Indigenous people in the Northern Territory who participate in "caring for country" activities enjoy significantly better health, a study published in the May 18 Indigenous Health issue of the Medical Journal of Australia has found.
In collaboration with Indigenous land-owners, Dr Paul Burgess, from the Menzies School of Health Research and the CRC for Aboriginal Health, and his co-authors conducted a health study of 298 Indigenous adults aged 15-54 years recruited between March to September 2005 in an Arnhem Land community.
The study found greater participation in caring for country activities was associated with more frequent physical exercise, better diet, less obesity, lower blood pressure, less psychological distress, less diabetes and lower risk of heart disease.
"These are the principal preventable diseases contributing to the gap in Indigenous life expectancy," Dr Burgess said.
"Our findings suggest that investment in caring for country programs may be a means to generate sustainable economic development and gains for both ecological and Indigenous peoples' health in remote areas of Australia."
Caring for country programs occur on Aboriginal lands and seas and deliver a range of essential environmental services including border protection, quarantine, control of invasive weeds and feral animals, greenhouse gas abatement through wildfire management, biodiversity conservation, fisheries management and sustainable commercial use of wildlife.
Dr Burgess said conflicting policies that are aimed at centralising populations and services into large remote townships while simultaneously promoting Indigenous management of their own lands (comprising 49% of the Northern Territory) should be reconsidered in light of the study's findings.
"Our findings indicate that outstations foster important health-promotion activities that appear to deliver both ecological and human health gains," he said.