Environmental Science
articles by Will Kemp

Indigenous environmental management

Summaries and discussion of four peer reviewed papers

This article summarises and evaluates four peer reviewed papers which report on various aspects of Indigenous environmental management in Australia and overseas.

Carter, J L, and Hill, G E 2007, ‘Critiquing environmental management in indigenous Australia: two case studies’, Area, 39, 1, 43-54.
This paper compares two contrasting experiences of working with Aboriginal communities in northern Australia. The studies aimed to investigate the commercial potential of sea cucumber harvesting by Aboriginal communities. The author describes two different models of joint management of natural resources and compares the challenges of working with them. The models described are an Aboriginal owned land area and a co-managed national park.

The Aboriginal owned land area was managed by a community outstation resourcing agency (CORA), which made decisions by consensus at community meetings and resourced a ranger program. The co-managed national park area was managed by a board of management (BOM), which consisted of one member of each of the four clan groups represented, along with four senior public servants. The BOM was chaired by a traditional owner who had the casting vote.

The author found that working with the CORA was easy and straightforward, but working with the BOM was difficult and frustrating – and ultimately achieved virtually nothing. The main problem with the BOM structure was power inequity, which resulted in polarization and prevented sustainable outcomes. Ultimately the difference was between a grass roots organisation and a bureaucracy.

The areas which the authors point to as requiring consideration in the future are the notion of representation, institutional racism, and local versus regional management structures.

There were a mixture of writing styles in this paper. The part that appears to have been written by the first author, telling the story of her involvement in the projects, is well written, clear, and easy to follow. The introduction and discussion appear to be written by someone else – presumably the second author – and they are written in the old style of impenetrable academic writing. Those sections of this paper undermine its usefulness and accessibility – particularly its accessibility to the Indigenous people whose story it tells and for whom English is probabably at least a second language, and possibly a third or fourth language. This style of writing seems to be going out of fashion now, which can only be a good thing – and it should not be acceptable in any publication, particularly not one related to people from non English speaking backgrounds.

The dimension of Indigenous people’s relationship with the environment which this paper reflects is their ability to manage their own land, in traditional or non-traditional ways. The barriers presented by poor management structures are detrimental not just to the people themselves, but to the long term health of their land. The grass roots and locally based nature of the CORA model is clearly superior and allows more effective land management as well as the development of a healthier and more empowered community.

Hoffmann, BD, Roeger, S, Wise, P, Dermer, J, Yunupingu, B, Lacey, D, Yunupingu, D, Marika, B, Marika, M and Panton, B 2012, ‘Achieving highly successful multiple agency collaborations in a cross-cultural environment: experiences and lessons from Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation and partners’, Ecological Management & Restoration, 13, 1, 42-50.
Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation is a community organisation which serves the Yolngu people of north east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Its main role is natural and cultural resource management on behalf of traditional owners, and it is a partner in the Indigenous Protected Areas programme.

This paper describes five instances of long term collaboration between Dhimurru and a number of other organisations which achieved successful outcomes, and analyses the factors which made them successful. The collaborating organisations included the Parks and Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund, NT Fisheries, Australian Fisheries Management Authority, CSIRO, Rio Tinto mining, and local businesses. Projects included invasive ant eradication, surveying and removal of marine debris and ghost nets, and threatened butterfly management.

The authors describe four attributes of the organisation’s management structure which they believe were essential to the success of these collaborations. These are strong governance and leadership, embedding partners in the organisation’s structure, inclusive decision making, and an annual review workshop for all staff and collaborators.

The paper also describes eight lessons learned from these and other collaborations, which have helped develop a successful collaboration strategy. Most of these lessons should be fairly obvious to anyone with organisational experience, but there are a couple of important ones which are often overlooked: effective communication must be the responsibility of the non-Indigenous participants, and projects should be owned by the local organisation.

One important issue that the authors of this paper draw attention to is the complexity of reporting procedures required by funding bodies. They point out that these requirements make it necessary for Indigenous organisations to hire non-Indigenous workers so they can fulfil their reporting obligations – which goes against the principles of not separating roles of Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff.

The successful collaborations described in this article allow the local Indigenous people to care for their country much more effectively. They are also likely to help with building community cohesiveness and confidence. The lessons learned in the process may be useful to other Indigenous communities in their attempts to more effectively manage their own country in collaboration with outside agencies.

Richmond, L 2013, ‘Incorporating Indigenous Rights and Environmental Justice into Fishery Management: Comparing Policy Challenges and Potentials from Alaska and Hawaiʻi’ Environmental Management, 52, 5, 1071-1084.
In recent years, fisheries management in the United States has begun to take into account social and cultural concerns of Indigenous communities. However, these policies have not always been successful. This paper discusses two policies which address Indigenous rights and environmental justice issues: a community quota entity (CQE) program in Alaska and community-based subsistence fishing area (CBSFA) legislation in Hawaii. The first allows Indigenous villages to acquire commercial fishing rights, and the second allows Indigenous communities to designate marine areas as CBSFAs and manage them traditionally.

The author examines the implementation of these policies against the background of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and finds that they both failed to achieve their aims.

Over time, previous commercial fishery quotas had resulted in the exclusion of Indigenous Alaskan communities and members of remote fishing villages campaigned for years to change the regulations. In 2005, the CQE program was established, allowing non-profit community organisations to purchase fishing quotas. These organisations could then share out the quotas according to community requirements.

Because of its restrictive nature and the high cost of purchasing quotas, this policy mostly failed to achieve its aims. One of the main problems was that the law restricted the ability to lease quotas to people who had been resident in the community for the whole of the previous twelve months, but people traditionally moved between villages and rarely stayed anywhere for that long. Out of 42 communities, only two were able to purchase quotas.

Fishing has traditionally been an important part of the culture of Indigenous Hawaiians, but in many communities selling fish is not acceptable, so fishing is mainly a subsistence activity. Hawaii’s constitution specifically protects traditional subsistence rights, but this constitutional protection is ineffective. In 1994, legislation was introduced which allowed for CBSFAs in order to revive and protect traditional fishing practices by allowing Indigenous communities to manage their own marine areas traditionally.

Because the law was poorly drafted and restrictive, and Indigenous Hawaiian communities do not have any form of community level governance, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) had difficulty defining communities and designating CBSFAs. The DLNR has also seems to have been less supportive of the scheme than they could have been. In over fifteen years, only two communities out of the 19 that were interested, have achieved designation of their CBSFAs – and neither of these yet had an approved management plan. However, one community had success in implementing their own traditional management systems outside of the government system.

Although this policy has been largely unsuccessful, it has inspired self organisation in Indigenous communities, who continue to put pressure on the DLNR to enable them to manage marine resources traditionally.

The main problem with these two policies is a top down approach and a lack of cultural appropriateness. Both these Indigenous peoples need to be able to manage their marine resources in their own tradtional ways and to define who is a part of their communities for those purposes. Creating policies like these without thoroughly understanding the cultural issues is a waste of time and energy and does nothing to achieve its purpose.

Fule, PZ, Ramos-Gomez, M, Cortes-Montano, C and Miller, AM 2011, ‘Fire regime in a Mexican forest under indigenous resource management’, Ecological Applications, 21, 3, 764-775.

This paper points out that current attitudes to fire management are heavily influenced by assumptions about what constitutes “naturalness”. Because of this, traditional Indigenous fire regimes are often misunderstood, which has led to serious problems with wildfires. Indigenous knowledge about locally applicable fire management systems would be valuable for modern land management, but unfortunately, a lot of this knowledge has been lost.

The country of the Rarámuri people of northern Mexico has been relatively undisturbed by colonization and traditional land management regimes are still practised there. This paper describes a study of those fire regimes and and their effects on the forest. The authors reconstructed the fire regime from cross sections of trees and measured the resulting forest structure. They also interviewed community members about fire use. They found that the fire regimes in that area had suffered less interruption than any other site found so far in north America.

Comparing the traditionally managed forest sites with nearby logged sites, the authors found that the traditional sites had larger trees, more biomass, and therefore more carbon than the logged sites, as well as 50% more bird species.

The researchers were assisted by local Indigenous people, who facilitated interviews with residents about their use of fire. The authors state that they restricted themselves to a brief list of questions as they did not have formal training in interviewing.

The article shows the effectiveness of Indigenous people being allowed to manage natural resources in traditional ways, without interference from outside forces. Although traditional fire management schemes have been disrupted by colonization, concerted efforts should be made to recover as much of the lost knowledge as possible and to facilitate Indigenous people in relearning how to use fire management most effectively.


The common thread running through the first three papers is that top-down bureaucratic control of Indigenous environmental management does not work. In order to make effective progress, Indigenous communities must be allowed to make their own decisions about how to manage natural resources most effectively. The fourth paper shows that when Indigenous people are allowed to implement management plans in their own way, they can do so very effectively.