Human capital


Although positive developments in resourcing, evidence-based policy-making and management effectiveness are evident, ongoing improvements depend heavily on the quality and overall capacity of the human resources, networks and infrastructure involved in land planning and management. This aspect is being increasingly recognised as strategically important for the future, especially with consideration of the ‘human dimensions’ of land management. This includes the need for a better understanding of the motivations of, and barriers to, land managers and others to support and undertake improved land management practices.

Australia is highly urbanised: more than two-thirds of Australians live in capital cities, and there is an ongoing trend for people to move from regional areas into cities (ABS 2012a). Consequently, many Australians now have minimal direct contact with people in rural and remote regions. This affects both the awareness and the sophistication of public discourse on land-related issues (e.g. management of feral animals such as horses, risks and benefits of genetically modified organisms, management of fire in naturally flammable vegetation types).

The trend for people, particularly young people, to move from regional and rural to urban areas is reflected in the demographics of Australia’s farmers: between 1981 and 2011, the proportion of farmers aged 55 years and over increased from 26 per cent to 47 per cent, while the proportion of farmers aged less than 35 years fell from 28 per cent to 13 per cent (ABS 2012b). However, since SoE 2011, the numbers of students taking higher degrees in agricultural sciences has increased, albeit from a very low point, stimulated by a growing interest in food and where it comes from, and food security (Parkinson 2016).

Social, economic and environmental benefits of Indigenous land and sea management

Investments in Indigenous land and sea management in the past 5 years have benefited Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities (Ryan et al. 2012, DSEWPaC 2013, SVA Consulting 2014, PM&C 2015, van Bueren et al. 2015). Reported benefits include:

Despite these significant contributions to Indigenous and non-Indigenous society, the future of Indigenous Protected Areas and the Working on Country program remains uncertain beyond 2018.

Indigenous fire management across northern Australia

Fire management is a crucial component of the wider management of the Australian landscape, enabling control of the timing, size and intensity of fires, and contributing to environmental management to preferentially encourage or inhibit particular species (see the Biodiversity report). Effective fire management sustains healthy landscapes and, where reductions in carbon emissions contribute to carbon markets, provides important Country-based income streams for Indigenous people (Russell-Smith et al. 2013).

Aboriginal fire practices have been described by researchers as ‘patch mosaic burning’ and early dry-season burning. The application of early dry-season patch burning in several northern Australian contexts (such as Arnhem Land and north Kimberley) has resulted in some beneficial outcomes for biodiversity, by protecting endangered tropical heathlands and habitat for small mammals (Murphy & Duncan 2015, Radford et al. 2015). It has also contributed to the abatement of greenhouse gas emissions. Early dry-season burning underpins prescribed burning to reduce the frequency and spread of high-intensity wildfires, and thereby lower greenhouse gas emissions, in northern Australia (Yates et al. 2008, Russell-Smith et al. 2013). Early dry-season burning in the savannas is also an effective tool to increase carbon sequestration in the debris pools, by ensuring that fires are smaller and less intense than late dry-season fires and consume less organic matter. Currently, southern Australia is not as amenable to the maximisation of carbon storage potential through fire management because of the much lower frequency of fire in the landscape, which limits the ability of fire management to impact on unplanned fire activity. However, fire management will become increasingly important for biodiversity conservation as the climate warms (Bradshaw et al. 2013).

Indigenous people’s own view of their fire management practices emphasises linkages between customary law, economies, social relations, ecology and the application of management activities in response to cues such as seasonal indicators (Bright 1995, Rose 1995, Hill et al. 1999). The description of Indigenous fire as just ‘patch mosaic burning’ ignores these culturally embedded mediating and explanatory factors, meanings and purposes (Bright 1995; Hill et al. 2004, 2008).

One important means by which Indigenous fire knowledge and management can be formally recognised is through conservation agreements. However, recognition under these agreements does not always successfully incorporate fire knowledge, or empower Indigenous holders of fire knowledge and fire managers. This is also evident in carbon abatement programs. Economic benefits to Indigenous people from carbon markets and associated schemes involving ‘payment for ecosystem services’ allow Indigenous landholders and managers to achieve environmental goals. The development of carbon sequestration and abatement projects also generates co-benefits such as reconnection with Country and other cultural benefits (Howe et al. 2014). In practice, however, designing carbon offset programs and policies that achieve both carbon benefits and associated co-benefits has proved challenging; in some cases, separate programs fund biodiversity, social and cultural benefits without carbon abatement occurring (Reed 2011, Gerrard 2012, Robinson et al. 2016b). Efforts have been frustrated both by a lack of understanding about the value to communities and the parameters under which benefits for Indigenous communities can be sought, and by the realisation that there may be fewer opportunities than anticipated to simultaneously realise a full suite of carbon and Indigenous co-benefits (Robinson et al. 2014).

The challenges to the incorporation of Indigenous fire knowledge into contemporary fire management can be cultural, reflecting differences in world views; institutional, reflecting constraints in how the programs are conceptualised; scientific, reflecting the availability of data that support the knowledge; and logistical and operational, reflecting limits to the resources available to complete the work. Ongoing refinements in our understanding of the role that fire plays in driving community, landscape and global processes also mean that there may be a need to refine fire management practices. Sometimes it may not be appropriate to incorporate past Indigenous practices into modern fire management.

Metcalfe D, Bui E (2016). Land: Human capital. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b6585f94911