McArthur River - Carole MacKinney

The long fight to protect Country and Water in the Southwest Gulf of Carpentaria

The Garrwa, Gudanji, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria region have been fighting to protect their water resources since the invasion of their territories by European settlers in the 1870s.

The region, located in Australia’s Northern Territory, is home to many precious billabongs, creeks, streams and river systems vital to Indigenous economic and cultural life. Unfortunately, ongoing development, beginning with pastoralism and now dominated by poorly regulated mining, has contaminated waterways and wildlife limiting Indigenous societies’ access to their natural resources.

Dr Seán Kerins from the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research was the latest presenter in UNSW-GWI’s Seminar Series. He told the story of the Indigenous peoples’ long fight to protect their water resources during a seminar at UNSW Sydney on 19 February.

Dr Kerins explained that conflict first begun when European settlers needed not only land but also water to sustain their livestock.

“The same places that were vital for keeping cattle alive were vital for both the Indigenous economy and spiritual and cultural life,” said Dr Kerins.

“When cattle started to ruin these places, some sacred sites, through trampling riparian margins and rotting carcasses, Garrwa people started to fight back.”

Over 600 people in the Gulf region, including women and children, lost their lives in the Frontier wars that lasted in the region from the 1870 to around 1910. But even after this period of violence, the fight was far from over.

Many Aboriginal people were forced to seek shelter on the pastoral stations and work for rations for Europeans.

It was not until the 1970s that Aboriginal people were able to lodge some of the first land claims under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (1996 (cth)) to regain ownership of some of their ancestral land to live on legally.Dr Sean Kerins from ANU with Dr Fiona Johnson from UNSW's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

At this same time, plans were underway to mine the world’s largest zinc, lead and silver deposits right at the resting place of the Rainbow Serpent on the McArthur River - a hugely significant sacred site for Aboriginal People.

The Aboriginal Peoples’ attempts to buy back their ancestral lands were thwarted by the Mt Isa Mines, who stepped in and out-bid the Aboriginal people at the 11th hour.

“Over the past decade in the Gulf region, there has been a massive increase in mining and natural resources extraction development with few benefits flowing to Iindigenous people while it is them that bear the costs,” says Dr Kerins.
“They are alarmed at the increased environmental destruction they are witnessing, and that their voices are not heard in the development debate.”

Furthermore, there are serious health implications for Indigenous communities. In the case of the McArthur River mine, which has moved from an underground mine to an open cut pit, seepage has contaminated waterways and poisoned ecosystems. Dangerous levels of lead were found in fish, and a health warning was released advising people who had long relied on the river as source of food to limit their fish intake. Unfortunately, failures by the mine operator meant this message took over a year to reach many affected Aboriginal people.

Dr Kerins said that although the McArthur River mine has only been running for 26 years, monitoring and maintenance will be needed for hundreds of years and the cost of clean-up is unknown.

“Until recently, the environmental bond remained confidential and unavailable for public scrutiny, but recently it has been revealed as being just shy of $500 million,” said Dr Kerins.

“Worryingly, it has been estimated that this amount will be nowhere near sufficient and will cover only the next 25 years.”

The McArthur river mine is just one example of the devastating impact development can have on Indigenous communities, and Dr Kerins also mentioned Redbank Copper mine which as affected water, aquatic life, sacred sites, burial areas and food resources in the region.

Dr Kerins reiterated that the Garrwa, Gudanji, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples have a crucial role to play in building a sustainable future for their peoples on their ancestral lands, and that many initiatives are already underway to achieve this.

In the 1990s, they started to develop ranger programs to manage their ancestral lands, waters and biodiversity, and later established Indigenous Protected Areas which provide economic benefits to Indigenous communities.

One successful example is the Yanyuwa Sea Ranger program, which employs 21 people and focuses on managing dugong and turtle feeding areas, removing feral cats from offshore islands and transferring cultural knowledge between generations as well as fee for service work with Department of Fisheries.

Moving forward, Dr Kerins believes that greater recognition of Indigenous peoples’ property rights is needed. This extends not only to land rights, but also to fisheries, water and mineral resources.

“This recognition would assist Indigenous peoples to further develop their cultural and natural resource management activities and social enterprises,” said Dr Kerins.

“For the Yanyuwa people, if their property rights to fisheries were recognised they would also have the opportunity to enter the region’s lucrative sports fishing market.”

Dr Kerins says that Indigenous peoples in the Gulf region see the present structures and processes, which attempt to fit Indigenous interests to frameworks developed by the state and industry, as not working.

In order to have their say, Indigenous groups have begun discussions about building stronger governance so that they can start to implement their customary decision-making processes. However, this is not without its challenges.

“How do you get Indigenous customary law and white law to start to recognise each other?” asked Dr Kerins.

“For Aboriginal people, creeks and streams aren’t just water and food provision resources, they also form complex and interconnected sacred sites that are intrinsic to Aboriginal culture and spiritual and ceremonial life.”

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