Caring for Country, an Indigenous propitious niche in 21st century Australia

Friday, 28 March 2014
Dr Dermot Smyth

Former AIATSIS Principle Dr Peter Ucko, in a workshop presentation in the late 1970's, described how minority or marginalised people occupy specialised, propitious employment niches as a mechanism to establish social and economic footholds within dominant societies. This paper reflects on the exponential growth of Indigenous people’s engagement in caring for land and sea country through ranger employment, protected area management and research partnerships over the last 30 years. By tracking the cultural, economic and political origins and development of the caring for country movement, the paper shows how these activities constitute a ‘propitious niche’ for Indigenous people within 21st century Australian society, while also contributing to the re-emergence of ‘country’ as an appropriate geographical and cultural scale for contemporary management of Australia’s land and sea environments.

Understanding the characteristics of caring for country, including its foundations in Indigenous culture and its contributions to national policy objectives, can contribute to new ways of thinking about Indigenous employment and other gap-closing imperatives, by nurturing other potential propitious niches as pathways to broader employment and economic opportunities.

The history of caring for country programs are reviewed to demonstrate that they emerged in response to Indigenous-driven initiatives and connection to country, which in turn explains the popularity and success of Indigenous ranger employment. Caring for country programs demonstrate what can be achieved when governments and other investors provide support to momentum already developed by Indigenous communities, organisations and individuals. In the context of Closing the Gap, a review of caring for country programs enables consideration of which factors may contribute to, or mitigate against, particular employment niches being propitious for Indigenous people, such as culture, identity, ancestry, education, remoteness and competition. Propitious niches can provide opportunity pathways for Indigenous people, though the options for each individual should be canvassed and encouraged much more broadly and not limited to the predetermined employment roles suggested by the concept of a propitious niche.