A Planning Tool to Support Indigenous Rangers Manage Climate Change Impacts on Cultural Heritage Sites

Over 100 Australian Indigenous ranger groups manage a significant proportion of Australia’s natural and cultural resources. Two Indigenous ranger groups in Australia’s monsoonal far north are concerned about a perceived escalation of impacts on cultural heritage sites arising from climate extremes, variation and change.

A preliminary version of a tool to assist them manage these impacts was synthesised from other community based climate adaptation tools. It contained phases for scoping, risk analysis and options analysis. In the testing of the tool, rangers identified risks to shell mounds and middens (remains of shellfish meals that have accumulated over time), earth mounds (mounds of earth that contain cultural material) and rock art (paintings and engravings found in caves and open sites) from more frequent, extreme sea-level rise events and inland river-flooding events.

They set goals, considered barriers and the availability of appropriate resources. During the tool’s risk analysis phase rangers sought to prioritise sites with the greatest exposure and sensitivity to not only the identified climate impacts but also a range of other threats including human impacts, fire and feral animals and natural weathering. The risk phase used a field survey approach that included an innovative cultural-value assessment methodology allowing prioritisation on the basis of both risk of loss and site significance.

Over 100 sites were assessed with the tool and allocated one of five possible management priorities. In considering adaptive options, rangers confronted limits to climate change adaptation for the prioritised heritage sites. For sites most in peril from climate extremes, digital documentation was chosen over salvage or physical protection. However, rangers were concerned that confinement of sites to a data base would undermine their ongoing use of them in traditional cultural practice. They therefore considered the possibility of one day combining photogrammetry-derived 3D models with augmented-reality applications to re-experience lost sites not in a virtual space but in their original non-virtual locations.

Validation of ranger group organisational capacity to use the climate change planning tool bodes well for its use by other Indigenous ranger groups.