Meet the Indigenous Women Leading Conservation Efforts in the Great Barrier Reef

Amid the white sands, turquoise waters, and densely green rainforest of Tropical North Queensland on Australia’s northeastern coast, a group of Indigenous women are working together to restore the region's most famous natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef. The descendants of the original stewards of the country—and with at least 40,000 years worth of accumulated knowledge regarding the reef’s ecosystems—the Indigenous people of Queensland seem like the obvious choice to lead the region’s conservation movement. And yet, until recently, they have been excluded from roles in protecting their own home.

The Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network (QIWRN) is changing this reality. Launched in 2018, the organization is paving the way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Queensland to begin leading conservation efforts as rangers, mapping land and tracking changes within the local ecosystems. “Indigenous women want to be a generation of action and hope,” says Larissa Hale, co-founder and managing director of Yuku Baja Muliku Rangers and a member of the Queensland Indigenous Womens Ranger Network (QIWRN) Steering Committee, which supports the conservation work of Indigenous women. “We are in the best place to drive change and move ourselves forward to create a positive future—protecting our cultural values and land and sea in the process.”

Hale is a Jalunji-Warra woman deeply embedded in the conservation of Cooktown, a coastal town on the mouth of the Endeavour River, and the Cookshire region in Far North Queensland, known for its abundant biodiversity. Growing up on the northern side of the Great Barrier Reef, in Cape Flattery on the Cape York Peninsula, Hale’s childhood was shaped by the nature around her and her family’s connection to it. She spent many hours as a child fishing with her father and uncles, and bonding with her grandfather over their shared love for their heritage. She’s dedicated much of her adult life to helping women from First Nations communities find opportunities to drive conservation efforts in Queensland.

In 2008, Hale helped establish the Yuku Baja Muliku Landowners and Reserves, an initiative that connects and builds the capabilities of Indigenous communities in Queensland and has since expanded from two part-time rangers living beneath a tarp at Archer Point to 18 rangers. There is an Indigenous land and sea ranger program as well as a junior ranger program, which provides Yuku Baja Muliku communities training in the protection of marine habitats and cultural conservation, among other skills. Additional developments include a turtle hospital, a seagrass bed monitoring project, and the Kuku Bulkaway Indigenous Arts program. At present, it manages 22500 hectares of land and adjacent sea country, rich in forest, seagrass beds, marine habitats, and sacred cultural sites. In 2018, all of that work culminated in the launch of QIWRN.

An aerial view over the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland

Aerial view over the Whitsunday Islands Jun-21

An aerial view over the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland
Tourism & Events Queensland/AWOL Family/Atkinson

The network is “a safe place where women can share experiences, learn from one another, support each other […] and lead the way in land and sea country management,” says Hale. The program’s impact is multi-dimensional, bringing together Indigenous women, often living in remote areas, through trainings in land management and conservation, which in turn lead to  employment opportunities as rangers. “Women are able to see other women rangers prospering in their careers and talk about their aspirations,” she says. “It provides safe public speaking opportunities and training.” The aim of the network, she explains, has always been to “bring together our strong, amazing Indigenous women rangers, showcase their talents, and promote their experiences and expertise—so women, [who may be] wondering what job options they could have, could think about ranger jobs.”

Biologist Lisa Carne has dedicated her career to regenerating Belize's coral reefs.

QIWRN is part of a rise of women assuming roles as caretakers of their land around the world, like The Black Mambas, an all-women anti-poaching unit protecting the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, the Akashinga Unit  an all-female anti-poaching unit heading up community-led conservation in Zimbabwe, and the group of Guajajara women in Brazil who are fighting for protection of their part of the Amazon. In 2021, 42 women joined a group of 1,200 rangers protecting the forests and wildlife of Cambodia.

Queensland’s flora and fauna are under constant threat, as the world’s temperatures continue to rise. The Great Barrier Reef—the world’s largest collection of coral reefs—has been around for 6,000-8,000 years, and within the last couple of decades over 60 percent of it has experienced bleaching. On land, rising temperatures mean hotter, drier seasons and the increasing reality of bushfires ravaging the forests of Queensland.

“We have the power to shift this now,” says Hale. “Indigenous people all around the world have looked after their land and sea country for thousands of years. Western science is increasingly looking to old ways of doing better to prepare for the future.”

Larissa Hale, co-founder of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network
Larissa Hale, co-founder of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network
The Earthshot Prize

During the last four years, the network has trained over 60 Indigenous women in Queensland, who call regions from Lake Eyre Basin to the Torres Strait home, to be rangers. Much of QIWRN’s work combines ancient knowledge with modern technology, like drones that monitor coral changes, forest fires, and land degradation. Last November, an intensive training in Google Earth Pro sparked ideas to map firebreaks and walking tracks that their elders used for bush tucker (native Australian food) collection. This mapping also helps preserve generational knowledge from elders in the community—knowledge that can accomplish work that used to take weeks in days.

“We know which fish are good to catch at what time of year, and how much water needs to be moving through a river to make sure it’s healthy,” says Hale. “We go to our mangroves and seagrasses and coastlines and observe what is going on and if things are healthy.”

While the organization has made strides, it has "a long way still to go,” according to Hale. For one thing, women still only account for 20 percent of Indigenous rangers in Queensland. Hale hopes to increase that number, a goal that is within closer reach after QIWRN won an Earthshot Prize at the end of 2022, part of a set of awards launched in 2020 to financially support ambitious goals that will define how the world is built for future generations. The $1.18 million award provides QIWRN with the resources to expand and diversify its programs to include more women and more skills training in Queensland—and eventually beyond.

“With greater support, Indigenous women rangers could span the planet,” says Hale, “helping to repair ecosystems from Hawaii to Nepal and Tanzania.”

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler