Which way to true North?

THE ROAD AHEAD: Plans for the future of the Northern Territory have been submitted by the government.
THE ROAD AHEAD: Plans for the future of the Northern Territory have been submitted by the government. Mark Wilton

IN STRAIGHT market terms, the Northern Territory is uniquely located.

Not only are there 24 million Australian consumers just to its south, there are 400 million in Asian nations to its near north.

So begins the NT Government's latest plan for our economic future, released last month and a welcome map forward for the North and Centre.

But there were two plans of relevance launched last month, one of them somewhat at odds with the other.

The first, called the Northern Territory Economic Development Framework, was undertaken by international financial gurus Deloitte for Michael Gunner's NT government as a policy blueprint for prosperity and sustainability in the North.

The report emphasises growth through development corridors in agribusiness, tourism, mining and resources including onshore gas, education and defence.

In a later section, the report highlights emerging sectors of interest, such as in the creative industries, tropical health and renewable energy.

In a foreword to the report, NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner says that "Progressing this Economic Development Framework will improve our living standards, provide certainty to business and industry, and ensure our children have employment and lifestyle opportunities into the future."

The report also promises to "engage with Traditional Owners ... for development on Aboriginal Land", given Aboriginal people comprise 30% of the population and own more than half of the land in the Territory.

The report was informed by a series of economic summits and follows the April announcement of a five-point major project development plan for the Territory's main centres.

The second report takes a different tack, and in doing so casts a long shadow over the first.

Produced by US research group Pew Charitable Trusts the report is from the Outback to Oceans Australia research project led by Australian ecologist Dr Barry Trail, which conceives of the Outback as "one of the few large-scale natural regions left on Earth."

There are several papers that spring from the project (periodically referred to as "The Outback Papers"), but the project overview reveals a combined emphasis on conservation of the Outback and North for its global status as a zone rich in remnant natural values.

"It supports people, jobs, and economies," says the report, "as well as a landscape rich in biodiversity and filled with some of the world's most unusual plants and animals.

And the oceans that surround Australia are "no less exceptional."

Something that should come as no surprise to any Australian, is that this report confirms the eyes of the world are now firmly fixed on our wide open spaces.

In this regard, three smaller papers emerging from the project are worthy of review.

The Modern Outback: Nature, people and the future of remote Australia continues a theme on the region's "exquisite beauty and wildness."

A global perspective is clear, in that "while the Outback is quintessentially Australian, it is also a place of international consequence" with "environmental values [that] merit the attention and concern of the nation and the world."

Along with the wildlands of the Amazon Basin, the boreal forests and tundra of Canada, Alaska and Siberia, and the Sahara, the Outback is ranked among the last of the world's wild lands, according with recent research by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Centre for International Earth Science Information Network.

Perhaps the most attractive quality of the region is that "Although it covers nearly three-quarters of the continent, the Outback supports only about 800,000 residents - less than 5% of the Australian population."

But such an attractive region (especially in a world of 7 billion) is also under tremendous pressure, from extensive degradation through introduction of invasive species and changes in fire management, and more localised and destructive effects from intensive industrial and agricultural projects.

For the regimen of regular landscape maintenance enacted by Aboriginal people during the past 50,000 years has changed, and fewer people than ever are now actively engaged in managing for ecological need.

A second paper, My Country, our Outback: Voices from the land on hope and change in Australia's Outback, speaks to those living in the region through 12 stories of cattle grazing that sustain people and Nature, alongside indigenous stories of connection to the land and sea.

The dozen case studies presented feature land managers working to "shape a modern Outback that sustains both people and nature."

Finally, a third paper summarises what can be done, in These Three Steps Could Save the Australian Outback.

The first step is to attract more people to manage the land.

As one of the report's authors Professor John Woinarski says: "More so than ever before, the country needs people to care for it."

For example, the federally funded Indigenous Protected Area and Indigenous Ranger programs protect and care for almost half of Australia's national estate of conservation reserves.

"Recent years have brought striking growth in the number and extent of Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous Rangers across the Outback," the report states, "with 800 full-time rangers and 75 Indigenous Protected Areas covering 67 million hectares (an area 10 times the size of Tasmania) now in place."

But while Aboriginal land management and growth of IPAs are positive signs, momentum for such reform is always on the edge of being lost or put on the back burner, especially in the rush for a style of economic development with short-term gain as its focus.

The third ingredient in this recipe for success, then, is a "both-ways" approach to managing people and nature in the Outback, with a significant boost to indigenous-led conservation.

Traditional means of land management combined with tools of the modern world is the best possible way forward for the North and the Outback more broadly.

As author Barry Trail writes: "For more than a decade, the Indigenous Ranger and Indigenous Protected Area programs have produced consistent success far surpassing that of any similar initiatives."

Each of the futures for the North depicted in these two reports is starkly different.

One achieves jobs and growth in the short term, and so, while it certainly merits attention for its more valuable elements, without a clear conservation imperative is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Such a future is already mapped out on our overcrowded east and south-west coastlines.

That is the government's plan.

The Pew report takes the longer view, ecologically and culturally, a shared future, embracing the best of the old ways and the new.

While the government has a hefty stake in the former, the latter demands a closer look before the North goes the way of the South.


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