‘It’s our lifeblood’: the Murray-Darling and the fight for Indigenous water rights (From Guardian Environment)

When the water levels of the Darling river fall, local elders in Wilcannia, New South Wales, say, the crime rate spikes, particularly juvenile crime.

It seems like an odd correlation until the elders explain just how important the river is to their everyday lives.

“It’s boring here when the river stops running,” says Michael Kennedy, chairman of the Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council. “It becomes a lifeless place. We can’t find the tranquilities and therapies of the river.”

The people of Wilcannia are Barkandji people. The Darling river is known in the local language as the Barka and the Barkandji are, literally, people of the river. The Darling has sustained them for thousands of years but now they say the river is in crisis.

Badger Bates, a Barkandji elder, says when he was a child growing up at Wilcannia, the river always had water.

“It might have only been a foot but it did not run dry as it does now,” he says.

Kerry King, an elder and a director of the land council, says: “It’s much harder to get a feed from the river.

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“I used to go with my mother to collect duck eggs and catch ducks. Now the closest the kids get to a duck dinner is watching My Kitchen Rules.”

Now a major campaign is under way to give meaning to the idea of Indigenous cultural flows. A major research project documenting the case for cultural flows is due to be released around April. Representatives of Indigenous nations along the Murray-Darling river system have also stepped up their lobbying of federal politicians.

The Murray-Darling basin plan recognises Aboriginal people have a right to cultural flows for spiritual, economic and environmental purposes but in practical terms the concept of cultural flows remains just that: a concept.

In the same way as Indigenous people secured native title, this campaign to secure water allocations would enable Indigenous communities along the river to take part in the management of the river system.

A 2012 study undertaken as part of the Barkandji native title claim – one of the largest in Australia – found only 0.01% of water rights are under Aboriginal control.

“Back in 2015, the government gave us native title rights but no water rights,” Bates says. Exactly what quantum of water will be sought will probably hinge on the cultural flows project and the outcome of political wrangling.

Environmental flows are not the same as cultural flows, Bates says. There will likely be overlap in the objectives of a healthy environment and Aboriginal custodianship of water but a release for environmental reasons – say to flush a wetland – might not necessarily align with Indigenous environmental aspirations for the river.

Along the Murray, the campaign for cultural flows is further advanced.

The Nari Nari Tribal Council, a not-for-profit Indigenous environmental conservation organisation, holds five water entitlements and manages 11,300ha of riverine land.


Kerry King, a Wilcannia Aboriginal Land Council board member and Barkindji elder, with Michael Kennedy, the land council’s chairman. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

It has completed projects in cultural site protection, revegetation, bank stabilisation and water efficiency to the value of $1.2m.

In 2001, the Indigenous Land Corporation, on behalf of the NNTC, purchased three pastoral leases, Toogimbie, Lorenzo and Glen Hope station, situated 40km west of Hay. These properties include regionally important environments such as plains rangelands, seasonal floodplain wetlands and an 18km riparian zone along the Murrumbidgee river.

The group leases land to a farmer and temporarily trades its high-security water licence to generate income for its environmental and cultural preservation activities.

Will Mooney, executive officer of the Murray-Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), is at the forefront of a campaign that is seeking greater ownership of water rights by Aboriginal nations across the basin, which could be used by communities for cultural, environmental or economic purposes.

“We need policies that give voice to these aspirations,” he says.

When the cultural flows project is released, it may well redefine the water equation, which currently defines it as a balance between farming and the environment.

Several groups are planning to make claims for hundreds, even thousands of gigalitres of water in the Murray-Darling system to be put under Indigenous control.

The cultural flows project will include detailed evidence of Indigenous relationships with river systems and how water is used by Indigenous people, as well as an attempt to identify what sort of policy changes are needed to make cultural flows a reality.

Bates argues that, without control or access to water in the dry inland, native title can have only limited utility.

“What good is all that land if we don’t have a say in the way the river is managed? It’s our lifeblood,” Bates says.

Mooney also sees ownership of water as a way of building capacity in their communities, in dealing with water agencies and providing employment and skills in the same way that stewardship of land has created jobs as rangers.

Central to Barkandji culture, spirituality and teachings is that the Barka is home to the Ngatji (Rainbow Serpent), who created the lands and the rivers. The Barkandji are responsible for the Ngatji’s health and wellbeing, although they find this increasingly outside of their control under contemporary water governance arrangements.

“If we don’t protect the river, the serpent will get wild with us,” Bates says.

Environment

via Guardian Environment https://www.theguardian.com/us/environment

April 9, 2018 at 12:12PM