Meet the Indigenous Women Who Are Saving Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

For thousands of years, Indigenous women have played an important role in stewarding the country. A new generation of rangers is carrying on that legacy.

Aerial shot of a Reef Cruise ship near Hastings Reef

Archer Point, Queensland, located on the coast near the Great Barrier Reef, is the ancestral home of the Yuku Baja Muliku people.

Courtesy of Tom Park Photography/Tourism and Events Queensland

When she was growing up, Larissa Hale’s childhood home was located less than 300 feet from the Queensland coastline in Archer Point. She’d climb mangrove trees after school, splash and swim with friends in the waves that rolled in gently from the Great Barrier Reef, and walk along the coastline with a bucket looking for the errant crayfish or mud crab to take home for dinner. Sometimes, her family—who has lived along the coast in the area now known as North Queensland for generations—would pile in a boat to visit nearby islands.

Larissa Hale, founder of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network, wearing blue and gold Rangers jacket and cap outdoors

Larissa Hale is the founder of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network.

Courtesy of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network

“The water around there was so clean that you could see right through it and everything around you,” says Hale, who is a Yuku Baja Muliku woman. “It was just that beautiful. I’ve still got some of the seashells that I collected from there when I was tiny. These little tiny seashells that look like they’ve been hand painted, you know?”

Now, no longer tiny, Hale works to protect and steward the land that she grew up on. After years of neglect and agricultural abuse, Yuku Baja Muliku (aka Archer Point) was returned to the community in 2006—the territory under their stewardship encompasses more than 56,000 acres. And in 2007, Hale joined the Yuku Baja Muliku Land Corporation (an organization composed of the Traditional Custodians of Archer Point) as a ranger. Hale—one of Queensland’s first woman rangers—is now the managing director of the organization, which represents the interests of around 200 clan members.

“I’m a sea country woman,” she says. “We have a very strong connection to the reef, on a cultural and resource level as well, for food and medicine. I’ve always had love and respect for it.”

Three rangers of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network, including Larissa and her daughter Leilani, on beach looking out over the ocean

One of the biggest goals of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network is to simply provide a sense of community for women rangers.

Courtesy of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network

Similar to the United States’ Land Back Movement, Australia’s handback movement calls for large tracts of land to be given back to the communities who originally took care of it. Though the sentiment behind the handback movement has been around since the dawn of colonialism on the continent, the modern Australian land rights movement can trace its roots back to 1963, when the Yolngu people from Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land presented parliament with the Yirrkala Bark Petitions. They asked that the government return their land, which had been used for decades to mine bauxite (a very environmentally destructive process), without their permission. The Yolngu people presented their case to the Northern Territory Supreme Court in 1971. The court acknowledged the community’s long-held relationship with the land but ultimately rejected their claim.

However, in recent years, more and more land is being returned to its rightful caretakers, in a concrete gesture that recognizes the rights of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as well as the numerous harms done in the past. One of the most famous examples of the handback movement occurred in 1985 when the deeds for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (home of Uluru, arguably the nation’s most recognizable landmark) were given back to the Anangu people—the park is now jointly managed by the federal government and the Anangu community. In 2021, Daintree National Park (the site of the world’s oldest rain forest, which encompasses more than 395,000 acres) was handed back to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. And more recently, in March 2022, nearly half of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kakadu National Park was formally returned to the Kakadu Region Land Claims.

In addition to righting historical wrongs, there are numerous environmental benefits to the handback movement; First Peoples caretakers are able to use 60,000 years of generational knowledge to better care for the land. For the Australian government (and Hale), using this institutional Indigenous wisdom is a key tool in the fight against climate change and for protecting one of the country’s most beautiful and vulnerable assets: the Great Barrier Reef. Archer Point, where Hale and her team operate, encompasses both the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage site (an old-growth rain forest) and the Great Barrier Reef.

A rare big dugong, with a few yellow fish swimming in deep blue water

Dugongs, an evolutionary cousin of the manatee, rely on seagrass as their primary source of food.

Photo by Ivanenko Vladimir/Shutterstock

In addition to monitoring the water quality of the ocean around Archer Point and sources of freshwater runoff, Hale spends her time keeping tabs on the health of seagrass beds off the coast. An oft-overlooked and underappreciated plant, seagrass can serve as a litmus test for the overall health of a marine environment: It provides food for young fish, an area to hide from predators for baby sea turtles, and a favorite snack of the manatee-like animals, dugongs, also known as sea cows. Seagrass is also particularly sensitive to fertilizer runoff contamination and other industrial farming pollutants—the future of dugongs in Australia is threatened due to loss of seagrass habitats.

“The last bed that I went and had a look at, there were these big dugong feeding trails going all the way through it,” Hale says. “It’s a really nice thing to see. It’s like, ‘OK, so the dugongs are still hanging around.’”

For Hale, the need to take care of the Great Barrier Reef and the land surrounding it goes far beyond a passing interest or zealous passion for her work—it’s in her blood. “I remember when I asked my grandfather [who was also a ranger], ‘How does it feel for you to be working back at home on country?’” she says.” He said, “It feels good here because I’m home.’”

Two people snorkeling near the Great Barrier Reef among schools of fish, with coral in foreground

The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s most dazzling natural wonders—it’s also extremely sensitive to pollutants and environmental change.

Courtesy of Biopixel/Tourism and Events Queensland

In 2018, Hale founded the Queensland Indigenous Womens Ranger Network, a forum for Indigenous women working in the country to share their experiences, stories, and information. They also regularly provide training for hopeful rangers and host weekly Junior Ranger after-school programs. In 2022, the organization was globally recognized with the Earthshot Prize, an award founded by the U.K.’s Prince William and Sir David Attenborough to celebrate people and organizations working to solve the world’s greatest environmental challenges. Given the size of the tracts of land that rangers are dealing with (one of the largest in Queensland is nearly 150,000 acres), the experience can, at times, feel remote and isolating—especially for women. It was something Hale recognized almost immediately when she first began her work as a ranger in 2007.

“When I started, I was the only woman,” she says. “A lot of them were ex-army and the men would just talk all over you. I can remember just sitting there going, ‘We need more women.’”

With her work with the QIWRN, Hale ultimately hopes she’ll be able to inspire other women that caring for the land isn’t just for men and that women can be rangers as well. And it’s working: When the organization began in 2018, there were just 18 woman rangers in Queensland, which encompasses over 450 million acres, or two and a half times the size of Texas. Today, there are nearly 140.

Hale also hopes that she’ll be able to one day create a global network of Indigenous women rangers to share ancestral wisdom, support, as well as everyday practical tips with one another. But for now, Hale has inspired a person very close to her to take up the ranger fatigues: her daughter, Leilani Hale. Leilani often works with her mom surveying populations of fish and mussels, another important indicator species for the health of the local marine ecosystem.

Larissa Hale (L) and her daughter Leilani dressed in Ranger gear, resting on the beach in Archer Point

The Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network hopes to inspire the next generation of rangers to carry on their work of protecting the country.

Courtesy of the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network

“Growing up, my Mum was the only female ranger coordinator, but now with QIWRN, it’s amazing and very empowering for a young ranger to see the women rangers all together in one place supporting each other,” Leilani says.

Like her mother, Leilani also sees herself as carrying on a larger legacy, of loving and caring for something much greater than herself. “I work with the Elders to learn our traditional practices to ensure country has healthy water,” she says. “The biggest thing for me working on country is wanting to preserve our traditional knowledge. And it’s important for QIWRN to exist because it encourages more women to work in the ranger field.”

For both Hale and her daughter, being able to steward the land is essential not just for the posterity of the Yuku Baja Muliku community but also the Great Barrier Reef and Australia as a whole—and in turn, the world. “I love the feeling that I’m actually doing something and the one thing we say at home here is: ‘Our land, our people, our future,’” Hale says. ”It’s a whole holistic thing. If we look after our land and sea country, we’re going to look after our people. It ensures that we have a future.”

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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