Indigenous-led environmental management funding has been increased in the Albanese government’s first federal budget, honouring a key election promise.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers unveiled the budget last night, which funnelled over $186 million into Indigenous-led conservation efforts and environmental policy.

Over five years, $66.5 million has been allocated to maintain and expand Indigenous Protected Areas, giving Indigenous people the opportunity and resources to care for Country. Another $14.7 million is being invested into Indigenous-led action to conserve heritage sites.

The budget has also allocated $105.2 million to help First Nations communities respond to climate change. This includes an investment of  $5.5 million towards establishing a First Nations Clean Energy Strategy and Community Microgrids Program.

While the program has been run by Indigenous organisation Original Power since November 2021, this is the first time it has received federal funding.

Jonathan Kneebone, who has worked on the program, said it began after Original Power’s members noticed Indigenous people were excluded in the transition to renewable energy.

“Unfortunately, there’s lots of structural barriers in terms of policy and government approaches,” he said. “Particularly [in] remote areas, but also in regional and urban areas where many First Nations people just can’t access, cheap, affordable, clean power.”

While Indigenous Australians account for 3 per cent of the population, they manage 35 per cent of Australia’s protected land and sea environments. Despite this, Indigenous peoples in Australia are often impacted the most by climate disasters, which destroy native lands and leave them unable to fulfil cultural and spiritual duties.

Indigenous-led environmentalism  has been historically overlooked in federal budgets. Federal funding for this purpose was only implemented after Native Title legislation was passed in 1993, most notably through the Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous Ranger programs.

These programs have allowed for 78 million hectares of land and sea to be managed by Indigenous Australians. In their final budget in March, the Morrison government announced funding of $106 million annually to employ up to 1,089 new Indigenous Rangers over six years and upskill existing ones. The Albanese government’s budget only explicitly allocated $90 million to employ and upskill 1,000 rangers.*

Even when First Nations environmentalism is funded, Kneebone said Indigenous people needed to remind non-Indigenous consultants of cultural responsibilities.

Indigenous peoples’ Countries are… sea, land, freshwater, estuaries, and they all go together… you don’t divide things into little boxes.

“That prevents having a genuine seat at the table and being seen as…a trading partner,” he said.

Associate Professor Steve Hemming, from UTS’ Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Research and Education, said the lack of Indigenous representation within environmental and scientific organisations also contributes to underfunded environmental policy.

“There’s some very big funded environmental programmes that involve multiple universities, [the] CSIRO, governments, industry groups and they have a lot of resources,” he said. “And in those contexts, often Indigenous voices are not particularly senior in the decision making.”

Labor’s funding for Indigenous environmental initiatives fulfils key election promises, including to increase funding for Indigenous Protected Areas by $10 million per year. It has also fulfilled a post-election commitment to a First Nations Clean Energy Strategy.

However, the budget failed to address Labor’s commitment to $40 million of cultural water flows to Indigenous communities in the Murray-Darling Basin. These entitlements allow Indigenous people in the area to benefit from the Basin’s revenue.

Hemming said the lack of investment into Indigenous care for waterways and seas hindered the ability for Indigenous people to properly care for Country.

“Indigenous peoples’ Countries are…sea, land, freshwater, estuaries, and they all go together,” he said. “So bring everything together. You don’t divide things into little boxes.”

Indigenous environmentalists are still advocating for more to be done. On the day the budget was released, Indigenous youth climate organisation Seed presented their Heal Country declaration to Parliament.

Among other things, it called for an end to funding the fossil fuel industry. The budget allocated almost $2 billion to the Northern Territory’s Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct, which will process and store low emissions non-renewable energy.

But Kneebone believed the commitment to developing Indigenous-accessible environmental solutions is a step forward. With the Clean Energy Strategy’s consultation period involving mostly Indigenous voices, he said the renewable energy movement had become a “revolution.”

“We’re working… to try and make the playing field level and give people a voice in Australia’s clean energy revolution,” he said.

While Hemming welcomes funding for these sectors, he also believes Australia requires a “truth-tellling” process where the impacts of European colonisation on the environment are acknowledged. 

“I think there needs to be a real recognition that settler Australia and the colonisation of Australia… by and large, was a disaster environmentally for the Australian continent and for Indigenous peoples who rely on Australia as their Countries,” he said.

Main image supplied by Original Power

* Note: This story was edited on October 6, 2023, to correct the amount of funding allocated to Indigenous Rangers in the Morrison government’s final budget and to add the amount of funding allocated to Indigenous Rangers in the Albanese government’s first budget.