Working in the community
For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, jobs looking after country provide an important connection to the environment, culture and community.
The essential role of the ranger: their cultural, social and environmental duties in looking after country
One of the most important jobs in looking after country is being a ranger, which is a valuable job for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women. It fulfils cultural obligations of looking after country and totems (animals and plants), builds strong connections with community and keeps people fit and healthy. Water is an integral part of country, seen as interconnected with land and managed as one living system. As well as land-based activities, rangers spend time looking after and rehabilitating creeks, waterways and wetlands, and managing beaches, coastal areas, and marine parks.
There are a lot of challenges in making a place healthy again when it has been neglected or managed inappropriately. For example, there may be rubbish, weeds, polluted water, feral animals, all of which can be detrimental for local wildlife and make a place unusable for humans. But each place has its own unique value and cultural history, and it is worth the effort to bring it back to health. Rangers carry out a lot of the hard physical work that is required, such as removing weeds and rubbish, replanting in wetlands or on riverbanks to improve the health of the water, and dealing with feral animals.
Combining traditional knowledge with science
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rangers work to look after their country by combining conservation methods from traditional knowledge and western science1, including rehabilitation of areas that have been impacted. Some rangers work with scientists to record what species are on their country2, collaborating with governments, universities and organisations like Threatened Species Recovery Hub3 to conduct surveys of plant and animal numbers and health. This can include reducing the numbers of pest species, e.g. carp, a pest fish that are a major problem in the Murray Darling basin. Rangers in southern Queensland have reduced numbers by up to 85% in some wetland areas4.
Rangers in coastal areas of far north Queensland, e.g. Gulf of Carpentaria, work to protect saltwater country from ghost nets - lost or abandoned fishing nets sometimes up to 6 kilometres long that are deadly to marine wildlife, entangling birds, whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. Rangers patrol beaches and remove nets and free wildlife, saving thousands of animals including endangered species like the Olive Ridley sea turtle5.
Ranger positions in regional areas are highly sought after for both men and women. When people have to choose between staying on country and a job elsewhere, it can be a tough decision, as it can mean moving thousands of kilometres away. This can make it difficult and expensive to visit home, and have adverse impacts on mental health by isolating people from their communities. Making the choice stay on country often stems from family ties and responsibilities, such as caring for elderly relatives or children, as well as the spiritual need to be on country6. At the same time, choosing to stay when job opportunities are limited can be an equally difficult choice, as this may involve compromising career opportunities.
“If you look after country, the country will look after you”7
Working on country is reported to have a strong influence on the health of people8. Ranger opportunities can be particularly important for young people; helping them feel positive about their contribution to community, and strengthening their sense of identity. Mental health is described by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”9 It is interconnected with nutrition, exercise, stress levels and interpersonal relationships. Having an income and a job gives a sense of responsibility and makes it easier to make and pay for healthy choices. Research shows poverty traps people in an endless cycle of ill health; where people are unable to find work or have a poorly paid job they cannot afford to buy healthy food or haven’t got time to cook, which adds to financial stress and diminishes health10. Many health outcomes are statistically poorer for Aboriginal people than non-Aboriginal people in Australia, including life expectancy and chronic disease11.
While it is important to support Aboriginal women in every workplace, it is also crucial that there are opportunities and strong role models for our young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men.
Mens’ business and Women’s business
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clans often have separate sacred places for ‘women’s’ business’ and ‘men’s’ business’. Many are situated around waterholes or rivers, and have important creation stories, or ceremony or birthing places. It is important there are both men and women to care for cultural sites as some are restricted to men and some for women12. This recognises and respects the different paths men and women walk in traditional culture, and the way ancestors looked after these places in the past. This is based on traditional cultural identity, and does not diminish the value of LGBT and intersex peoples in our communities.
In summary, being a ranger is one way to provide positive role models for younger generations of both men and women, contribute to communities, actively care for country, and strengthen identity. It also contributes to good health through spending time outdoors doing physical work and walking on country.
Classroom activity - Health and Physical Education Years 9 and 10
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rangers have an important role in environmental management today. In some regions, women and men perform different roles in traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Students will watch and read the resources to learn about ranger programs and the important role that women play in the contemporary land and sea management, research rangers in their region, and visit a local natural area to explore some ranger activities.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
Plan and evaluate new and creative interventions that promote their own and others’ connection to community and natural and built environments (ACPPS097)
Critique behaviours and contextual factors that influence health and wellbeing of diverse communities (ACPPS098)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 9 and 10 in Health and Physical Education:
- analyse the impact attitudes and beliefs about diversity have on community connection and wellbeing
- examine the role physical activity has played historically in defining cultures and cultural identities
Activity 1 – Rangers and identity
Suggested timing for activity: 30 mins or more
Required resources: computer and internet access, notebook and pen
- Students will watch the videos and read through material in the following resources:
- Numbulwar Numburindi Ranger Group
- Sabrina Wauchope, Croker Island Junior Ranger (2018) Retrieved from
- Numbulwar Numburindi Ranger Group
- As a class, discuss the following inquiry-based questions:
- How do the roles of female Aboriginal and Torres Strait rangers compare with your ideas of ‘traditional’ female roles, and female roles presented in the media today? Are there similarities or differences?
- Why is it important for both male and female rangers to be role models in their communities? Discuss in relation to identity.
- What social, cultural and economic factors pose challenges for health in remote communities?
- While is it important to encourage more female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders take up jobs as rangers, discuss why it’s still important to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men as rangers.
Activity 2 – Healthy country healthy people
Suggested timing for activity: one lesson
Required resources: computer and internet access, notebook and pen
- As a class, compile a list of common animals you know from your area into a table for use in the next activity. Keep this basic, eg ‘freshwater turtle’, ‘blue tongue lizard’, ‘galah’.
- Use the Explore Your Area tool on the Atlas of Living Australia website: https://biocache.ala.org.au/explore/your-area#-33.8883|151.1227|12|ALL_SPECIES to explore the list of species from your area. Some records may be very old.
- Discuss: do you think this many species still exist here today? Why or why not?
- Research rangers in your local community, or nearest national park –
- What Traditional Owner groups does this place belong to?
- What challenges do they face in this area, e.g. pests, vandalism, pollution
- How do you use your nearby national parks and areas? Discuss the relationship between the health of natural areas and how people use them for their own health and enjoyment.
- Indigenous rangers and Traditional Owners have an inherent responsibility to look after their country, and respect other people’s country.
- Discuss how this is part of their identity.
- What is your own responsibility to the place you live, both to the land and water, and to the community?
- How can you encourage people in your community to look after their natural areas?
Activity 3 – Caring for our water places
Suggested timing for activity: One lesson
Required resources: list of plants and animals from Activity 2, notebook and pen, pencil, camera (optional)
Explore your local waterhole or another natural area through the eyes of a ranger. If it’s not possible to visit, the class can discuss previous experiences.
- Visit a local natural area – water is usually a hotspot for animal activity. Early morning is best. Approach very quietly (if possible) to see any wildlife that might be there. Listen for sounds.
- If there is water, students can sit very still and look for fish, insects, yabbies
- Look carefully on the ground to find tracks, fur, feathers, droppings (don’t touch the droppings as they can have parasites). Parrots are messy eaters and may have left shredded flowers and fruit behind. Leaves on trees may have been eaten by insects.
- Look for scratches and holes (but don’t disturb holes) – e.g. on trees – koalas, goannas, possums leave scratches on trees. Bandicoots and wombats dig holes.
- Take photographs or make drawings of each of the tracks or traces, see if you can identify what made them. You may like to contact a local ranger to help you, or look at books or online resources.
- Make a list of plants and animals and record observations –
- which animals, how many? What do you think they were doing? Were any sick? i
- Which plants - gum trees, grasses, reeds. Are there obvious weeds? E.g. lantana, pasture grass, prickly pear.
- Can you tick any plants or animals off the list from Activity 2?
- Discuss your findings as a class:
- Think about the overall health and condition of this place – is it well looked after? Are there weeds or rubbish?
- How do you think this place should be cared for or improved? What resources or information would you need to do this?
If your local water place has a lot of rubbish, students could spend a lesson cleaning it up and seeing what difference this makes to its health and useability.
- Using protective gloves and rubbish bags, students can remove what rubbish they can.
- Does this improve the health of the place?
- Are you more likely to want to visit this place, or is more work needed?
- Do you think plants and animals will benefit from your work?
1 Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger Program (2018) Retrieved from https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/plants-animals/conservation/community/land-sea-rangers/about-rangers
2 Wintle, B. and Skroblin, A. (n.d.) Monitoring Threatened Species on Indigenous lands: Bilbies in the Martu Determination. Retrieved from http://www.nespthreatenedspecies.edu.au/projects/monitoring-threatened-species-on-indigenous-lands-bilbies-in-the-martu-determination
3 Renwick, A. (2017) Indigenous Land and threatened species conservation. Retrieved from http://www.nespthreatenedspecies.edu.au/Whats%20the%20overlap.pdf
4Sanders, B. and Morris, N. (2018) Aboriginal rangers net thousands of carp in new project to rid the Murray Darling of the pest fish. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-12/aboriginal-rangers-trial-new-nets-to-rid-carp-from-the-murray/10610464
5 Indigenous Rangers (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.ghostnets.com.au/ranger-activities/
6 Poroch, N., Arabena, K., Tongs, J., Larkin, S., Fisher, J., and Henderson, G. (2009) Spirituality and Aboriginal people’s social and emotional wellbeing: a review, p. 40. Retrieved from http://www.winnunga.org.au/uploads/docs/Spirituality%20Review%202009.pdf
7 Griffiths, S. and Kinnane, S. (2011)Kimberley Aboriginal Caring for Country plan. p. 3 Retrieved from http://webadmin.communitycreative.com.au/uploads/rangelands/publications/KimberleyAboriginalCfoCPlan_Report.pdf
8 Improving Health (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.countryneedspeople.org.au/improving_health
9 Mental health: a state of wellbeing (2014) Retrieved from https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/
10 Friel, S. (2016) Social determinants – how class and wealth affect our health. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/social-determinants-how-class-and-wealth-affect-our-health-64442
11 Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (2019) Closing the Gap. Chapter 6. Retrieved from https://ctgreport.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/ctg-report-2019.pdf?a=1
12 Indigenous Women Rangers Talking. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://caepr.cass.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/docs/Women_Rangers_Talking_high_Rez_0.pdf
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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.