How Australia’s historic landback efforts are reshaping travel – on a global scale
Lille Madden is First Nations Director at Groundswell, an Australia-based climate action funding platform, which says these land returns are “everything benefiting tenfold. When it comes to social justice and climate justice, landback is so important that Aboriginal people can be in the countryside. But it’s good for everyone else and for the tourism industry as well.” Because First Nations people have taken good care of the land for millennia, Madden says that restoring land is “not just for the health of the land itself, but also of animals and plants, of people and our culture and the ability to be able to happen anything is essential that is passed on to the next generation.”
Indigenous peoples make up 5 percent of the world’s population but protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. So if we want to preserve the most important natural tourism sites, it makes sense to give them back to the people who have been taking care of them sustainably for tens of thousands of years. This is supported by a recent study in the scientific journal Current Biology, which shows that the world’s healthiest, most diverse and resilient forests are found on land managed by Indigenous communities.
A meandering river south of Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia
Handprints on a dancer’s back at the Laura Quinkan Indigenous Dance Festival on Cape York Peninsula
On a recent trip to Tasmania, I took a 3-day guided walk through the Bay of Fires with the Aboriginal-run company wukalina Walk and witnessed my Palawa Indigenous guides diligently caring for this land as if it were kin. The land we were on had not been returned to the Palawa – in fact it has been 17 years since the last land was returned to the Tasmanian Aborigines – but I can only imagine how much deeper their connection to the land will be when she is.
James Morgan is a local Bininj man from Kakadu and owner of Rock Art Tour company Yibekka Kakadu, which means ‘listen and feel cockatoo’ in his Aboriginal language. Morgan is passionate about protecting sacred sites in Kakadu and creating more economic opportunities for his family and other Bininj. He agrees that land restitution, while complicated, is important from an economic perspective.
“That means Bininj is more likely to be hired, which means more opportunities for Bininj to stay on Country and work on Country,” he says. Having more tribal leaders working on their own land means that income is also much more likely to stay in the region. “Money comes and goes when it’s with an operator that’s not on site. But local operators spend the money in Kakadu or in that region, so it stays here.”
Aside from running his business, Morgan also works as a senior ranger, fighting fires, tending to rock art, monitoring endangered species and more. “As a Bininj man, I have many different responsibilities of taking care of the land compared to a non-indigenous leader,” he says. Traditional owners in Kakadu, Morgan adds, also ensure that certain sites remain off-limits for certain periods of time “because they believe country deserves to rest.”