Managing Sacred Sites in North Australia’s IPAs

Rainbow Cliff in Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area is part of a network of sacred sites that is partly contained in and managed by the Dhimurru Rangers.

Indigenous Protected Areas deliver significant biodiversity, social and cultural benefits and constitute 25% of Australia’s National Reserve System. In the spirit of “both ways” learning and management the Dhimurru and Yirralka’s Indigenous Rangers joined hands with the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative. This approach helped bring Aboriginal knowledge and contemporary conservation approaches together during a workshop on sacred sites management.

Since both Ranger groups helped launch the “IUCN UNESCO Guidelines” at the World Conservation Congress, Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation has integrated them into it’s IPA Cultural Heritage Management Plan. Dhimurru has shown that successful implementing of the guidelines mostly lays in translating them into concrete day-to day management actions. Indigenous rangers and custodians need practical tools and guidance to help manage sacred sites.

“The ancestors created those sacred sites when they travelled the landscape way from where the clouds rise on the horizon to where I stand here now. We pass on these stories from one generation to the next”
– Mandaka Marika, Director Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation.

Nhullun is a sacred hill located in Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area in north east Arnhem Land Australia. Nhullun is a prominent part of the Aboriginal land rights movement in Australia.

One such practical tool is NAILSMA’s I-Tracker “Cultural Sites Assessment Module which was tested together with custodians during several learning visits to sacred sites in the IPA. I-Tracker is a hand held device mounted with GPS, video, photo and voice recording. I-Tracker lets the user record sacred sites in a structured manner. This information is downloaded into a data management system that can assist with management, mapping and monitoring of the site.

Sacred sites in the Northern Territory enjoy blanket protection by law. An independent organisation named  the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority keeps a record of all sacred sites that are entrusted to them by their custodians. Anyone planning development activities may check the AAPA register before any work starts in order to avoid a breach of the Northern Territory Sacred Sites Act by damaging sacred sites. Industrial fishers for example, can avoid sacred sites whilst fishing by making use of a Marine Atlas of Sacred Sites and by following instructions from signs provided by the AAPA.

Despite the law and the work of the AAPA many threats remain and sacred sites are frequently damaged or desecrated. The workshop revealed management challenges such as  fishers anchoring over sacred sites and tourists ignoring signs, taking photos of sacred sites  and  driving over them ,motor bikes, 4 wheel drives and quad bikes cause particular damage. In most cases it appeared that a lack of law enforcement and limited patrolling capacity among local rangers prevents them from effectively dealing with the more serious cases of illegal access and damage done to sacred sites. The Rangers and Elders that attended the workshop were also concerned with protecting and promoting the  culture of the sites and the indigenous population. They expressed the need to ensure the implementation and revitalisation of traditional law, ceremony and the passing of traditional knowledge in relation to sacred sites both to future generations and to the visitors of the sites.

AAPA Signage at a registered sacred area at Yalanbara, part of Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area. Many more sacred natural sites excist in the IPA that have not been registered with the AAPA but are part of the Dhimurru IPA management Plan.

At the end of the workshop the Rangers together with other community members were invited to the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Multi Media and Arts Centre to see a sneak preview to the film “Standing on Sacred Ground” from the Sacred Land Film Project. One of these film clips focused on Aboriginal responses to a nearby mining operation desecrating sacred sites and contained images of some of the community members and Rangers themselves. The participants also appreciated seeing other indigenous peoples around the world in their search for effective ways of protecting and managing their sacred natural sites.

Rangers said that tools such as I-Tracker could help them to prioritise management responses to feral animals and weeds for example. However, threats such as mining exploration left many of the participants in despair.  It was suggested that self-registration of sacred sites would help the AAPA in taking appropriate action if sacred sites were threatened. But how does one develop a meaningful dialogue with industry and what role could conservation management play in protecting sacred sites under such circumstances?

Most rangers agreed that providing education and guidance on sacred sites will assist in creating a broader understanding and respect for the deep cultural and spiritual meaning of sacred sites. Based on this logic, many Rangers indicated a need for the production of guidelines and principles for visitors as well as the development of an interpretive centre.

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