Hidden among the 26 new funding initiatives in indigenous affairs in the 2007–08 Budget is one potentially outstanding and positive initiative that deserves special mention.

The Federal Government has committed an extra $47.6 million to the new ‘Working on Country’ program over the next four years. It is anticipated that 100 jobs for indigenous rangers will be funded in 2007–08 as the program beds down and then will ramp up 200 full-time jobs (or equivalents) per annum from 2010–11.

The ‘Working on Country’ program represents a symbolic and practical breakthrough in recognising, respecting, and recurrently resourcing innovative community-based resource management effort on the indigenous-owned estate.

Minister Turnbull’s media release announcing the new scheme presses all the right policy buttons. The scheme will fund indigenous community rangers with ongoing salaries for actively managing indigenous-owned land and resources. For the first time, proper wages will be paid for difficult environmental work on that part of the indigenous estate outside the conservation estate.

Many indigenous people have been undertaking such work for years now on work-for-the-dole Community Development Employment Projects (CDEPs), active workfare that is all too often demeaned and termed ‘welfare’. The Northern Land Council alone with a terrestrial jurisdiction of 170,000 sq km and 85% of the Northern Territory coastline already supports 36 such projects providing part-time, mainly CDEP, employment for 400 community rangers, more jobs than in the mining industry in the whole NT.

This new program is important for many reasons, but primarily because indigenous people own an estimated 20% of the Australian continent. Resource atlas maps indicate that much of this estate contains many of Australia’s most environmentally intact and biodiverse ecological zones and river catchments.

These regions will grow in significance as both biodiversity conservation and access to regular supplies of high quality water come under increasing pressure owing to climate change. And while most of this estate is in remote and very remote Australia, it is not devoid of environmental threats; many, like feral animals and exotic weeds, are introduced while others, like changed fire regimes, are linked to altered Indigenous settlement patterns that see parts of tropical and desert Australia uninhabited. Other parts of the indigenous estate have been reclaimed via land rights and native title laws or purchased in poor environmental condition and will require significant conservation effort to rehabilitate.

What is especially pleasing about this policy initiative is that it marries important indigenous policy and environmental objectives in one program, and credit for this should be given to Greg Hunt who championed this scheme when parliamentary secretary for the environment. These new jobs will be initially targeted to indigenous organisations where community rangers have already been working, some for over a decade.

This more realistically funded work will assist Australia to meet local, regional, national and international biodiversity obligations. There is added probability that fire management will abate carbon emissions, while coastal sea and terrestrial rangering will be important in under-populated regions to maintain the health of country through a continued presence.

Importantly, the new program is committed to recognise the two tool kit approach, using both indigenous knowledge and western science, that has almost become a mantra for successful community-based initiatives under existing ‘Caring for Country’ programs. Effort will be made to augment expertise with access to training.

‘From little things big things grow’, is a very familiar lyric to indigenous Australians: 100 rangers in 2007–08, and 200 by 2010–11, and then perhaps 1000 jobs and then perhaps 5000, a continued expansion, based on rigorous cost benefit assessments of the contribution of indigenous land managers.

Indigenous poverty and natural resource management over vast tracts of land could be addressed simultaneously with such expansion, a win: win for indigenous people and for all Australians. The challenge will be to get evidence of environmental outcomes from such investments, a challenge already faced by all working on both the conservation estate and the indigenous estate.