In the remote savanna lowlands of Central Arnhem Land, Australia, Everlyn Mardi and Venicia Murray are on their lunch break. They are sitting in the shade beside a spring where a crocodile hides under its surface, Everlyn in a camping chair and Venicia cross-legged on the ground beside her. The women are wearing their dark blue work shirts with a red-and-yellow logo featuring a karrkkanj, a firebird, at the center.
Today, Everlyn and Venicia are at Barrapunta, or Emu Springs, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) by road from Darwin and 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the nearest regional town of Katherine. It’s the end of the wet season in Australia’s Top End and the land is drier than usual. Though the humid day holds the promise of a storm, it’s been another short wet season this year—meaning big wildfires might lie ahead for the dry season again.
“I started as a ranger in 2015,” Everlyn says. “I was by myself with all the boys, had to fight fire by myself with all the boys. The boys taught me how to fight fire. And they looked after me, too, out bush.”
Everlyn and Venicia were two of the first female rangers when Mimal Land Management became an independent entity from the Northern Land Council (NLC), and they are part of a growing movement to create more meaningful and culturally appropriate opportunities for women living on Australia’s Indigenous estates. Traditionally, Aboriginal women play a specific role in caring for Country. They have exclusive knowledge and practices passed down from one woman to another for generations, concerning animal behavior, ceremonial practices and “women’s business,” while Aboriginal men play a different but equally important role. This means that gender-specific programs of work are needed to fully nurture their distinct cultural knowledge and practices.
Everlyn and Venicia have come to Barrapunta to join a gathering of men and women from 11 Indigenous ranger groups working in all corners of Arnhem Land. With guidance from Aboriginal-owned Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (ALFA), they’ve come together to plan how they will use fire to manage their lands this year.
Before more women joined the ranger workforce, Everlyn says, “I had to cook for all of us. When they were out doing fire work, sometimes I was the only one back cooking. I had to ask Elizabeth [an Elder] and her partner to come along to give me a hand, you know, to cook damper, because I didn’t know how!” She laughs and gestures back toward the campsite at Barrapunta, where she and her colleagues will be pulling apart huge portions of dense damper for lunch, freshly baked in a cast-iron pot on the fire that morning.
“That’s what I used to do before, too, cook for the boys,” adds Venicia, “because there were three of us [women] when I started.”
“We do our own jobs now,” Everlyn says with a smile.
Fire work combines Western science and technology—such as satellite mapping, helicopters, incendiary machines, drip torches and leaf blowers—with Indigenous land management knowledge and practices passed down for generations. The land and people of Arnhem Land evolved together with traditional fire practices to reduce the severity of wildfire damage. While this has been primarily the domain of men in the past, over the last decade women have become increasingly involved in and passionate about fire work in Arnhem Land.
“We do early burns before the wildfire comes,” explains Venicia. “We do it around communities, around outstations and around sacred sites … we have to make sure they don’t get burned out.”
Not only does this protect sites from destructive wildfires, but research shows it also improves the fertility of the soil and the health of the environment. Venicia has seen plants flourish and native animals return to the land since the rangers reinstated a healthy burning regime.
This work also reduces carbon emissions. The reduction in emissions is quantified as credits sold on the carbon market by ALFA to reinvest in the work of Indigenous rangers. Each year, this emissions reduction is equal to taking 140,000 Australian cars off the road.
Mimal means “fire” in the Dalabon language, and fire is central to the culture, lives and livelihoods of communities in the Mimal Land Management Area. But fire work is just one of many jobs that men and women rangers do.
Indigenous ranger groups were developed through an Australian federal government program to create meaningful employment, training and career pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As rangers, they get paid to manage their land and sea areas while maintaining their cultures and sharing their skills and knowledge with others. The program quickly became much more than a job-creation strategy—it is now a critical link in the continuation of the world’s oldest living culture that enables people to live and work on their ancestral lands, often in areas where few other employment opportunities exist.
“When I started,” says Venicia, “I can remember from my time, one of our Elders was working as a senior ranger and I got my knowledge from her. She’s passed away now. She taught me all about what ranger work is about and how to look after your sacred sites. What to do and what not to do. There are certain parts of this area which we call the women’s ceremony, where men are not allowed to go, so it’s a bit different,” she says, referring to the different custodial roles and physical areas where Indigenous men and women manage the land.
Mimal Land Management is one of around 15 ranger groups in Arnhem Land, and their duties show how closely Country and culture are intertwined. The rangers prevent and fight wildfires, reduce the impact of feral animals and invasive plant species, document and protect sacred sites, teach children how to care for their homelands, track and restore native species, and record knowledge and stories with Elders.
“When we do the right thing every year, it’s not from our Elders, it’s from our great-great-ancestors when they were buried here,” Venicia says. The transfer of knowledge and culture across generations is foundational to every aspect of their work.
While the meeting continues at Barrapunta, Elders Robert Redford and Norrie Martin are preparing to host children for a week of “culture camp” a few hours down the road at an outstation called Mount Catt, or Bamirdakkorlo. This is part of the Learning on Country program with Mimal Rangers and the local school, when Norrie and Robert pass down some of their ancestors’ knowledge to the next generation. The rangers and Elders have spent a long time preparing, including digging for tree roots, seeds and flowers to prepare dyes for pandanus they’ve stripped and collected. They soak the dried pandanus in the colored water so the women and girls have brightly colored strips to weave into sturdy carry bags and baskets, mats, jewelry and great works of art.
Norrie’s T-shirt bears the firebird Mimal logo and Robert nods along under his Akubra hat next to her. In the Western kinship system Robert is Venicia’s father-in-law, though in the Indigenous kinship system it’s more complex.
“The kids are very interested in this kind of program with the rangers,” Norrie says. “At daytime, we show them whatever we can, whatever we need to show them, and at night we tell them stories or maybe corroboree to make them understand that we have culture and we have our law.”
For Indigenous peoples in Arnhem Land, Western distinctions between human, animal, spirit and features of the landscape are blurred in the cultural stories and beliefs of communities. “Elders told us that we must stay on our land and look after it,” explains Norrie, “because there’s lots of things like ceremony ground, sacred sites, dreaming … like this big tree which is an old woman.” She gestures to a towering white eucalyptus behind her. “Some girl dreaming,” she says, “mermaid. I was told that’s where I came from.”
Norrie and Robert’s granddaughter, Annie, is sitting with them under the mermaid tree, leaning against Norrie. Norrie speaks to her in the Kune Rembarrnga clan Daworro language, another language unique to this area, prompting her to share a story.
“I’m learning from my nanna,” she says softly. “Last time we went digging for them bush tucker and we dig for that bush carrot,” she says with more confidence. “My friends told me that they found a big one and they took it back to show grandma.”
Children here often learn many different languages, which they use to identify bush tucker and medicinal plants as well as animals, some of which are endemic to the area. Each native plant, animal or feature of the landscape may be directly helpful as food, medicine, navigational tools or seasonal or environmental indicators and may be tied to particular stories, families or ceremonies. On weekly Learning on Country excursions with Elders and rangers, children hear about how to find and identify these things, how to look after them and how they are significant. This includes the children of both Venicia and Everlyn.
Earlier, when sitting at Barrapunta, Venicia commented on why she wanted her children to take part in the Learning on Country program. She explained that her kids already know several different languages. “Every tree, every grass has its own names,” she continues. “For my boys, they need to learn how to be men and look after their Elders and to do what their grandparents tell them and learn how to take over soon.”
This is a familiar story across many communities in West and Central Arnhem Land and many of the unique countries and clans of Indigenous Australia. For their culture to thrive, many Indigenous leaders are pursuing a vision for the next generation to grow up with the ability to “walk in two worlds,” both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. With such a wealth of cultural knowledge, identity, history and ways of being that are inextricably tied to the local environment, caring for Country is an essential part of this.
“We all have special places—not only here, there is everywhere,” says Norrie.
Where ranger programs are fully supported and resourced, the benefits ripple throughout communities. Evidence has shown that communities with strong ranger programs have a healthier natural environment as well as enjoy strengthened language and culture, better economic, health and educational outcomes, lower rates of interaction with the criminal justice system, more role models, higher skill levels and increased pride, self-esteem and well-being.
Because these ambitious and multifaceted ranger programs require more funding than the Australian government provides, philanthropic support is often critical to their success. For one-third of Arnhem Land’s ranger groups, which collectively manage around 50 percent of the region, this has come from the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust (KKT). KKT was founded by two Indigenous ranger groups to enable their vision for healthy Country and culture. Dean Yibarbuk was a driving force behind the creation of KKT and is now also the cochair of its board.
“We had a vision many years ago when we founded the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust,” Dean says, “that philanthropists would support Bininj to deliver unique community-owned programs in Arnhem Land.”
KKT co-funded the region’s first women’s ranger coordinator in 2016, a year after Everlyn joined the Mimal Rangers. Within one year, women’s participation in the workforce increased from 18 percent to 40 percent. KKT then co-funded the first women’s ranger coordinator at Mimal in 2018. For the first time, there was someone dedicated to supporting Everlyn and a growing team of strong women to develop their skills and leadership, to work across a larger area of their homelands and to comprehensively care for Country in the ways only they know how.
“KKT has helped us deliver two-way education for our children, grow the women’s ranger movement and protect Country and cultural heritage,” Dean says. “In the future, I would like to see more land-management groups coming together to care for Country across Arnhem Land, and KKT is here to facilitate that.”
Indigenous land management is one of Australia’s greatest conservation success stories, operating across Indigenous estates that cover an area larger than India. The success of the ranger program shows that supporting Indigenous-led conservation is our most pressing social and environmental opportunity. The interconnected positive outcomes for national and global policy goals are immense; it has the potential to benefit climate action, biodiversity, gender and social equality as well as cultivate meaningful work, economic development, quality education and health and well-being. All of this is achieved while empowering Indigenous peoples to manage their own natural and cultural assets and, ultimately, strengthening their ability to determine their own future while maintaining a deep connection to their past.
“We have something there on our land,” says Norrie. “It always was there … we know what our Elders say, what they left us. We know what is out there and we understand it so that’s why we are passing it onto our kids, our grandchildren and all the other grandchildren.”