Achieving highly successful multiple agency collaborations in a cross-cultural environment: experiences and lessons from Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation and partners


  • Benjamin D. Hoffmann,

  • Steve Roeger,

  • Phil Wise,

  • Jane Dermer,

  • BaluPalu Yunupingu,

  • Daryl Lacey,

  • Djäwa Yunupingu,

  • Banula Marika,

  • Mandaka Marika,

  • Bill Panton

Benjamin D. Hoffmanis a Senior Research Scientist with Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences (PMB 44, Winnellie, NT 0822, Australia; Tel: +61 8 89448432; Steve Roeger, Jane Dermer, BaluPalu Yunupingu, Daryll Lacey, Djäwa Yunupingu, Banula Marika and Mandaka Marikaare currently or have recently been key personnel involved in Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation (PO Box 1551, Nhulunbuy, NT 0885, Australia), whilePhil WiseandBill Pantonare (or were at the time of this paper) Senior Ranger and Senior Indigenous Engagement Officer, respectively, with Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory (PO Box 496, Palmerston, NT 0831, Australia). The current address forPhil WiseandJane Dermeris 83 Betts Road, Neika, Tas. 7054, Australia.


Summary  Creating effective collaborations to address complex environmental management issues is becoming increasingly important, yet there is surprisingly little published to guide such collaborations. Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation has a long and successful history of engaging external collaborators and pioneering the ‘both ways’ approach to environmental management. Many of these partnerships have been highly successful, achieving nationally recognised environmental outcomes. Here, we present Dhimurru and some of its key collaborative projects in the context of these successes, drawing from our experiences in those collaborations to identify lessons learnt about how best to create these successful multi-organisational partnerships in a cross-cultural environment. Specifically we detail four attributes of Dhimurru’s management philosophy, and eight key lessons that we believe have been most important for creating these successful partnerships. Notably, we detail numerous novel ways in which Dhimurru proactively prevents problems and promotes collaboration. Such lessons should help provide a basis for developing policies and practices for effective multi-agency, cross-cultural collaborations.


Creating effective collaborations to address environmental management issues is becoming ever more important as goals become more ambitious and the influence of social, economic and political considerations become greater and more complex (Cortner & Moote 1999; Lane 2003). That collaborative efforts often achieve better results than independent work is demonstrated by the many publications describing the outcomes of successful collaborative projects and co-management arrangements, as well as the efforts attempting to define and categorise collaborations (Waddock 1989; Bidwell & Ryan 2006). Indeed, demonstrating existence and integrity of collaborative partnerships is often a prerequisite for funding. So it is very surprising that despite the obvious importance of collaborations, there is little published about the fundamental principles of collaborating (Gray 1989; Bardach 1998; Dukes et al. 2001) outside of the arena of public engagement and involvement, least of all within multicultural environments (IUCN 2009; Yunupingu & Muller 2009). Clearly there is a need for people involved in successful collaborative efforts to not only report their achievements, but also the means by which they achieved collaboration if we are to advance the development of policies and practice for collaborations.

Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, hereafter referred to as Dhimurru, is recognised as an organisation at the forefront of Australian Indigenous environmental and cultural management. It has a long and successful history of engaging external collaborators and pioneering the ‘both ways’ approach to environmental management whereby traditional Aboriginal practices are balanced with mainstream management and science to ensure the conservation and management of both Indigenous and Western values (Bauman & Smyth 2007). Many of these partnerships have been highly successful, creating world-class and national award-winning environmental outcomes. Here, we present Dhimurru and some of its key collaborative projects in the context of these successes, detailing the experiences of Dhimurru and key partner organisations, and identifying lessons learnt about how best to create these successful multi-organisational partnerships in a cross-cultural environment. Our attention is focused on long-term projects and organisational relationships that last for more than 2 years.

Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation

Dhimurru is a not-for-profit, community-based Aboriginal organisation incorporated under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006. It serves the Yolngu Aboriginal people of north-east Arnhem Land. Yolngu have freehold tenure over all of their land, and this ownership is recognised by the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (1976) Cth (ALR(NT)A). In general, the landscape remains environmentally intact, because the area is not subject to high-density settlement. Likewise, Yolngu culture remains strong, in part because the spread of ‘European’ culture into the area came only in the 1930s and did not fully dispossess Yolngu from their land. For Yolngu, values of culture, family and environmental management are inseparable: ‘Our land and sea are infused with significance and meaning; no part of the landscape is without heritage and cultural significance’ (Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation 2008), and there remains a strong commitment to environmental stewardship through the rights and responsibilities expressed by a network of kinship accountabilities.

A major catalyst for Dhimurru’s establishment in 1992 was an urgent need to manage the impact of unregulated recreational access on Yolngu estates in the vicinity of Nhulunbuy and the Gove Peninsula. Impacts had escalated substantially with the establishment of a bauxite mine and alumina refinery in the early 1970s and the concurrent arrival of the mining workforce, their families and the service industries surrounding the operations. Typically, such an environmental management role would have been the responsibility of a government agency, but no agency had a physical presence in the region. Starting with a workforce of four individuals, Dhimurru has now expanded to employ 21 staff (Fig. 1) delivering natural and cultural resource management services across the Peninsula and adjacent sea country on behalf of Indigenous land owners.

Figure 1.

 Dhimurru’s organisational structure.

Dhimurru is a partner in the Indigenous protected areas (IPA) programme, which was established by the federal government in 1996 to establish locally managed conservation of natural and cultural resources on Indigenous-owned land as part of Australia’s National Reserve System (Szabo & Smyth 2003). Australian IPAs are a form of internationally recognised Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (IUCN 2009). The Dhimurru IPA was formally established in 2000, when approximately 101 000 ha (including about 9000 ha of marine environment) was declared by Traditional Owners and recognised by the Commonwealth (Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation 2008; Fig. 2).

Figure 2.

 The Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area (dark grey) within north-east Arnhem Land.

Case Studies of Highly Effective Collaborations

The following case studies detail some of the many effective collaborations involving Dhimurru that have achieved significant environmental outcomes and long-lasting partnerships. Presentation of the individual collaborations is limited to a brief description of project partners, the challenges or how work was achieved, as well as the most significant outcomes. Greater detail about individual projects can be obtained from publications cited.

Case study 1: Engagement with Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory

This collaboration is a long-term arrangement that has become the ‘backbone’ to much of Dhimurru’s work, as well as a benchmark for IPA management. We focus here on the history of how this partnership became established because it was not forged quickly or easily, and the lessons learnt within this process had a great influence on how Dhimurru formed all latter collaborations, some of which are also discussed here.

Land management actions around Nhulunbuy by the Yolngu Traditional Owners commenced in the 1980s prior to the formation of both Dhimurru and its IPA. Despite the lack of a formal conservation zone, the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory (CCNT) responded to requests by the Traditional Owners for assistance, and in the late 1980s, two rangers were located at Nhulunbuy to assist in visitor and crocodile management. This commenced a very successful collaboration with the Yolngu where the park rangers assisted and trained the Traditional Owners to manage visitor impacts, formalise recreational areas and establish Dhimurru.

The environmental significance of Dhimurru’s work was well recognised by the CCNT, now renamed The Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory (PWSNT), the Commonwealth and others, and efforts were made to formalise a conservation zone over part of what is now the Dhimurru IPA using a joint-management framework similar to that used in other conservation areas in the Northern Territory (see Bauman & Smyth 2007). However, Dhimurru did not consider a joint-management arrangement to be acceptable, desiring Traditional Owners to have the sole right to make land management decisions. This resulted in PWSNT withdrawing their rangers from Nhulunbuy in 1998. However, following a change of Northern Territory Government in 2001, the policy of the PWSNT became more amenable to Dhimurru’s position and a collaborative model was pursued using the ‘both ways’ approach, which welcomes Western scientific input, knowledge and practice but ensures that Yolngu are in control. Dhimurru’s willingness to collaborate and the basis upon which the collaboration with PWSNT was to be conducted is clearly stated in Dhimurru’s vision statement: ‘We envisage working together with the Parks and Wildlife Service: we need their help in making our vision a reality. But the only people who make decisions are those who own the law, the people who own the creation stories, the peoples who’s lives are governed by Yolngu Law and Beliefs’ (Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation 2008).

Following the declaration of Dhimurru’s IPA, both Dhimurru and the PWSNT came to a 21-year arrangement in 2002 under Section 73 of the Territory Parks and Wildlife Act where they would collaborate to manage the Dhimurru IPA. Other parties to the agreement included the Australian Environment Department as a member of the advisory group, the Northern Land Council and the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Land Trust who are required to ensure that provisions of the ALR(NT)A are complied with for any agreements on Aboriginal Freehold Land. The agreement established Dhimurru as the primary land management agency under its own internal rules of governance. Traditional owners are employed primarily as rangers but occupy positions at all levels in the organisation, including the Board of Management. Indigenous staff work alongside non-Indigenous facilitators, technical and administrative staff. Decisions regarding management are made by Traditional Owners through authorised management plans and an elected Board who guide resource allocation and prioritisation. The Boards are made up of Directors who are themselves Traditional Owners of estates within the Dhimurru IPA. PWSNT provide a staff member to assist with training and day-to-day management, as well as representation on an advisory group that meets three times a year. Functionally, the agreement provides an avenue for the flow of knowledge and skills both ways between the PWSNT staff and Dhimurru’s Yolngu staff, which provides mutual benefits to both organisations. This collaborative agreement was the first and remains the only such arrangement secured by legislation between an IPA hosting body and a State Conservation Agency (ISP 2010). The two-ways approach has been so successful that there are now five PWSNT officers placed within Indigenous ranger organisations throughout the Northern Territory.

Case study 2: Marine debris collaboration

Synthetic marine debris, especially plastics, is becoming an increasing problem within the waters of northern Australia (Gunn et al. 2010), just as it is globally, representing a threat to many marine wildlife species as well as spoiling beach aesthetics. Dhimurru has had a long history of removing general marine debris from coastlines within its IPA. In 2000, this work grew into formal annual survey in collaboration with other organisations keen to actively address the issue of marine debris and to obtain quantified information of the debris washing ashore. The organisations involved in the collaboration were the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), NT Fisheries and more recently Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA). In addition to removing debris from beaches, the debris from allocated beaches is sorted into types and then counted and weighed. These data can then be used to assess what is coming ashore, to determine volume trends over time, and assist in attempting to determine where the rubbish originates. This is now one of the longest running surveys on marine debris in Australia, contributing to a long-term national objective to stop marine debris at its source. The quantitative data collected by this collaborative effort are impressive. As an example, between 2006 and 2009, 4167 kg was collected from 4 km of beach within the Dhimurru IPA, comprised of 36 844 individual items of rubbish. In 2001, the collaborative efforts of Dhimurru and its project partners WWF and NT Fisheries won a National Landcare Award for this work.

Case study 3: Carpentaria ghost net programme

Ghost nets are lost or discarded fishing nets that are left to drift in the oceans and consequently entangle and kill large numbers of marine life, particularly turtles. The Carpentaria Ghost Net Programme (now GhostNets Australia) was initiated in 2005 following the concerns of Indigenous people and their representative organisations, including Dhimurru, with the goal to remove and reduce the number of ghost nets in the Gulf of Carpentaria, while collecting data on the nets to identify their sources (Gunn et al. 2010). Through the combined efforts of these partnered organisations, over 5500 ghost nets, with a combined length of approximately 90 km, have been removed from around 1500 km of coastline over 6 years (Gunn et al. 2010), with Dhimurru alone having removed hundreds of nets from their IPA coastline. The importance of collaboration in this project is further demonstrated by the removal of one particularly large net (approximately 6 ton) from Dhimurru’s IPA in 2006. This effort involved rapid in-kind assistance from Australian Fisheries Management Authority, Customs, NTPWS, NT Police, Alcan Gove (now Rio Tinto Alcan Gove), and local businesses Gopu Barge Service and Arafura Charters.

The environmental significance of the outcomes of this programme has been recognised with a Queensland Landcare Award in 2005, a Banksia Award in 2006 and 2007, and a 2009 International Sea Turtle Society Champions Award.

Case study 4: Gove crow butterfly management

The Gove Crow Butterfly (Euploea alcathoe enastri) was known only from a single location in NE Arnhem Land, but the locality that it was collected from was not recorded, nor was anything known about its biology, other than that it was collected from a large rainforest patch. In 2005, a PWSNT butterfly specialist was keen to relocate this apparently rare species, attempt to document its entire distribution and assess its conservation status. Over a period of 3 years, Indigenous ecological knowledge was obtained about both the butterfly and its potential habitat from Traditional Owners throughout the region. The work resulted in identification of the butterfly in 20 locations (Braby 2010). Consequently, the conservation prospects of this species have been enhanced by the butterfly being listed as a Threatened species under Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and development of a management plan. The collaborative approach involving landholders in this project streamlined survey site selection both within the Dhimurru and adjacent Laynhapuy IPA’s, because Indigenous knowledge of country enabled suitable habitat to be predetermined and selected as study sites, while also ensuring that access to sensitive cultural sites was carried out according to Yolngu protocols.

Case study 5: Invasive ant management

Eradication is the most difficult option for invasive species management, and successes remain rare (Wittenberg & Cock 2009; Hoffmann et al. 2010). Since 2003, Dhimurru has been at the forefront of management of two of the world’s worst invasive species, the African Big Headed Ant (BHA: Pheidole megacephala) and the Yellow Crazy Ant (YCA: Anoplolepis gracilipes), resulting in unprecedented outcomes.

The BHA is a common invasive ant in residential areas throughout Australia, and it occurred in small and isolated populations within NE Arnhem Land. Dhimurru in collaboration with the lead author, an ant specialist from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), was successful in eradicating four populations, and another two remain under management (Hoffmann 2011).

Prior to 2004, YCA was known on mainland Australia only from NE Arnhem Land. A national-scale eradication programme against such species would normally be instigated by government departments. However, because of the absence of horticulture and declared conservation areas within Arnhem Land, government bodies usually responsible for invasive species management (i.e. Departments for Primary Industries and/or conservation) were not willing to accept management responsibility. In addition, with only one known YCA eradication in the world, for which details were not provided (Haines & Haines 1978), protocols for eradication did not exist.

In 2003, Dhimurru took the lead in a multi-agency collaboration to attempt YCA eradication. Initial results were poor, and as a result, a great effort was placed on research, particularly investigating the ant’s biology, response to fire, reproduction and susceptibility to baits. The adaptive approach has resulted in a globally unprecedented number of site-scale eradications (Hoffmann 2010). In addition, monitoring at many of these sites has quantified full native faunal recovery within 12 months post-treatment. Throughout the programme, Dhimurru actively engaged with many partner organisations (CSIRO, Rio-Tinto Alcan, Northern Land Council, Northern Territory Government, Federal Government), regional stakeholders (Yirralka rangers, Yirrkala Business Enterprises, Gumatj Association, Yirrkala Dhanbul Association, Nhulunbuy Corporation) and other interested parties (Yirrkala & Nhulunbuy schools, Conservation Volunteers Australia) to achieve these outcomes. The programme’s outcomes were publicly recognised in 2010 and 2011 with four national awards.

Dhimurru Success Factors

Partnerships undoubtedly produce greater outcomes than individual efforts because it is very unlikely that one individual or organisation would have all of the skills or knowledge required to achieve ambitious objectives (Wilson et al. 2009). The achievements of all of the above case studies were dependent upon such collaborations. So why has Dhimurru been so successful in engaging and partnering with external organisations to produce so many significant outcomes? Most literature exploring attributes of success and failure of collaborations focus on engagement with the general community (e.g. Bauman & Smyth 2007; Larson et al. 2010). Although many lessons are relevant from such literature, the collaborative approaches they investigate are at the lower end of the collaborative spectrum (Buchy and Hoverman 2000) and do not necessarily require the long-term, cross-cultural and very close working relationships described here. Surprisingly, besides literature that explicitly focuses on what defines collaboration (e.g. Gray 1989; Bardach 1998; Linden 2002), we have been unable to find any report of a successful collaborative project that provides a list of proximate causes for success or failure. We have identified four attributes of Dhimurru’s management structure and philosophy that we believe have been critical to its success.

Dhimurru attribute 1: Strong governance and leadership

Dhimurru enters into discussions with potential collaborative partners being able to articulate clearly its vision, responsibilities and charter. Leadership from Traditional Owners and their Board is assisted by the development of management plans and business plans, and should a project proceed there are regular Board meetings, and internal mechanisms for keeping Traditional Owners informed and to manage feedback adaptively. At all stages, priority is given to due process and respect for each participants role, knowledge and contribution. In choosing organisations to partner with, Dhimurru looks for similarly effective and well-established mechanisms for good governance.

Dhimurru attribute 2: Embedding of partners in organisational structure

In terms of general organisation, there is nothing atypical about Dhimurru’s internal hierarchical structure (Fig. 1). In our experience, what sets Dhimurru apart from all other organisations is that key people from partner organisations are not seen as external and are embedded within Dhimurru’s internal management framework. This occurs at the level of Facilitators, Trainers and Partners, which has direct cooperative/assistance links with all Dhimurru senior staff, and direct reporting responsibilities to the Executive Officer (Fig. 1). While this inclusion may be seen as just an apparent token gesture within a management document, Dhimurru has two undertakings that ensure that the plan has physical reality. First is external partner inclusion in general Dhimurru planning, discussed further in key lesson 5, and second is Dhimurru’s engagement with PWSNT, discussed under Case study 1. We consider this atypical organisational framework to be a major contributor to Dhimurru’s success in engaging partners.

Dhimurru attribute 3: Inclusive decision-making

Although we focus on communication as a key factor for collaborations later in this paper (Lesson 5), we elaborate on communication between organisations here because of the very high level of inclusiveness that Dhimurru gives key people from partnered organisations to internal Dhimurru business. The requirement for effective communication channels between collaborators is obvious. However, Dhimurru’s communication strategy is noteworthy because it includes key people in partnered organisations in group emails that relate to decision-making for general Dhimurru business. This allows three things to occur: (i) external partners can directly see and be involved in Dhimurru decision-making about issues and opportunities extending beyond their collaborative arrangements; (ii) it allows Dhimurru to receive external advice it may not have otherwise received to aid its decisions processes; and (iii) it reinforces mutual respect and trust between Dhimurru and its key partners through high levels of transparency and shared input in all matters of decision-making. Naturally such an arrangement would only occur once high levels of respect and trust have been established, and highlights the need for careful selection and negotiation in setting up a partnership in the first place.

Dhimurru attribute 4: Annual mediation workshop

All Dhimurru staff and embedded collaborators attend an annual 2-day workshop, facilitated by an external consultant, which aims to provide an arena for all to express views about productivity and functionality at Dhimurru, and proactively find solutions to any issues. Such a review process is a highly proactive management activity that recognises that work environments are dynamic, requiring constant adaptation in response to changing conditions. This workshop facilitates bottom-up input, and provides a sense of inclusion and equity by all, into the direction and functioning of Dhimurru, most importantly promoting a clear and common understanding for all about issues and solutions. Although the public airing of some criticisms may seem daunting and uncomfortable, especially if directed at an individual, all involved have continually agreed that the process is successful because it is conducted in a sensitive manner, in an environment of goodwill, and facilitated by an external person. Ultimately, this process of internal reflection and refinement enhances collaborative efforts because (i) it improves the functionality of Dhimurru and (ii) it improves the working relationships between Dhimurru and collaborators.

Dhimurru Lessons

Following are eight key lessons that we have identified from our experiences of collaborating with Dhimurru and each other, which we believe have been most important for creating these successful partnerships.

Lesson 1: Develop capable people

We identify two key elements here. The first is a cooperative culture, and we particularly note that virtues of tolerance, patience and acceptance of other opinions are evident in collaborative environments. There only needs to be a single ‘champion’ of the cause (Linden 2002) to enthuse the entire collaboration. The second element is staff stability, which effectively means low turnover. Organisational and staffing stability is important for collaborations because it takes time to develop relationships (Lesson 2) that result in high levels of mutual respect and trust (Lesson 3), and these cannot be achieved when staff continually change.

Lesson 2: Allow time to develop relationships

We divide development time into two periods: 1. project development phase, when contacts are first forged and background work conducted to establish a project, and 2. the period between when collaborators begin working together, with great emphasis on interactive participation, until the collaborative effort is second-nature, at which point there are high levels of mutual respect and trust (Lesson 3).

All our collaborations have shown us that, from the outset of attempting to develop a collaborative arrangement, all partners should be able to clearly articulate to others their world view, abilities and limitations, notably: goals and objectives which may be quite different from one another; what each organisation has to offer and can make available to the project including resources, funding, knowledge and expertise; and confirm that the project is supported at all levels within the organisation. Importantly, organisations should be able to provide evidence that they have the capacity that they claim, and any statements of commitment should also be measured and reportable. All participants should have a clear understanding of the outcomes that the project can deliver, which can be divided into those outcomes that are essential to the partnership and those that would value-add, as well as the specific roles of each other to achieve such outcomes. All parties should also be committed and agree to a process of ongoing review and adaptation. In best case scenarios, the final step of project development occurs when a formal document is written that clearly articulates everything agreed above (Lesson 6). Because this first stage is so critical to achieving a solid basis upon which to collaborate, it should not be rushed and indeed may take many months or years to achieve. It is certainly a better scenario to spend much time to eventually agree to disagree on issues and not form a collaboration than to try and salvage what is left from a failed collaborative attempt.

Solid collaborations do not form after just one meeting, nor can they be expected to be considered sound within any short-term timeframe. Indeed even after a project commences, it may take a year or more to establish sound multilateral understandings. Our experience is that it takes approximately 2 years to road test a multi-agency project through enough situations that test alliances before it can be considered that a collaboration has moved beyond the development phase.

Lesson 3: There must be mutual respect and trust

Multiple outcomes occur when high levels of mutual respect and trust have been achieved between individuals of partner organisations. Firstly, issues are far less likely to escalate with increasing consequences, and instead can often be dealt with even before they become an issue, because there is a high level of understanding of respective wants and needs. Secondly, productivity increases because little time needs to be spent resolving issues, and there is a clear understanding of each others abilities.

There is no clear threshold to determine exactly when mutual respect and trust has been achieved, especially between people and organisations of similar culture and missions. However, within Dhimurru’s cross-cultural environment, we can demonstrate such outcomes from personal experience. For Yolngu, the maintenance of culture and family take priority over all tasks. Indeed, culture is so fully embedded within any task to be conducted that it is often impossible to separate cultural responsibility from work objectives and outcomes (Yunupingu & Muller 2009). Therefore, the incorporation of non-Indigenous people into the Yolngu kinship system and all that goes with it is a significant act of inclusion and welcome, and represents respect and trust of the recipient. This inclusion is effectively an invitation for a non-Indigenous person to be included in the Yolngu world view and becomes more embedded within Yolngu culture.

For the non-Indigenous collaborators, acts of respect may be expressed as simply as learning and communicating some key words or phrases in Yolngu language. Learning language also means learning culture and gaining appreciation of how Yolngu see and interpret the world, thus the acceptance of language other than English demonstrates great respect.

It is when times are most challenging that environments of high respect and trust demonstrate their true value. There have been many instances when Dhimurru’s external engagement requirements have been temporarily overwhelming, but because of high levels of mutual respect and trust, Dhimurru’s non-Indigenous collaborators have been able to alleviate this stress by fulfilling the otherwise Indigenous role, using the trust and knowledge that had been provided to them.

Lesson 4: Effective communication is the responsibility of the non-Indigenous personnel

Effective means of communication between collaborators is an obvious requirement, especially in fluid environments where many decisions must be made in short timeframes. We deliberately do not elaborate on the obvious consequences and solutions to basic communication issues between multiple Western organisations, but instead focus on the language and cultural barriers often present between staff of Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations.

There are fourteen Yolngu languages in NE Arnhem Land, making English an additional as well as the least understood and used language by most Yolngu. The consequences of this language divide are obvious, and indeed misunderstandings are commonplace. We argue that despite English being the dominant language globally, there should be no expectation by non-Indigenous organisations that staff of Indigenous organisations will be fluent in English or even have to communicate predominantly in English. Indeed, the lower this expectation, and the greater the effort of the non-Indigenous partners to speak key words or phrases within native languages, or employ appropriate expertise including interpreters, the more effective the communication, as well as the greater the mutual respect from Indigenous people.

We specifically recall one workshop held by Dhimurru for its staff and permanent collaborators, which aimed to explore concept words such as ‘contract’, ‘responsibility’, ‘consequence’ and ‘law’. All words were important in all languages, but the translations had not crossed the English-Yolngu divide effectively, often resulting in misunderstanding and issues between people of different roles within projects (e.g. coordinator, senior and general staff). Importantly, the meanings of some words differed slightly but significantly across the cultures. Following the meeting, there was a greater appreciation by all about respective meanings of these key words, as well as a greater uptake of key Yolngu words and phrases by non-Indigenous staff. Consequently, there was an immediate and obvious improvement in staff relations and project outcomes.

Lesson 5: Project ownership should be held by the local organisation

Collaborative projects involving Dhimurru are predominantly owned by Dhimurru. This ownership is by no means a power grab, but is instead an important factor for project success for two reasons. First, it gives Dhimurru ultimate authority over all aspects of the project, thus all decisions are made by the local agency. This is especially pertinent within a cross-cultural environment (Fabricius et al. 2007; Yunupingu & Muller 2009). Second, it ensures the enthusiasm of all project partners. For a partnership to work, there must be a genuine willingness and commitment from all parties to engage in the partnership or collaboration. It will not work if anyone engages half heartedly. Projects are often formed by an external collaborator encouraging a local organisation to conduct a task. However, if the local organisation is not fully enthusiastic and sees other issues as having higher priority, then a project will be compromised and potentially not succeed. For the key collaborative arrangement with PWSNT, the relationship is reviewed regularly by an advisory group, but Dhimurru maintains ultimate decision-making responsibility.

Lesson 6: Formal documents provide clarity and prevent misunderstandings

There is no clearer or more definitive way to describe an organisations aspirations and limitations, as well as provide clarity to the terms of a relationship, than to formalise them in writing. This is especially pertinent for collaborations as all of the goodwill in the world cannot necessarily resolve an issue caused by a misunderstanding. Formal agreements need not be fully legal documents, rather just a record of the spirit of the collaboration, mutual agreements and governance arrangements, and in best case scenarios include an agreed process for dispute resolution that can be referred to if required.

Potentially the most important matter that requires clear understanding and agreement is of intellectual property (IP). Most work either generates new information, or information of some description is collected. Alternatively, information can already be known and shared among partner organisations (e.g. cultural knowledge). In most instances for environmental management organisations, such information is of little value or consequence, but where value exists the consequences for inappropriate use of IP can be disastrous. We deliberately provide no recommendations for IP arrangements as each situation must be considered on its own merits. However, in its invitation to collaborators, Dhimurru recommends the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies guidelines.

Despite being a relatively small organisation, Dhimurru has placed great effort into creating formal documents to aid the integrity and smooth running of both its internal and external workings. For example, Dhimurru leaves no doubt in its vision statement what its primary goals are, even explicitly stating the types of agreements that they will engage in. Dhimurru even has a formal plan for external engagement that can be read by potential collaborators prior to making first contact, as well as a 5-year Research Plan that lists its research priorities. In addition, Dhimurru has a large number of codes of conduct and procedures that are expected to be followed by its staff and collaborators alike. In other words, the aspirations and ground rules of working with and within Dhimurru are made clear upfront.

Lesson 7: Do not overcommit with too many collaborations

In terms of the capacity to undertake a project, the adage ‘don’t bite off more than you can chew’ is as meaningful for individuals as it is for organisations. However, there is another less obvious form of overcommitment stemming from an organisation’s external engagement role. Organisations such as Dhimurru are often the sole point of contact for people wanting to conduct work, or engage with people, within a region. This can result in a constant flow of people from external organisations, often with tight time constraints, requiring the assistance of Dhimurru staff. There are two resultant issues: (i) staff burnout and (ii) a reduced capacity for Dhimurru to conduct work that achieves its own key objectives.

The issue of staff burnout that we describe here is not so much about people being physically exhausted from strenuous labour, but being mentally fatigued from the onslaught of repetition and anonymity derived from high turnover of external people conducting short-term collaborative work. For each person interacting with Dhimurru staff, the most basic forms of collaborative understanding are generally established, especially personal and cultural information. Thus, for Dhimurru staff, explaining the likes of who they are, what they do, key Yolngu words and cultural concepts is often conducted numerous times per week. The collaborator usually arrives fresh, invigorated and full of enthusiasm for their work, whereas the local staff have only just finished their work with the prior collaborator, and the enthusiasm is not necessarily shared. This is especially so where Dhimurru is acting merely as a conduit, not as a project owner (Lesson 6).

Naturally, Dhimurru attempts to avoid staff burnout and maintain work enthusiasm with short-term external collaborators by spacing such collaborations apart in time, but another strategy involves incorporating such work into formal training. Capacity building is a vital aim for Indigenous environmental management groups, and collaborative projects are clearly great opportunities for all involved to receive training. Our experience is that projects with a training component appear to invoke the greatest enthusiasm in staff. As a result, even the most basic and routine tasks performed by the Dhimurru rangers, such as permit inspections and sign erection, are embedded within a training regime, such as a Numeracy and Literacy programme or a higher education Land Management degree, to maximise benefits to Dhimurru and staff alike.

Lesson 8: Projects should have adaptive management frameworks

Adaptive management is defined here as the continual incorporation of new knowledge into a management programme (Walters & Holling 1990). Knowledge accumulation in adaptive management programmes is predominantly passive through quantification of programme progress or from information obtained external to the programme. However, such knowledge can also be gained actively through the incorporation of programme-driven research that is targeted at the managed system. This active approach enhances management outcomes, as information gained is specific to the management programme and fed back to managers in real time. As such, active adaptive management is considered to be best practice (McCarthy & Possingham 2007).

Dhimurru’s largest collaboration, the YCA management programme, is a clear example of the benefits of adaptive management. This project initially suffered from high levels of failure because of inadequate biological knowledge of YCA. Historically and concurrently, very little research was being conducted on this species globally, nor was eradication being attempted anywhere else. If this project was to succeed, it had to take an active adaptive approach and create successful protocols by undertaking focused research addressing critical knowledge gaps. This approach was highly successful resulting in globally significant outcomes (Case study 5). This lesson is just as applicable to any environmental management programme as there are knowledge gaps for probably every environmental management task, and we suggest that all land managers can contribute to improving management outcomes by addressing and reporting on such issues.


Over the past decade, there has been a concerted effort to create on-ground collaborations between Indigenous and Western land management organisations. Many attempts at forging these links have failed, but from those that have worked frameworks have been developed that describe effective collaborations for two-ways environmental management. Dhimurru is widely regarded as a leading model of conservation and management, having a reputable track record of innovative environmental management and a tradition of developing productive partnerships. Notably, Dhimurru’s management approach is unique in that it balances Aboriginal practices with mainstream management and science to ensure the conservation and management of both Indigenous and Western values.

Despite the great efforts of many people and organisations to adapt and create such multi-agency, multicultural collaborations, government funding frameworks have been far slower to change and, despite best intentions, they remain woefully inadequate to fully support cross-cultural multi-agency collaborations for multiple reasons. This is a significant problem, because within Australia, most money used for environmental programmes comes from competitive government grants (Larson 2009), and thus these funding sources have a major influence on programme and organisational development and success (Altman et al. 2007; Davies et al. 2010). First, government appreciation of cultural aspects of environmental management remains rudimentary, if not non-existent. Second, given that one of the overwhelming lessons of this paper is that long-term commitments are required to establish and maintain collaborations, funding timeframes largely remain too short to establish or maintain meaningful collaborations. Third, reporting procedures for funding bodies remain too onerous, frequent and repetitive. The high level of accountability that is now imposed upon funding land management agencies in no way supports cross-cultural collaborations and instead forces a wedge between such unions. Due largely to the complexity and burdensome nature of the reports, we are aware of only a few Indigenous people responsible for applications and reports for government funding. Instead, there is more typically a non-Indigenous facilitator or collaborator responsible for the administrative role, while the on-ground works are conducted by Indigenous staff. This separation of roles between Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff is actively avoided by land management groups, yet unintentionally forced upon them by the complexities associated with government funding.

What is required is government funding systems that facilitate both ways collaborations, especially designed for simplicity to allow for Indigenous reporting, as well as the required flexibility that recognises cultural aspects of land management. The Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) programme is one such example of how this might work. Following a major review of the Commonwealth IPA programme culminating in the Gilligan Report (Gilligan 2006), a number of fundamental changes were made to improve collaboration between government and IPA managers. The programme adopted a 5-year contract regime, comprising a standard heads of agreement and full-term funding commitment subject to successful annual negotiation of works to be undertaken and compliance with reporting requirements. Significantly, the programme puts the onus on the IPA management group to develop its own plans of management, undertake its own business planning and submit its own preferred annual scope of works. This programme was later joined by the Commonwealth Working on Country Programme designed to provide wages and salaries for Indigenous Rangers in recognition of the environmental services they provide. The two programmes have been developed with effective collaboration in mind. Both share the same reporting requirements, utilise a similar heads of agreement approach and rely on the same scope of works to define programme activities. These developments contrast dramatically with earlier requirements for quarterly reporting and annual funding applications. They now deliver a high degree of certainty enabling long-term planning and project commitment. Unfortunately, the success of this programme has had limited influence on how government does business generally such that most other programmes are, as yet, still delivered on an annual basis with onerous requirements for applications and reporting.

Regardless of persisting constraints for the formation and operation of multi-agency collaborations, many collaborations have been successfully forged over the past decade. As we seek to expand existing collaborations and build new ones, we see the greatest future challenge for the next decade being the effective combining of Indigenous and Western ecological knowledge. These two knowledge systems are both well recognised, yet have a poor history of integration (Berkes et al. 2000), despite being clearly capable of producing outstanding environmental outcomes when used in unison (e.g. Ens et al. 2010; McGregor et al. 2010). This integration challenge must be met predominantly by the Euro-centric professional arenas with a shift from a traditional mentality of expert and competitive opinion to one with a broader acceptance of potentially very different world views.


We acknowledge the contributions of all the partners, staff, board and members of Dhimurru whose persistent work has made the successes possible. Despite some hardship, there have been and continue to be many great times, and our professional working relationships have evolved into lifetime friendships. We thank Sam Muller, Sue Jackson, Kelly Scheepers, Alan Andersen and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments that improved the manuscript.