Meet Peter Murray, looking after Australian desert country with remote communities in a changing climate

As part of our contribution to the deliberations at the UN Climate Change Convention discussions at COP-27 in November 2022, Ampliseed are promoting the voices of Indigenous and Traditional Leaders working at the frontlines of climate change and biodiversity conservation, helping every day to protect and restore our natural habitats in the field. The article that follows is adapted from an interview with Peter Murray, CEO of Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation and Chair of the 10 Deserts Project, held at the 2022 Indigenous Desert Alliance Conference in Yulara, Australia.

Peter Murray, CEO Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation, standing in front of the artwork "Wirrulnga" by Nanyuan Napangati Image © Kirsty Galloway McLean

Peter, could you tell us a little about the work that you do?

I am CEO of Yanunijarra, looking after Ngurrara Country in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. We manage the Great Sandy Desert south of Fitzroy Crossing. Our main focus is land management - we work with rangers to do biodiversity surveys, fire management, feral animal control, and manage the impacts of climate change. Our main vision in moving forward is building a self-sustaining economic future, and having control of our Native Title land in the Great Sandy Desert in order to create new opportunities for our people to work on country.

Cultural fire management in the Australian desert © 10 Deserts Project

Your nature-based work contributes to achieving national and global conservation and climate goals. Are there changes that would make it easier for you to also realise more social and economic aspirations?

For a lot of desert mob, it's really hard to create a viable economic future, because there's a misconception that there's nothing out there in the desert and we rely on mining and pastoral development to bring opportunities through new agreements. But the ranger program supports access to country with limited funding, which allows our rangers to use our traditional knowledge and go out on country to manage it, and to transfer our knowledge to our young people and rangers. However, even though being a ranger is a paid position, it relies on government-funded programs, it's limited to only a small number of funded positions, it's only renewed project-to-project - and that lack of security has impacts on our long-term planning ability, which all adds to the challenge of creating an economically viable future for the remote desert mob.

Desert country landscape © Yaruman5 c/- flikr

You mentioned earlier that your land managers are dealing with climate change. What sort of changes have they seen on country?

We know that climate change is happening all over the world, and to deliver land management on country, climate change is one of several impacts and challenges that we have to include in our workplan. We measure the climate changes through how it impacts our traditional knowledge such as when certain flowers bloom, or when crocodiles lay their eggs. Traditionally our seasonal indicators are related to weather patterns - we know when the rain is going to fall, which helps us to time activities such as when to harvest or burn the land. However, the reality today is that the rains are falling later than normal, despite for example, crocodile eggs being laid when they're supposed to – and this means the eggs won't hatch, because the weather is getting too hot, and the floods are coming too late. 

It's all connected. We rely on the knowledge of the traditional owners and rangers - we know how it's supposed to be, but we have to keep adapting because the climate and seasonal indicators are all changing. So, we're really walking in two worlds - combining traditional and modern techniques of land management. Most desert groups have cultural awareness and knowledge - we're born as land managers, we have the knowledge that's been passed on by our ancestors, and we have our responsibilities to manage the land. But we have to also measure what's happening around us with climate change and learn how to adapt to those fast-moving changes. We have the knowledge of how to burn and when to burn, but if the rains come later, we need to change the timing so that we burn in the right season. And this has other impacts too - a lot of traditional owners in the desert rely on the food that is gathered as part of the burning, but if they have to burn later because the rain is delayed, they have to wait a long time before they can access that food, and this reduces their food security. 

Great Sandy Desert seen from above. Image © NASA

What gives you hope for the future?

The hope is having more youth rangers out on country, and transferring knowledge from Traditional Owners to the youth rangers. Having an identity and cultural connection to country allows us to manage the land with pride.

Ampliseed is a global network of landscape scale conservation and climate change projects, connecting practitioners with a rights-based, human-centered approach to building environmental resilience. It is supported by BHP Foundation, and facilitated by Pollination Foundation - together we learn, share and amplify. The Indigenous Desert Alliance is working to build the largest Indigenous-led connected conservation network on Earth. IDA delivers the 10 Deserts Project, supported by BHP Foundation's Environmental Resilience Program.