and starting in 2007, the government invested about $618 million AUD over ten years in the ranger programs. This new $250 million AUD commitment will help support 118 ranger groups through 2021.

Researchers have measured the significant returns on this investment. For every $1 spent, these programs return an estimated $3 in social, economic and cultural values, according to a study commissioned by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

I had the honour of traveling to Australia on two occasions to meet and learn from Indigenous Rangers and see what a well-funded program can do in terms of Indigenous Peoples being able to fulfill their cultural responsibility.

They talked about the pride they felt in protecting the land for future generations and the power of combining Indigenous knowledge and western science. They said being on the land strengthened their ties to their culture and their elders.

Many Indigenous Guardians I’ve worked with in Canada speak in similar terms. And their programs generate similar benefits. Researchers studied two guardian programs in the NWT and found they deliver $2.50 in social, economic, cultural, and environmental value for every dollar invested. With sustained support, the value could increase up to $3.70 for each dollar of investment.

In 2014, a delegation of Indigenous Rangers from Australia came to Canada's Northwest Territories to exchange experiences with Indigenous Guardians and others working to manage lands. (Photo: Patrick O'Leary)

Like in Australia, Indigenous Guardians in Canada often manage Indigenous protected areas, whether it’s the Ni Hat’ni Dene program that will manage the proposed Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve or the Haida Watchmen who manage the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. More Indigenous Nations are eager to conserve and care for their lands, but they need support.

By supporting Indigenous-led conservation, Canada can move closer to its goal of protecting at least 17 percent of lands by 2020. The federal budget pointed to the importance of Indigenous partnerships in achieving conservation goals. Dedicated funds for land use plans and other tools that communities use to protect the land will strengthen those collaborations.

Meanwhile, the Government of Canada invested $25 million in Budget 2017 in a pilot National Indigenous Guardians Network. This is a good start, but it will take much more significant support to truly achieve the potential of guardians across Canada.

Australia’s example shows that making long-term investments in Indigenous-led conservation protects lands and waters on a sweeping scale and strengthens communities. It’s time for Canada to demonstrate the same leadership.