The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management

The ‘viability’ and resilience of communities and settlements in desert Australia

Mark Stafford Smith A B E , Mark Moran B C and Kurt Seemann B D
+ Author Affliations
- Author Affliations

A CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, PO Box 284, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

B Desert Knowledge CRC, PO Box 3971, Alice Springs, NT 0871, Australia.

C Centre for Appropriate Technology, PO Box 8044, Alice Springs, NT 0871, Australia.

D Southern Cross University, Hogbin Drive, Coffs Harbour, NSW 2457, Australia.

E Corresponding author. Email:

The Rangeland Journal 30(1) 123-135
Submitted: 4 July 2007  Accepted: 27 August 2007   Published: 1 April 2008


There is a continuing policy debate about whether it is possible to have sustainable small settlements in outback regions of Australia, where there is low and variable primary production and a sparse and mobile population. This debate is focused largely on Aboriginal settlements, but applies equally to all desert dwellers. In this contribution, we review the sources of economic flows through settlements occupied by different communities with common livelihood sources, whether based on mining, grazing, tourism, cultural resources, welfare or services, concluding that most desert livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on temporally variable inputs. Individual remote settlements tend to be dominated by one such ‘community of livelihood’, and differ in nature according to the source of that livelihood. These create types of settlement and service aspirations which are alien to more densely settled regions.

Settlement ‘viability’ is a measure of the short-term balance between aspirations for services (technical, social, but also for livelihoods and well being) and the costs of fulfilling these aspirations, and consequently is not a simple on/off switch – the community can adjust both its aspirations and the cost factors involved in meeting them. We define a resilient settlement as one that is viable in the long term in the face of its variable inputs. Thus, we determine that the concepts of settlement viability and resilience must be analysed differently according to the strategy adopted by different resident communities. In particular, Aboriginal (and pastoral) communities are particularly dependent on social and natural capital, yet these are not monitored. The whole analysis emphasises the importance of taking a demand- rather than supply-driven approach to services in desert settlements. Our conclusion is that, if top-down solutions continue to be imposed without appreciating the fundamental drivers of settlement in desert regions, then those solutions will continue to be partial, and ineffective in the long term.

Additional keywords: desert Australia, Indigenous futures, policy, service delivery, sustainable livelihoods.


The work reported in this publication was supported by CSIRO, the Centre for Appropriate Technology, Southern Cross University, and funding from the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres Programme through the Desert Knowledge CRC (; the views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Desert Knowledge CRC or its Participants. The paper draws on a study undertaken at Engawala in central Australia, with the generous support of the residents, leaders and employees based there. We are grateful for comments by Will Sanders, Ruth Elvin and Mike Dillon, as well as Jan Ferguson, Murray McGregor, Elizabeth Ganter, Jo Caffery and two reviewers. This is Publication No. 3 in the development of a Science of Desert Living.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner (2006). ‘Ending Family Violence and Abuse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities: Key Issues – An Overview Paper of Research and Findings by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2001–2006.’ (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission: Sydney.)

Adger W. N. (2000) Social and ecological resilience: are they related? Progress in Human Geography 24, 347–364.
CrossRef | open url image1

Allan P. , Darlison L. , and Gibbs D. (2006). ‘Are Councils Sustainable? Final Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Financial Sustainability of NSW Local Government: Findings and Recommendations.’ (Local Government and Shires Associations of NSW: Sydney.)

Altman J. C. (2007). Alleviating poverty in remote Indigenous Australia: the role of the hybrid economy. Development Bulletin 72, 9. Available at: (accessed 15 Oct 2007).

Anderies J. M. , Walker B. H. , and Kinzig A. P. (2006). Fifteen weddings and a funeral: case studies and resilience-based management. Ecology and Society 11, 21. Available at: (accessed 20 March 2007).

Anseeuw W., Laurent C. (2007) Occupational paths towards commercial agriculture: the key roles of farm pluriactivity and the commons. Journal of Arid Environments 70, 659–671.
CrossRef | open url image1

ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) (2000). Community Housing Infrastructure Needs Survey, Australia, 1999.’ Unit Record File, Technical Paper. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Australian Government (2007). Indigenous Communities. Working on Country programme. Available at: (accessed 5 November 2007).

Bennelong Society (2006). ‘Leaving Remote Communities Conference.’ (Bennelong Society: Sydney.) Available at: (accessed 30 May 2007).

Brown D., Taylor J., Bell M. (2008) The demography of desert Australia. The Rangeland Journal 30, 29–43.
CrossRef |
open url image1

Cape York Institute (2007). ‘From Hand out to Hand up: Cape York Reform Project Design Recommendations.’ (Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership: Cairns.)

Davidson R. (2006) No fixed address: nomads and the fate of the planet. Quarterly Essay 24, 1–53. open url image1

Davies J., White J., Wright A., Maru Y., LaFlamme M. (2008) Applying the sustainable livelihoods approach in Australian desert Aboriginal development. The Rangeland Journal 30, 55–65. open url image1

DCITA (2002). Telecommunications Action Plan for Remote Indigenous Communities: report on the Strategic Study for Improving Telecommunications in Remote Indigenous Communities. Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts, Canberra.

Deeble J. , Mathers C. , Smith L. , Goss J. , and Smith V. (1998). ‘Expenditures on Health Services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.’ (Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services: Canberra.)

Edwards G. P., Allan G. E., Brock C., Duguid A., Gabrys K., Vaarzon-Morel P. (2008) Fire and its management in central Australia. The Rangeland Journal 30, 109–121. open url image1

Everingham S. (2007). ‘Crisis summit held over Alice Springs violence. Lateline Transcript.’ (ABC TV: Alice Springs.)

Fraser C., Jackson H., Judd F., Komiti A., Robins G., Murray G., Humphreys J., Pattison P., Hodgins G. (2005) Changing places: the impact of rural restructuring on mental health in Australia. Health & Place 11, 157–171.
CrossRef | PubMed | open url image1

Goetz A. M., Jenkins R. (2001) Hybrid forms of accountability: citizen engagement in institutions of public-sector oversight in India. Public Management Review 3, 363–384.
CrossRef | open url image1

Grey-Gardner R. (2008) Implementing risk management for water supplies: a catalyst and incentive for change. The Rangeland Journal 30, 149–156. open url image1

Häni F., Braga F., Stämpfli A., Keller T., Fischer M., Porsche H. (2003) RISE, a tool for holistic sustainability assessment at the farm level. IAMA International Food and Agribusiness Management Review 6, 78–90. open url image1

Heathcote R. L. , and Stone R. C. (2002). ‘Braving the Bull of Heaven: Drought Management Strategies, Past Present and Future.’ (Royal Geographical Society of Queensland: Brisbane.)

Holmes J. (2002) Diversity and change in Australia’s rangelands: a post-productivist transition with a difference? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 27, 362–384.
CrossRef | open url image1

Holmes J. (2006) Impulses towards a multifunctional transition in rural Australia: gaps in the research agenda. Journal of Rural Studies 22, 142–160.
CrossRef | open url image1

Hughes H. (2007). ‘Lands of Shame: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Homelands’ in Transition.’ (Centre for Independent Studies: St Leonards, Sydney.)

Kunoth-Monks R. (2006). Land and culture: necessary but not sufficient for the future. Identity in the 21st century. In: ‘Desert Knowledge Symposium’. (Desert Knowledge Australia and Desert Knowledge CRC: Alice Springs.)

Lawrence R. (2005) Governing Warlpiri subjects: indigenous employment and training programs in the central Australian mining industry. Geographical Research 43, 40–48.
CrossRef | open url image1

Maru Y. T., Chewings V. H. (2008) How can we identify socio-regions in the rangelands of Australia? The Rangeland Journal 30, 45–53.
CrossRef |
open url image1

McAllister R. R. J., Cheers B., Darbas T, Davies J., Richards C., Robinson C. J., Ashley M., Fernando D., Maru Y. T. (2008) Social networks in arid Australia: a review of concepts and evidence The Rangeland Journal 30, 167–176. open url image1

McGowan B. (2002). ‘Australian Ghost Towns.’ (Lothian Books: Melbourne.)

Measham T. G. , Robinson C. , Carol R. , Larson S. , Stafford Smith M. , and Smith T. (2008). ‘Tools for Successful NRM in the Lake Eyre Basin.’ (Desert Knowledge CRC: Alice Springs.)

Mooney G. H., Housten S. (2004) An alternative approach to resource allocation: weighted capacity to benefit plus MESH infrastructure. Applied Health Economics and Health Policy 3, 29–33.
CrossRef | PubMed | open url image1

Moran M. (2006). Practising self-determination: participation in planning and local governance in discrete Indigenous settlements. PhD thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Moran M. (2007). The interethnic practice of local governance in a remote Aboriginal settlement in Australia. Working Paper No. 12. Desert Knowledge CRC and Centre for Appropriate Technology, Alice Springs. Available at: (accessed 30 October 2007).

Moran M. , Wright A. , Renehan P. , Szava A. , and Beard N. (2007). ‘The Transformation of Assets for Sustainable Livelihoods in a Remote Aboriginal Settlement.’ (Centre for Appropriate Technology and Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre: Alice Springs.)

Ngaanyatjarra Regional Partnership Agreement (2005). Desert Knowledge CRC: Ngaanyatjarra Regional Partnership Agreement. Available at: (accessed 30 October 2007).

Ostrom E. (1999) Coping with tragedies of the commons. Annual Review of Political Science 2, 493–535.
CrossRef | open url image1

Parliament of the Northern Territory (2004). ‘Select Committee on Substance Abuse in the Community – Inquiry into Petrol Sniffing in Remote Northern Territory Communities.’ (Hansard: Darwin.)

Sanders W., Holcombe S. (2008) Sustainable governance for small desert settlements: learning from the multi-settlement regionalism of Anmatjere Community Government Council. The Rangeland Journal 30, 137–147. open url image1

SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) (2007). ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2007 Report.’ (Productivity Commission: Canberra.)

Seemann K. and Parnell M. (2006). ‘Developing lifecycle models for sustainable investment in desert communities. Update Briefing Paper. Theme 2, Technical Services for Improved Community Viability; Project 2.104/5.705; Deliverable Milestone 3.1. Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, Alice Springs.

Smith T. (2006) Welfare, enterprise, and Aboriginal community: the case of the Western Australian Kimberley region, 1968–96. Australian Economic History Review 46, 242–267.
CrossRef | open url image1

Stafford Smith M. (2008) The ‘desert syndrome’ – causally-linked factors that characterise outback Australia. The Rangeland Journal 30, 3–14.
CrossRef |
open url image1

Stafford Smith M., McAllister R. R. J. (2008) Managing arid zone natural resources in Australia for spatial and temporal variability – an approach from first principles. The Rangeland Journal 30, 15–27. open url image1

Taylor J. (2002). ‘The Spatial Context of Indigenous Service Delivery.’ (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University: Canberra.)

Taylor J. , and Stanley J. (2005). The Opportunity Costs of the Status Quo in the Thamarrurr Region.’ Working Paper No. 28/2005. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra.

Taylor J., Ffowcs-Williams I., Crowe M. (2008) Linking desert businesses: the impetus, the practicalities, the emerging pay-offs, and building on the experiences. The Rangeland Journal 30, 187–195. open url image1

Tuck J. , Lowe J. , and McRae-Williams P. (2005). Managing community relationships, reputation and sustaining competitive advantage: the case of mining towns. In: ‘2nd Future of Australia’s Country Towns Conference’. pp. 1–13. (Centre for Sustainable Regional Communities, La Trobe University: Bendigo.)

Walker B. (1994). Water: a report on the Provision of Water and Sanitation in Remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Wand P. , and Stafford Smith M. (2004). Developing a knowledge base for sustainable outback living. In: ‘Living in the Outback. Keynote Address, Proceedings of the Australian Rangelands Society 13th Biennial Conference’. (Eds G. Bastin, D. Walsh and S. Nicholson.) pp. 15–22. (Australian Rangelands Society: Alice Springs.)

Wild R. , and Anderson P. (2007). Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle ‘little children are sacred’: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. NT Government: Darwin.

Young E. , and Doohan K. (1989). ‘Mobility for Survival: a Process Analysis of Aboriginal Population Movement in Central Australia.’ (ANU Press: Darwin.)

Export Citation Cited By (17)