Investing in Indigenous Stewardship

Indigenous people play a critical role in global land and water stewardship.

As European colonial power expanded throughout Australia in the mid 19th century, indigenous stewardship was supplanted by new development practices, governance systems and management processes. Few of those new approaches incorporated or even acknowledged the rich base of indigenous knowledge that had been established over centuries.

The wisdom embedded in indigenous land and water stewardship is now being appreciated anew as cultural and natural resource managers seek to institute more efficient, equitable and sustainable development processes.

In 2015 Nautilus Impact Investing was invited to participate in the mid-term evaluation of the Wunambal Gaambera Healthy Country Plan. This plan intersects with several initiatives supported Australian government that enable partnership with indigenous stewards, including:

Indigenous Protected Areas – IPAs are voluntarily dedicated by indigenous groups on indigenous owned or managed land or sea country. They are designed to deliver environmental, cultural, social, health, economic and wellbeing outcomes for all Australians. Some 70 IPAs now cover more than 63 million hectares (155 million acres), totaling 43% of Australia’s National Reserve system.

Working on Country – the WoC program employs 770 Indigenous Rangers across 108 indigenous groups who perform a wide range of stewardship roles including management of cultural sites, fire regimes, biodiversity and invasive species control. A recent review of the WoC by Pew Trusts (WOC Review) found considerable direct social and economic benefits from this program at the community and national level as well as indirect benefits, such as reduced costs to government for service provision in rural areas.

Carbon Farming – various carbon credit mechanisms have been introduced to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane and nitrous oxide. One of the mechanisms approved by the Australian government in 2012 was a carbon farming initiative known as Savanna Burning. Under this initiative, land owners who meet strict investment and accounting criteria have the opportunity to receive carbon credits. Those credits have provided opportunities for employment of indigenous Australians; the burning methods employed can enable the re-establishment of traditional indigenous fire management in many regions.

A New Framework for Management

The Wunambal Gaambera Plan provides a new framework for management of some 2.5 million hectares (6.17 million acres) of the north Kimberley region of Western Australia (Moorcroft 2012). The north Kimberley region is nationally and internationally recognized for its outstanding conservation values and has high levels of endemism (species found only in that region). The region is the ancestral home or “Uunguu” of the Wunambal Gaambera people. Both the Uunguu Healthy Country planning process and implementation of the plan were led by traditional owners and Directors of the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation, with support from nonprofit and government organizations.

The plan was established using The Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Action Planning tool (CAP) and establishes priority strategies for conservation and cultural “targets”. Implementation of those strategies is led by indigenous ranger teams, working in partnership with the community, non-profit and other regional, state and national land and water management organizations. Progress in implementing those strategies is reviewed annually by an independent committee, the Uunguu Monitoring and Evaluation Committee and the results are then presented to the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation Directors who adjust priorities and management effort.

A full report of the evaluation is in press, but it is notable that after only five years, there has already been measurable progress on several key strategies of the plan, including “right way fire” (which has a significant carbon reduction benefit as well as ecological and cultural benefits protecting species of importance). Equally impressive has been the rapid development of natural resource management capacity through the Indigenous Ranger program and their work with local community members to renew traditional stewardship practices and knowledge.

After two centuries of disruption, Wunambal Gaambera traditional owners have begun to once again establish land and water management regimes that reflect 50,000 years of indigenous knowledge and are successfully using that knowledge to address modern threats such as climate change and invasive plant and animal species. This example, and dozens like it now emerging in Australia and elsewhere around the Pacific Rim (Pew Canada), provide impact investors with a clear vision of what is possible, and how to work with indigenous communities in order to achieve the many social and environmental outcomes that new forms of financial investment in indigenous land and water stewardship can help secure.