"An Indigenous led process that started out locally, using cultural strengths and assets - look after Country and employ Indigenous local peoples - became the mainstream government policy for all of Australia's protected areas, regardless of whether it's Indigenous or mainstream."
Dr Emma Lee is passionate about how her people have contributed to the sustaining of Country for tens of thousands of years.
A trawlwulwuy woman from Tebrakunna country in North-East Tasmania, Dr Lee has co-established the RegionxLink program in Burnie for Swinburne University of Technology's Centre for Social Impact.
Over the past 25 years she has helped pioneer Indigenous led land and sea management which now dominates the Australian landscape, both literally and philosophically.
"Indigenous Protected Areas are system that originated in Australia in 1998. This was about Indigenous communities saying, 'we want to care for conservation of Country in ways that benefit us'," Dr Lee said.
"It started out in South Australia, what was pretty much a roughed up old bit of farmland that communities were able to purchase and turn into a protected area. Through that listing as a protected area, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are now able to promote cultural ways of conservation."
Since 1998 Indigenous Protected Areas have come to account for almost 75 million hectares of the area of Australia.
Those 75 million hectares are comprised of 78 IPAs and are a tick over 46 per cent Australia's National Reserve System.
In the space of 23 years, Indigenous led land and seas management has wholly diffused into mainstream government policy.
"Indigenous Protected Areas have exploded in popularity as a greater and more sensible way of protecting Country."Dr Emma Lee
"Within our sovereign nations we look after ourselves, we know what's good for our regions, we respect the right of our neighbours, and all together we're caring for Country."
Tasmanian sea Country making a splash
In Tasmania there are nine current IPAs spanning Preminghana, Badger, Mount Chappell, Babel, Big Dog, truwana/Cape Barren and lungatalanana islands as well as Risdon Cove and putalina.
Risdon Cove and putalina are unique. When the IPA was established, the boundary was drawn around the exisiting heritage area which happened to include parts of the sea.
Unwittingly, it became the first marine IPA and gave basis for the development of further marine IPAs - marking a shift in the way the areas were understood and designated.
While lutruwita/Tasmania became home to the first marine IPA in 1999, that was where it stopped in the state.
Despite communities from Aboriginal owned islands in the Bass Strait having maintained a harmonious relationship with the salt water over thousands of years, the seas around those islands do not fall under an IPA.
Tasmanian Aboriginal communities have said the development of such areas is vital to maintaining cultural connections based on catching mutton fish - or abalone - and warreners - or periwinkles.
Aaron Everett, from larapuna, a pukana people from meenamatta country off of tubuna, had fished for abalone his whole life but was becoming increasingly concerned about the inability for him to get a feed of abalone.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Council heritage worker and pakana man Adam Thompson said it was an issue only getting worse and called for the state government to extend land rights into the sea before connections to cultural foods were lost.
Dr Lee said the potential for marine IPAs in Tasmania extended further than a full belly, or even maintaining generations of Aboriginal tradition.
She said historically the designation of these areas had not only helped to replenish populations of sea life - like mutton fish and warreners - but opened doors for cultural sustenance and something beyond even that.
"For me this isn't just an issue that we can protect abalone through an IPA, this is an issue that we have to rethink what are commercial fisheries in Tasmania. What can they be if we said a transactional relationship need to be more than money flowing out of our shores and our food leaving our plates," she said.
More recently, Dr Lee has been working with the Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance to realise the potential of what marine IPAs could bring to Tasmanian Aboriginal communities.
The research Dr Lee and TRACA have been able to undertake has helped develop a business case that would see the use of high value species, such as abalone, to establish a market for cultural fisheries in Tasmania.
"A key difference to our plan of using commercial access is to ensure we have the social impact of having young people away from juvenile justice and into fisheries futures," she said.
"We intend to end juvenile justice interventions for Aboriginal Tasmanian people through abalone. We can link up the social impact benefit of commercial fisheries to our communities and strengthen culture and allow us to grow an economic wealth."Dr Emma Lee
Dr Lee said enabling that management and pathways had the potential to extend a branch for connection between Aboriginal and other Tasmanians.
"Black fellas will put abalone on the table, and at the same time get their kids into culture. We're supporting a whole tourism industry here while making it a safe place for us to explore the relationship we have between Aboriginal and other Tasmanians in different ways, it's not political ways, it's the sharing a feed way, the proper way."Dr Emma Lee
Aboriginal approaches changing how we think about Country
The benefits of IPA development in Tasmania may be still forthcoming, but their significance has been unfolding steadily over the past two decades.
Dr Dermot Smyth has been a consultant in the field of protected areas for 40 years and said the success of IPAs on a national scale had been like a "giant controlled experiment" that had overwhelmingly paid off.
As opposed to co-managed national parks, Dr Smyth said IPAs were disarming and respectful which gave rise to constructive collaboration.
He said, in comparison, co-managed national parks like Uluru and Kakadu were like "arranged marriages" where there was always a power imbalance with the prospect for the more powerful party to change the rules.
"Typically the agenda of co-managed national parks is government saying to traditional owners, 'we will return this land if you agree for it to be a national park', so they've already got that leverage."Dr Dermot Smyth
"Whereas IPAs are something different. It's a traditional owner led process, and that seems to make such a dramatic difference."
He said early in his career when government had attempted to maintain all control of land and sea management processes, discussions almost always "ended in tears" or a "reluctant consent" process not involving collaboration.
But somewhere along the way of the experiment, everything started to click.
About 10 years ago in Queensland, terrestrial and marine protected areas became a sticking point between traditional owners and government.
Traditional owners had advocated for areas south of Cape York Peninsula to be designated IPAs and the state government was reluctant to budge on the idea.
Through the way IPAs are cultivated and facilitated, the traditional owners of the area planned and dedicated an IPA on top of the existing national park and invited government to be part of the management of the area.
This process has since been followed across a number of areas throughout the country.
Dr Smyth said he likened the collaboration founded on IPAs to the opening of a backpack.
"All the players come to an IPA governance table carrying a backpack," he said.
"In the back are the values and what's important to them, but also their authority.
"The trick of running these IPAs is to facilitate the opening up of those backpacks and have the contents laid on the table so the collective tools, authority and funding is available to contribute to that IPA."
Through collaboration, the sharing of knowledge and the deferral to strengths of various groups, these protected areas came to represent something even more than the land they protected.
"What happens is quite extraordinary to witness. It's various groups coming together and developing a collective commitment to the objectives of the IPA," Dr Smyth said.
"What it can mean is in the initial stages the various parties will come and sit around the table with their arms folded and their backpacks closed, but in not long various members will start opening up their backpacks and start to recognised how they can share the management."
With all parties at the table, be it traditional owners, commercial fishing groups, governments or others, Dr Smyth said he had consistently witnessed the struggles of traditional owners be recognised and understood for the first time.
Like the turning back of the sands of time, the approaches to understanding and being able to find a common ground where all impacted parties have agreed has gone some way to shift 200 years of policy and legislative exclusion.
With this success, Dr Smyth said the processes by which IPAs are managed had become a blueprint for how engaging traditional owners can educate and inform policy.
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For Dr Lee, the realisation was one she knew was inevitable.
The way Aboriginal cultures had treated and sustained local resources, areas and regions had been successful for tens of thousands of years.
"Out of this extraordinary change in direction [it was recognised] Indigenous knowledge is some of the best knowledge to care for Australian Country," Dr Lee said.
"It's being able to put it to a mainstream that's been working in a particular way - a Western way - of caring for the country, IPAs can actually open up the possibilities, boundaries and the potential of working together.
"People want this. They want a fairer, more equitable and open way on how we all benefit from our public resource. This is our food security and sovereignty and Indigenous peoples are adequately and able to take a lead to ensure Tasmania's sustainability."
- Thank you to senior Aboriginal Manegin Elder Greg Matthews for supplying his artwork - Killiecrankie Dreaming.
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