The importance of Indigenous knowledge and culture in maintaining the health of the Darling and Murray Rivers was highlighted at the recent Oceania Eco-Health Symposium and Workshop.
Marie McInerney reports:
Since 2010 Aboriginal people of the Darling and Murray rivers have come together each year to dance the healing River Country Spirit Ceremony (Murrundi Ruwe Pangair Ringbalin).
This year they travelled from Murra Murra station near Cunnamulla down the Darling and Murray rivers to the Murray Mouth, crossing 15 Indigenous nations in the Murray Darling Basin.
Their journey is set to become Ringbalin – River Stories – a documentary launched at the 2013 Adelaide Film Festival, and a website and smart phone app telling the stories “of Australia’s greatest river system through the hearts and minds of the world’s oldest living indigenous culture”.
It’s one a range of initiatives that aim to strengthen the voices of local Aboriginal people living in the Murray Darling Basin, Australia’s food basket – where less than 1 per cent of land is owned by Aboriginal people.
“Because of this, we’re often not seen as stakeholders,” says Michael Anderson in A yarn on the river: getting Aboriginal voices into the Basin Plan. “Our approach to rectifying this is seeking to have our own inherent sovereign rights to the land and waters recognised.”
Neil Ward, Director of Indigenous Policy at the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), told the symposium that much of the momentum towards land and water rights in the Basin had come through the creation of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and the Northern Basins Aboriginal Nations.
The bodies are sponsored by the MDBA and set their own agenda: “We fund them, but they’re autonomous,” he said.
Another step was then to make sure Aboriginal people had their say for the 2012 draft Murray Darling Basin Plan, which aimed to balance the allocation of water for irrigation and the environment. It was a process that required formal written submissions – not a mechanism that suited Aboriginal people, Ward said.
In response, the MDBA developed the A yarn on the river resource as a “calling card” for taking four teams (made up of local Aboriginal people, independent facilitators and MDBA staff) out to more than 35 towns and former missions in the Basin, who worked with individuals and groups.
“Most had not lodged a submission for anything in their lives, and we ended up with 460 submissions from Aboriginal people, which I think is a record for any process anywhere. It actually informed and influenced government by demonstrating there was a deep and genuine interest from Aboriginal people in the process and in the outcomes for the rivers.”
The next step, he says, has been the Echuca Declaration recognising the rights and claims of Aboriginal people over the rivers which has led to the National Cultural Flows Research Project on how to embed Indigenous water allocations in Australia’s water planning and management regimes.
Ward says the project will try to determine how much water is needed, what cultural values will be protected using it, and how Aboriginal people would manage it. Providing ‘environmental flows’ for the rivers won’t be enough to restore cultural values, he says.
“It’s the other way around. Cultural flows will deliver environmental outcomes, environmental flows won’t deliver the human dimension of self-esteem and control over their Country. If Aboriginal people achieve their dream of owning a large chunk of water, then there will rarely be a water meeting held that they’re not invited to.”
• See the River Country Spirit Ceremony (Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin)
• You can track Croakey’s coverage of the Oceania Eco-Health Symposium here.
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