Understanding Indigenous water values, rights and development objectives in Australia’s north
INDIGENOUS people have continuously occupied the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years and make up a significant and growing proportion of the population in regional and remote areas, particularly in Australia’s tropical north.
CSIRO recently released the Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment, a large multidisciplinary investigation of the opportunities for water resource development in Western Australia’s Fitzroy River catchment, in catchments around Darwin in the Northern Territory, and Queensland’s Mitchell River catchment. An important part of the Assessment was engagement with the Indigenous Traditional Owners of the catchments.
“The strength of Indigenous peoples’ cultural connections and traditional ownership of land and natural resources means that they have crucial roles as primary managers of Australia’s estate,” says CSIRO’s Dr Marcus Barber, leader of the Indigenous component of the Assessment.
“This status also means they are key co-investors in future development.”
The history of pre-colonial and colonial patterns of land and natural resource use in the catchments is important to understanding present circumstances. That history also informs Indigenous responses to future development possibilities. From an Indigenous perspective, ancestral powers are still present in the landscape and intimately connect people, country and culture. Those powers need to be considered in any development action that takes place on country.
Riverine and aquatic areas are known to be strongly correlated with Indigenous cultural heritage sites, and provide crucial sustenance for contemporary life.
“It is living water, and we survive from the river. It is everything we need. Drink water, catch fish, that is your food bowl in the river,” says one Fitzroy catchment Traditional Owner participating in the study.
A Mitchell catchment Traditional Owner emphasises the independence that this food source gives them and its importance for their descendants: “Our wetlands provide bush tucker for future generations, when we die we want our kids living like that. Not living off white man’s tucker, (but) free tucker. Got to have water or this country would be dead.”
Native title, Indigenous land use agreements, Aboriginal land rights and sacred sites legislation are important ways in which Indigenous interests in country are recognised and managed. Native title is a unique kind of property interest that involves Australian law recognising a bundle of rights as defined through the laws and customs of the relevant Indigenous community. Aboriginal land rights is a separate collective freehold ownership regime that is particularly important in the Northern Territory. Securing recognition through these legislative and legal pathways remains an important development goal for Indigenous people across the catchments.
Government powers and responsibilities concerning the management of land and water resources are shared between the Commonwealth government (which oversees native title) and the State and Territory governments (which control the ownership and management of land and water assets). Indigenous Traditional Owners need to engage with multiple tiers of government (Commonwealth, State and local) to effectively manage their interests.
The Assessment particularly highlighted the significance of water in the focal catchments.
“In general, Northern Australia is a water-limited environment, and so Indigenous Traditional Owners also need to be primary participants in water and development planning processes,” says Barber.
Dr Pethie Lyons, based in CSIRO’s Cairns laboratory, led Indigenous engagement in the Mitchell catchment.
“Should development of water resources occur, Mitchell Traditional Owners generally preferred harvesting of floodwaters to fill offstream storages, supported by limited groundwater extraction. Large instream dams in major rivers were consistently the least preferred option,” says Lyons.
Indigenous people have business development objectives designed to create opportunities for existing residential populations and to aid the resettlement and return of people currently living elsewhere. One key aspect of this is government support.
“We need State, Federal and local governments to take us seriously to develop Traditional Owner economic opportunities. We need investment in our region that includes Traditional Owners,” says a Mitchell catchment Traditional Owner.
Traditional Owners understand the constraints on development, and that proper planning and regulation that involves them can lead to sustainable development pathways.
“We have got enough land and resources that if we plan it properly we should be able to coexist with other development. Good water is a part of that,” says a Darwin catchment Traditional Owner.
This in turn shows an awareness about managing diversification.
“We are talking about values. There has to be restrictions that lead to coexistence. I need to be able to say ‘you can’t come to this area, I need it’ but then nominate another area for agriculture,” says a Fitzroy catchment Traditional Owner.
As a survey of natural resources and development potential, the Assessment did not try to generate formal, Traditional Owner group-endorsed positions about development options. It also did not survey the wide array of Indigenous residents in these areas who may not have formally recognised cultural ties. Rather, the Assessment shows the importance of the perspectives of Traditional Owners holding native title and land rights in the focal catchments. It does this by demonstrating the breadth of their values, rights, interests and development objectives, as well as emphasising their key role in contemporary debates about development options.
“Traditional Owners are by far the longest-term occupants of these areas and have deep inter-generational ties to the catchments for the foreseeable future,” says Barber.
“Indigenous people will be key owners, partners, investors and stakeholders in any future development of Australia’s North.”