Building Indigenous livelihood and co-management opportunities in the Northern Great Barrier Reef – ecosystem services and conservation governance for water quality

Start date
End date
Research partner(s)
James Cook University
Cape York Partnership
Kalan Enterprises

This report outlines the results from a two year project funded under the National Environmental Science Program (NESP). The project was focused on Indigenous livelihoods and ecosystem services (ES). The report also provides the foundations for a strategic business document for an Indigenous country-based management agency, Kalan Enterprises. Kalan Enterprises was a research partner on the project and is planning the next phase of commercial development on the country it manages.

ES focused on water and catchment management are a relatively common feature of ES markets internationally, where they are often known as watershed services or nutrient offsets. They are far less prevalent and well conceptualised in the Australian context and have not, to date, been applied to Indigenous-controlled estates. Eastern Cape York Peninsula (CYP) represents a crucial confluence of interest in marine ecosystem and water quality outcomes associated with the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), combined with growing  Indigenous tenures. Indigenous ES represent one crucial pathway to support medium and long term Indigenous country-based livelihoods in CYP, and across Indigenous Australia more generally, as well as generating desirable outcomes for major environmental assets.

In meeting the project goals, several interrelated activities were undertaken and are reported on here. These included:

  • a community-based evaluation of ES potential that incorporated field scoping, interviews with elders, community workshops, investor visits, output evaluation, and collaborative film production;
  • an assessment of areas of ES opportunity for Kalan Enterprises and favourable geographic and institutional framings for those opportunities;
  • a review of key features of ES markets and standards internationally;
  • a review of major ES assets under the management remit of Kalan Enterprises; 
  • a review of market opportunities for those assets; and 
  • a consideration of next steps relating to building the governance, business development and research activities needed to develop and secure these markets. 

This current document is supported by two other key project outputs, a strategic review of drivers and trends in environmental markets and their applications for Australia (Pearse 2017) and a short film directed at Cape York Indigenous residents and potential future commercial investors in Indigenous catchment management (Barber and Creek 2017). The focus of the work was Kalan Enterprises, but the intention was that lessons from this analysis will be applicable elsewhere. 

The project was conceptualised entirely independently, but it directly addresses key priorities outlined in the 2016 White Paper on the Development of Northern Australia produced by the Federal government (Commonwealth of Australia 2016). Specifically, the White Paper aspires to enable the Indigenous development of natural assets; create a welcoming environment for investors;  support  Indigenous-led  infrastructure  planning  and  investment;  reduce  barriers  to employment;  and  improve  Indigenous  governance  (Commonwealth  of  Australia  2015:  5). These are all key goals of the current project.   

The major project findings are that significant opportunities (and some risks) exist for Indigenous people on CYP in the ES sector, particularly with respect to water and catchment  management. Identifying and securing these opportunities and avoiding the relevant risks requires a combination of:

  • strengthening local and regional Indigenous governance systems;
  • development of policy, programmatic and regulatory frameworks to support ecosystem services valuation;
  • the building of partnerships with agencies that have skills in monitoring and evaluation;
  • identifying and building relationships with potential future customers (both government and non-government);
  • identifying commercial opportunities and building revenue streams that can support the provision of ecosystem services (through direct purchase and through support for infrastructure, capability development, etc.); and
  • the building of livelihoods based in Indigenous natural and cultural resource management that can generate substantial social, cultural, political, economic, and health co-benefits for employees, local communities, and wider society.

Substantive risks, however, need to be managed. These include risks to foundational rights associated with country and risks associated with business failure. Consequently, the project highlights that these ES must be developed as part of a broader business and enterprise strategy containing mutually supportive elements – e.g. ecotourism, research services, feral animal management and biodiversity protection. Further work with research and business partners is needed to align commercial development opportunities, build potential markets, and generate customers. Future partner support may encompass the underpinning infrastructure that enables Indigenous people to deliver such services; the development and commercialisation of the ecosystem services themselves; the creation of commercial products associated with those services; and the lobbying for changes to key national and/or State policies limiting service development and commercialisation.


Community-based evaluation, governance, and strategic planning for Indigenous Ecosystem Services in Eastern Cape York Peninsula
Marcus Barber, Allan Dale, Rebecca Pearse, Justin Perry, Michael Winer, Tim Jaffer, Dion Creek
Publication date
Not listed.
Rights notice
Rights Notice: This report has been placed on the CSIRO repository and may be made available to persons outside of CSIRO for non commercial purposes, in its entirety and without deletion of disclaimers and copyright information.