A corporate philanthropic initiative is putting traditional owners from 2.8 million square kilometres of desert at the forefront of caring for Country and passing on cultural knowledge.

The $20.9 million 10 Deserts Project is the biggest funded by the BHP Foundation and encompasses the Great Sandy, Little Sandy, Gibson, Tanami, Great Victoria, Pedirka, Tirari, Strzelecki, and Sturt Stony and Simpson deserts.

First pitched in 2016, the project started supporting traditional owners to care for their lands in 2018.

“Eighty per cent of the world’s remaining high-value biodiversity under threat is on or adjacent to the lands of Indigenous people,” BHP Foundation head James Ensor said.

“So, solutions to that challenge have to centre around the rights of Indigenous peoples to have what we call, ‘Voice and Choice’; their ability to determine their own futures through how they choose to manage their land.”

The project is led by Desert Support Services and has eight Indigenous-led partners and four international and national conservation partners.

Their Indigenous-led partners include the Central Land Council, Kimberley Land Council, Nyangumarta Warrarn Aboriginal Corporation, Alinytjara Wilurara Landscape Board, Yanunijari Aboriginal Corporation, the Indigenous Desert Alliance and Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa.

10 Deserts Project facilitates the networks that are the heart of the project, linking up land councils, State government agencies and non-government organisations.

“Fire, invasive species, camels, water quality control and climate issues — these things are interconnected, they know no boundaries, they know no borders,” 10 Deserts Project general manager Phil Sparrow said.

One of the strengths of the project is the flexibility of the funding.

KLC’s Land and Sea Management Unit manager William Durack said the project highlighted just how special the desert was.

“The Australian desert has historically been something that, in my experience, has been incredibly under-represented and undervalued; both physical aspects of it and also the cultural complexity and cultural capacity of traditional owners,” he said.

“The project has provided funds that have enabled things that are almost impossible through traditional funding avenues.

“It’s been well aligned with traditional owner needs and aspirations.”

Mr Durack also told the National Indigenous Times that the project had also helped “solidarity” and a “sense of community” among Indigenous rangers that care for the desert regions.

By Sarah Smit