Healthy Country, Healthy People
Report finds many aboriginal people have a strong cultural
desire to live on their traditional lands1
“Our story is in the land.
It is written in those sacred places.
My children will look after those places.
That is the Law.”(1)
The Healthy Country, Healthy People?
Report2 found that the wellbeing of people and
country are inextricably linked. Aside from the environmental
benefits of ongoing land management, research shows indigenous
people working on country enjoy many health benefits, including a
lower risk of diabetes and heart disease, whilst maintaining
cultural and spiritual identity through traditional practices.
After European settlement, many Aboriginal people were forced to
come in off the land into communities set up by Christian
missionaries or government authorities. This was caused by an
organised effort to assimilate Aboriginal people into Western
society and the spread of pastoralism to remote areas3.
The centralisation of large Aboriginal communities
continued after Aboriginal people were granted citizenship rights
in 1967 and consequently forced off stations by many pastoralists
who could not afford to pay them equal wages (2).
The resulting depopulation of remote areas such as Arnhem Land
causes environmental degradation as fire, weeds and pest animals
range unchecked. In Arnhem Land, 83 cents/km2 is
spent on land management each year, in an area where the population
density is less than one person for every 100km2.
This contrasts starkly with the intensively managed conservation
area of Kakadu National Park, where $725/km2 is spent on land
management, resulting in maintenance of better quality habitat and
controlled weed and pest populations (2).
At the same time, the transfer of land back to Aboriginal
ownership since the 1970’s has led to the establishment of
many small remote indigenous communities throughout
Australia’s arid and savanna zone (Fig 1). About 20% of land
in Northern Australia is now Aboriginal-owned, encompassing over
130 language groups (4). In 2001, Australia’s savanna
zone contained 513 indigenous communities with a population of less
than 100 people. Many of these communities are found in the
Kimberley, Top End and Cape York regions.
Fig 1 Indigenous population centres
Indigenous people in these communities are disadvantaged by a
lack of access to services, employment opportunities, education and
conventional markets due to the remote location of many indigenous
The indigenous economy is characterized by a reliance upon
government-funded programs supported by small customary economic
activities (also known as a ‘hybrid economy’) due to a
lack of access to conventional markets.
Town camps accommodate communities of indigenous people close to
or within major towns. This population is highly mobile and
often underestimated in census counts.
See also Caring for Country – Northern Land Council
(1) Neidjie, B ( 2002) Gagadju Man: The Environmental and
Spiritual Philosophy of a Traditional Owner of Kakadu National
Park, JB Books, Adelaide
(2) Burgess, P., Johnston, F., Bowman, D. And Whitehead,
P. (2004) Healthy Country, Healthy People? Exploring the health
benefits of Indigenous natural resource management, Australian
and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (29), 2
(3) D. Yibarbuk, P. J. Whitehead, J. Russell-Smith, D. Jackson,
C. Godjuwa, A. Fisher, P. Cooke, D. Choquenot, D. M. J. S. Bowman
(2001) Fire ecology and Aboriginal land management in central
Arnhem Land, northern Australia: a tradition of ecosystem
management. Journal of Biogeography 28 (3) ,
(4) Woinarski, J., Mackey, B., Nix, H. And Traill, B. (2007)
The nature of Northern Australia, ANU E Press