People on country, healthy landscapes and sustainable Indigenous economic futures: The Arnhem Land case

Jon Altman, Australian National University


In the early 1970s, groups of Aboriginal people in remote Arnhem Land, north Australia, moved from centralised townships back to small communities called ‘outstations’ on their traditional lands. This ‘outstations movement’ reinvigorated the customary sector of the economy, which is based on wildlife harvesting. Using a sustainability framework and data collected on wildlife harvesting by Kuninjku people during fieldwork in 1979–80 and again in 2002–03, this paper examines three broad questions. First, when, how and why were these outstations established and what was the policy response to this re-occupation? Second, are outstations economically, socially and ecologically sustainable? Third, turning to the future, how sustainable and replicable might the Arnhem Land case examined here prove to be? Challenging recent doubts in public debates about the value of land rights and native title, I demonstrate that Indigenous people living ‘on country’ generate economic, social and ecological benefits at local, regional and national levels. The paper concludes that an emerging match between continuing Indigenous aspirations to manage their country and public policy concerns about Indigenous well-being, on the one hand, and healthy landscapes, on the other, should ensure sustainable Indigenous futures on country in north Australia—with appropriate institutional support and adequate resources.

Jon Altman is Professor and Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. He has an academic background in economics and anthropology and has undertaken long-term research on sustainable harvesting, Indigenous resource rights, and the articulations between the customary economy and the market and state in Arnhem Land. His email address is <>.

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