‘The beating heart of preserving culture’: How KKT’s women-led ranger programs are changing the game in conservation

by Women’s Agenda
Tuesday 11 October 2022

Mimal Rangers Kaitlin and Josephine ready to start cool burning country

As custodians of ancient ecological knowledge, First Nations women should be at the centre of our national conservation efforts. Yet, for too long, their unique expertise has been sidelined.

It’s something that the Karrkad Kanjdji Trust (KKT), is working hard to change, designing the first ever ranger’s program specifically for women and supporting holistic management of Country, culture and community across West and Central Arnhem Land.

“What you see is a lot of young women coming into these roles. Most of whom are from interstate, have studied environmental science or community development and have come out to the ranger programs,” says CEO of KKT, Stacey Irving.

The reason is simple: Future environmental progress hinges on the inclusion of women and Indigenous communities.

Global research supports this, showing that greater involvement of women in local decision making leads to better natural resource management and conservation outcomes. And Indigenous peoples protect approximately 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity despite accounting for less than 5 percent of the world’s population.

Within a year of KKT funding the region’s first women’s ranger coordinator in 2016, women’s participation in the workforce increased from 18 to 40 percent. Today, KKT has grown the regional women’s ranger movement to four programs, employing at least 150 women and a Territory-wide network to strengthen their voice.

Ranger programs in general are Australia’s biggest conservation success story and Traditional Owners manage roughly 50 percent of Australia’s National Reserve System. However there’s not enough government funding to run Indigenous Ranger Programs across vast areas, which is where KKT’s work becomes vital: the Trust supports partners with core costs as they establish and grow.

For women, this support gives equal opportunity to care for Country by allowing for coordinators, infrastructure, vehicles, gear, wages, training and logistical support to operate across Arnhem Land – one of Australia’s most biodiverse and culturally rich regions.

“The ranger program is the heart of the community – if you have a ranger program that’s starting to work well, where people are getting meaningful employment, you end up building in a sustainable way,” says KKT’s Impact Manager, Amelia Moulis. “You help to support the community, making sure there are services and resources. It’s the beating heart of preserving culture.”

KKT has grown impressively in a relatively short time. In 2014, they had one Indigenous partner organisation, one project and one employee. As of 2022, they’re working across 50 percent of Arnhem Land and partner with over a third of Arnhem Land’s ranger groups through 6 program streams. KKT’s partners manage over 50,000 hectares – nearly the area of Tasmania and greater than Switzerland.

Over the past twelve months alone, KKT has seen a period of growth, creativity and flexibility and has navigated the complexities of COVID-19 restrictions through technology and increasing support for Indigenous-owned projects.

A major highlight for the organisation this year was growing the Nawarddeken Academy from one to three remote ranger base communities in the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area, meaning that this is the first time rangers across Warddeken IPA will be given access to full-time bi-cultural primary education for their children. 

The Trust has also expanded its Strong Women for Healthy Country Network, bringing together women rangers and their communities from across the Northern Territory– and even into Western Australia– to address barriers to entering the ranger workforce, develop leadership and governance skills.

And, in the works, is a multi-year pilot project to see more rangers supported to take on coordination and management roles. The project aims to provide contextual training for non-indigenous staff entering the space, and will address persistent education gaps.

MECCA M-POWER is proud to support the mission of KKT, especially when it comes to the development of its women’s ranger program.

“Arnhem Land is one of the most remote and spectacular places in Australia, a vast rocky wilderness that is home to rare wildlife, lapped by warm abundant waters and steeped in sacred Aboriginal culture and history. Sadly, even here the ravages of climate change are already evident,” Lisa Keenan, Executive Director of Mecca M-POWER says.

“First Nations women have sustained life and community and cared for our environment for centuries. There is so much we can learn from them. That’s why we are proud to stand by KKT in supporting its women’s ranger program, which recognises the critical role First Nations women can play in driving positive and transformational change to country, culture and community.”

Ultimately, such purpose-built women’s ranger programs not only benefit Country, but have transformative benefits for families, communities and, of course, women.