Simultaneously one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet and one of the places most shaped by long human presence, especially through complex traditions around the management of fire and fisheries, Northern Australia is exquisitely rich with biocultural diversity. The region has some of the planet’s most significant and resilient marine biodiversity in the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s largest substantially intact savannah system stretching from Cape York across the Top End westwards to the Kimberly, as well as the rain forests of Queensland’s Wet Tropics. Its coastline and islands include the Torres Straits Islands between Papua New Guinea and Northern Queensland, important areas like the Kowanyama Delta on the Gulf of Carpenteria, all the way to where the desert meets the ocean in Western Australia. Australia’s North is also rich in mineral and water resources, and has a significant tourism industry with the potential to deliver benefits to Indigenous communities.
The many distinct Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islands peoples inhabiting these varied landscapes represent some of the longest continued relationships between landscapes and cultures in the world; enabling the development of sophisticated methods of harvesting and natural resource management with deep relationships to country. Coastal communities in Queensland, for example, sustain relationships with freshwater springs beneath coral reefs that they know from periods during the last Ice Age when sea levels were lower, and honey hunters seeking the nests of stingless bees in Arnhem Land follow not the bee but a brightly-colored parasitic wasp that specializes in laying its eggs in the bees’ nest sites. Communities are also adapting traditional knowledge to current challenges, like the Aboriginal stockmen in the Kimberly who are adapting their fire management systems with the changing bush-grass dynamic to improve cattle grazing.
After generations of dispossession and marginalization Australia’s Indigenous Peoples gained citizenship in 1967 and have re-established control of significant ancestral territory in recent years. The Christensen Fund supports Traditional Owners to re-establish the cultural and natural resource management practices of “caring for country” and building a “culture-based economy” (which includes ecosystem services, indigenous-controlled tourism and the arts), as well as backing their programs to secure inter-generational transmission of traditional knowledge, values and languages. With support, numerous indigenous institutions have enhanced their cultural continuity, livelihoods, and the management of their lands for biodiversity and carbon management.
In recent years there has been substantial growth in private philanthropy in Australia, and a growing commitment among Australia’s institutions to take seriously the vision and institutions of Indigenous Peoples. For this reason it has been possible to co-fund most of Christensen’s activities with Australian institutions, and to develop jointly a new approach to enabling the energy and commitment of Indigenous Australians to contribute long term to the natural and cultural heritage of this region.
Primary Themes and Landscapes for Grantmaking
Our Australia grantmaking has coalesced around “a bottom up strategy for the Top End” where our support is focused on building Indigenous organizations that create the context and support systems for Traditional Owners to “care for country”, live well on their lands and seascapes, and transmit their cultural values, language and knowledge systems to future generations. Grants have also engaged the arts – especially the performing arts – and other forms of cultural dialogue to help enhance understanding between Indigenous Australians and wider society. We have also contributed to the imminent establishment of the United Nations University’s Traditional Knowledge Institute to be based at Charles Darwin University which will serve not only Australia but the entire world.
Most of our grantmaking is in the Wet Tropics and Cape York of Northern Queensland, on the Gulf of Carpenteria, in Arnhem Land and in the Kimberleys.
The Christensen Fund is currently consolidating its support around several major Indigenous-run organizations in the region, and is not currently seeking or accepting requests for new grants in Northern Australia.