by Nick Paton
While big irrigators remain seemingly immune to the real threat of a national water crisis, and possibly the worst drought conditions recorded in the last 250 years, Wiradjiri Nyemba woman Dr Virginia Marshall is taking the issue of access to water by Aboriginal communities personally, and into her own hands.
Dr Marshall organised a discussion centred around Aboriginal wellbeing and economic sustainability through water rights in Canberra this month, bringing together the ideas and expertise of Aboriginal leaders from WA, Qld, NSW and the ACT.
Dr Marshall said she felt compelled to arrange the inaugural Indigenous Water Forum, held at the Australian National University.
“These are conversations that we sincerely need to have,” she said. “The response I got after the forum from everyone involved is that they were just really happy to sit down and yarn deeply over this serious issue, without any agenda, and without any script.”
Keynote speakers at the forum included Goreng Kabi Elder Eugene Bargo, Kimberley Land Council chair and Nyikina Mangala, Karajarri, Yawuru and Jabirr Jabirr man Anthony Watson, and Guwamu Aboriginal rights activist, writer and publisher Cheryl Buchanan.
“And what I am hearing since the forum, is that our Indigenous leaders want to be more involved in something like this, much more often,” Dr Marshall said. Dr Marshall said Indigenous people need to be able to come together and share ideas about what is working and what is not, in relation to the involvement of Aboriginal people in the development of water policy.
“One of the main issues raised at the forum is that Aboriginal people seem to remain invisible when it comes to decisions made around water resources and policy,” she said. “Another important issue that was raised centred around acknowledging that culture is extremely important to us. For Aboriginal people, our culture is everything we do, and it really goes back to water being a sacred and precious resource. It’s our identity and how we see each other, but it’s also how we identify our relationship to place.
“The rivers and the creeks and the oceans, these are our bloodlines. Everything about who we are is invested in water.”
Marshall said a lot of the illhealth – the collapse, in fact – of our waterways and river systems, including the horrific fish kills that we are seeing more often, are based on the current relationships that mainstream society has with water, which are clearly failing.
“These aren’t just rivers or fish to us, these are our livelihoods and our sense of being and belonging. These are our ancient creation stories that we hold, and have held on to. This is the very essence of who we are.”
The forum used research to highlight the strong connection that exists between Aboriginal health and wellbeing, and access to water.
Dr Marshall said that giving Aboriginal people and communities access to, and a say over, their water, can improve their prosperity, create jobs and business opportunities, and strengthen the community’s financial security and independence.
“Aboriginal people need to be on country, and live on their homelands, and have access to an economic livelihood,” Dr Marshall said.
“We are trying to find a way for the Government to listen to the fact that the current laws and policies surrounding the use of and right to water need to change. Having a forum like this, which was unscripted, really gave us a good chance to have a meaningful, robust discussion and debate about Australia’s water crisis.”
Dr Marshall said the most valuable part of the forum was acknowledging that the voices of Aboriginal people need to be heard.
“Not being engaged properly and not being consulted was one of the major themes that arose out of discussions on the Murray Darling water crisis,” she said.
“We need to look seriously at having a Voice to Parliament. We need to look at constitutional recognition for Indigenous people, because we need to sit at this table. We need to have a voice, and this voice deserves to be heard. We’ve lived through the years of activism, and have survived being treated as a ‘non-person’. It’s really only recently that Indigenous knowledge has been recognised for what it contributes to society.”
“So we must listen to the expertise of Aboriginal people, whether it be through using Indigenous fire management techniques, or water or land resource management.”
“We have the traditional knowledge, and we have the answers.”
Wider discussion and truthtelling about water policy is something Dr Marshall would like to see more of. “Because we are just not seeing it happen in our communities. Our Indigenous communities need to be invited along, with respect, to have a say and to have their ideas heard,” Marshall said.
“Water is sacred to us, and enough is enough. We really need to listen to the knowledge of Indigenous Australians, and we need to work hand in hand with scientists and academics to help alleviate this issue. We need to act now.”
Marshall said she was blown away by the number of Indigenous students who attended the forum, saying these students are the ones forging Indigenous knowledge ahead into the future.
“The fact that we are holding discussions around Indigenous science techniques, and featuring Indigenous resource management strategies, is making these students feel empowered, and really engaged,” she said.
“We’re not a minority, we’re not a lesser stakeholder, we Aboriginal people have been the experts on these types of issues, for tens of thousands of years. Governments here certainly have not.”
Northern Territory land councils have blasted a decision by the NT Government to abandon plans to give Aboriginal native title holders more say over the subleasing of cattle properties.
The proposed amendments to the Pastoral Land Act would have recognised the rights and interests of traditional owners when leaseholders want to undertake largescale non-pastoral use of their pastoral leases.
The NT’s land councils had fought for greater involvement of native title holders in decisions about pastoral subleases, after initially being left out of consultations.But the cattle industry said a negotiation right would stifle investment and had warned the Government it was prepared to fight the issue up until next year’s election. Central Land Council policy director Josie Douglas accused the Government of walking away from provisions that had been agreed to.
“I just think it’s really outrageous that this Government has allowed itself to be pushed around by a small and noisy group of leaseholders wanting to stage a land grab at the expense of native title holders,” she said.
“If rights co-exist and the Government is giving pastoralists the right to subdivide native title land, it must give native title holders the right to negotiate,” she said. Ms Douglas said it was wrong to suggest Aboriginal communities did not support economic development on native title land.
The Northern Land Council said Aboriginal Territorians have been betrayed by the shock announcement NLC chief executive officer Marion Scrymgour said the NLC had worked hard to strike a fair balance between the rights and interests of native title holders and those of pastoral lease holders.
“There are issues of importance that the land councils and our constituents can work on with the Cattlemen’s Association, for instance the reintroduction of the NT Police Stock Squad, but on other matters we’ve agreed to disagree.
“The fact that we can’t agree with the Cattlemen’s Association about everything should not be used by the Government as an excuse to walk away from this critical issue.
“The Government can’t claim that there’s uncertainty on behalf of native title holders as justification for delaying this bill. There is no uncertainty with native title holders. The only uncertainty here lies with the Cattlemen’s Association.
“This is the second slap in the face for native title holders on pastoral land following their exclusion from the Government’s Strategic Water Reserves Policy.
“It is particularly disingenuous of the Government to refer to the opportunities for Aboriginal economic development presented by this policy when those opportunities are denied to the vast majority of native title holders.
“The Government should stop blaming Aboriginal people, stop focusing on the next election and start doing what is right.”
NT Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Eva Lawler said the Government would continue to work cooperatively with the land councils to develop economic opportunities for the NT.
“We will continue to provide opportunities for Aboriginal economic development on their land, such as the establishment of strategic Aboriginal water reserves through a legislative basis in the Water Act,” she said.
This article was originally published in The Koori Mail on 23 October 2019