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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.


Indigenous populations

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 communities.

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) , 325–343

(4) Woinarski, J., Mackey, B., Nix, H. And Traill, B. (2007) The nature of Northern Australia, ANU E Press