In February this year, I took an unforgettable walk through Mossman Gorge in Far North Queensland, led by a local Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal guide. As we wandered through the rainforest that fringed the roaring river, our guide taught us about reciprocity and how the Indigenous people here practice it: never take more than you need, and give the land a chance to regenerate. “You have to look after Mother Nature, or she won’t look after you,” were his parting words. They have stayed with me ever since.
The experience was especially meaningful since, just three months earlier, the land we were on, part of the Daintree National Park, was handed back to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, as part of a historic handback of more than 395,000 acres of land. It was also a reminder of how, in a decade working as a travel writer, some of the most impactful experiences I’ve had have been led by First Nations people operating on their ancestral lands.
Increasingly, large tracts of land in Australia are being returned to their rightful caretakers, symbolizing recognition of the rights of First Nations people, and a reckoning with the land theft and dispossession that has occurred in Australia since colonization. Most recently, in September 2022, more than 362,000 hectares—equivalent to 676,000 football fields—of the Cape York peninsula was returned to traditional owners after decades of campaigning, in a handback that Indigenous leaders called the beginning of a “new era.” In March 2022, nearly half of Australia’s largest and most iconic national park, the 20,000 square kilometer Kakadu National Park, was formally handed back to Aboriginal traditional owners.
These Australian land returns are connected to the greater Landback movement gaining traction across Canada and the U.S., responding to the long-held demand of Indigenous Peoples the world over for land restitution. Indigenous lands cover about a quarter of the world’s surface, but Indigenous communities who have protected these lands for centuries legally own just one-fifth.
The handbacks mean many things, including the protection of sacred sites and cultural heritage, returning to traditional ways of land care, and ensuring communities have access to land, water, and resources. Gaining formal ownership of ancestral lands can also give traditional owners control over its management and development, which could have far-reaching implications for the future of travel.
Lille Madden is the First Nations Director at Groundswell, an Australia-based climate action funding platform, who says these land handbacks “benefit everything tenfold. When it comes to social justice and climate justice, Landback is so critical for Aboriginal people to be able to be out on Country. But it’s beneficial for everyone else and the tourism industry as well.” Because First Nations people have sustainably cared for Country for millennia, Madden says handing land back is “integral not only for the health of the land itself, but also the animals and plants, the people and our culture, and being able to pass all of that on to the next generation.”
Indigenous Peoples make up five percent of the world’s population, but protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, so if we want to preserve the most important natural tourism sites, it makes sense for them to be returned to the people who have been sustainably caring for them for tens of thousands of years. This is backed up by a recent study in the scientific journal Current Biology, which shows that the world’s healthiest, most biodiverse, and most resilient forests are ones found on land stewarded by Indigenous communities.
On a recent trip to Tasmania, I did a three-day guided walk through the Bay of Fires with the Aboriginal-owned and -operated company wukalina Walk, and witnessed my Indigenous palawa guides fastidiously caring for that Country as if it were kin. The land we were on had not been returned to the palawa—in fact, it has been 17 years since the last lands were returned to Tasmanian Aboriginal people—but I can only imagine how much deeper their connection to the land will be when it is.
James Morgan is a local Bininj man from Kakadu and the owner of the rock art tour company Yibekka Kakadu, which means ‘to listen and feel Kakadu’ in his Aboriginal language. Morgan is passionate about protecting sacred sites within Kakadu and creating more economic opportunities for his family and other Bininj. He agrees that land handbacks, although complicated, are important from an economic standpoint.
“It means that it’s more likely Bininj are employed, which means more opportunities for Bininj to stay on Country and work on Country,” he says. Having more Indigenous guides working on their own land means that income is much more likely to stay in the region, too. “The money comes and goes if it’s with an operator that isn’t local. But local operators spend the money inside Kakadu or in this region, so it stays here.”
Aside from running his company, Morgan also works as a senior ranger, fighting fires, caring for rock art sites, monitoring endangered species, and more. “As a Bininj man, I have a lot of other responsibilities to take care of Country, compared to a non-Indigenous guide,” he says. Traditional owners in Kakadu, Morgan adds, also ensure certain sites remain inaccessible for certain periods, “because they believe Country deserves to take a rest.”
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Indigenous histories can be complex, and they have for too long been misrepresented by misinformed outsiders. The first time I visited Kakadu National Park, for example, I had a non-Indigenous guide leading me through the ancient rock art sites, and felt as though I missed a huge portion of the story and context by not having an Indigenous guide who had a deep affinity with that land. Land handbacks and more Indigenous-owned and -led travel experiences will, thankfully, also enable First Nations people to take back their narratives and tell their own stories, making for richer, deeper travel experiences.
“When you go to a place, it’s beautiful to look at this tree or forest, but when you hear stories that have been passed down through generations about the significance of that place, that deeper connection and understanding grounds you so much more,” says Madden. “Australia has a big tourism industry now, but if it was led more by Indigenous People self-determining what they would like to happen on their Country and what stories they would like to share, it would grow so much more, because it’s an experience people would never forget.”
I tell Madden that many of the most profound experiences I’ve had have been led by First Nations people operating on their ancestral lands, precisely because these experiences have always been underpinned by Indigenous practices of reciprocity, interdependence, and taking care of Country—arguably the most pressing messages of our time.
“That’s at the heart of our role as humans, [to realize] we’re part of Mother Nature, we’re all connected, and we have a responsibility not only to love our country, but also to understand how to care for it,” says Madden. “I think if that message is shared throughout the world, and that’s what people take away from Indigenous-led experiences on Country, that’s the biggest gift of all.”