Study links healthy landscapes with healthy people 

Research shows Indigenous people who participate in customary land and sea management practices are healthier and happier

A ground-breaking study published today in the Medical Journal of Australia demonstrates links between Indigenous Caring for Country practices and a healthier, happier life.

The Healthy Country, Healthy People study involved the close collaboration of researchers from Charles Darwin University, the Menzies School of Health Research, the Australian National University, the Menzies Research Institute, and the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health.

Collaborating with the Traditional Owners of western and central Arnhem Land, the researchers assessed the health outcomes of Indigenous people participating in Caring for Country activities compared with those who did not.

This exploratory study investigated the close connections between Indigenous people and their ancestral lands, and the impacts that they may have on the health of landscapes as well as the physical health and well-being of populations.

Project leader, CDU’s Professor Stephen Garnett said that sustained pressure to centralise populations and services has led to the depopulation of homelands and the creation of remote area townships.

“Previous work has shown that Indigenous people living in remote townships suffer from a burden of illness associated with inactivity, malnutrition, and social disadvantages,” he said.

“This has impacted negatively on the health of both the landscapes and the people.”

Key findings have shown for the first time that people who participate in customary and contemporary land and sea management practices, particularly those living in their ancestral homelands, have significant health benefits. These include more frequent exercise, better diet, lower rates of obesity, diabetes, renal disease, cardiovascular disease and less psychological stress.

A co-author of the study and a cardiovascular and respiratory research fellow with Menzies, Dr Fay Johnston, said these diseases represented the principal causes of premature death and disability for Indigenous Australians.

The study concluded that expanding Caring for Country programs in remote Indigenous communities had the potential to deliver a healthier environment, sustainable economic development opportunities and the potential to deliver significant economic savings in health care expenditure.

“This is a positive study in Indigenous health that responds to Indigenous requests to investigate ‘what works’ with a focus on cultural and social drivers of improved health outcomes,” Dr Johnston said.

“Further studies will now be needed to follow on from this to allow us to delve deeper into the causes behind these improved health outcomes.”

CRC for Aboriginal Health Chief Executive, Mick Gooda said the study added to a growing body of knowledge demonstrating the relationship between access to country and improved health and wellbeing.

“This work is important because it demonstrates the need for greater government investment in Aboriginal ranger programs as part of efforts to reduce health inequality in Australia,” he said.

“These programs are an essential component of addressing the social causes of our people’s ill health, specifically unemployment, economic disadvantage and the sense of disempowerment that plagues so many Aboriginal communities.”

The Healthy People Healthy Country project was funded by Land and Water Australia, the Northern Territory Government, National Health and Medical Research Council and Pfizer.

The project was undertaken by researchers from the Institute of Advanced Studies at CDU in collaboration with key partners including the Traditional Owners of western and central Arnhem Land, the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, the Northern Land Council and the NT Government.