Kimberley Traditional Owners joined forces on Thursday as they met with Western Australian Water Minister Dave Kelly’s Office to voice their concerns over the proposed development of the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River.

Traditional Owners representing the Nyikina, Walmatjarri, and Gooniyandi peoples, Wayne Bergmann, Kankawa Nagarra Knight, Hozaus Claire, Damien Parriman, Anne Poelina, Gordon Smith and Robert Watson came to WA Parliament House on Thursday to speak about the importance of keeping the river system safe.

Originally from Fitzroy Crossing, Hozaus Claire said he came to the State Parliament to represent Indigenous young people who live along and want to protect the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River.

“We were here today to have a voice for the river … to put an awareness out there and have the voice to [tell] the government to leave the river alone,” said Claire.

“It’s important for the river to flow because we have a lore to follow … it keeps our identity strong. It’s a source for all of our people, it helps us physically, mentally, emotionally — it gives us something to own.”

Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council Chair Dr Anne Poelina said at present, Traditional Owners have not had an opportunity for broader consultation and discussion.

“The KLC [Kimberley Land Council] and the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council are standing united on behalf of our people to say, ‘No take from the Fitzroy River’. Anything going forward needs to be totally co-designed in full partnership with Aboriginal people along the river,” said Poelina.

“Consultation does not mean consent.”

Poelina said before anything can go ahead, Kimberley Traditional Owners need the resources to be able to speak to everyone who lives along the river catchment.

“It can’t be business as usual,” she said.

On Wednesday evening, the visiting Traditional Owners screened The Serpent’s Tale at Luna Cinemas in Leederville, where audience members could ask questions in a panel discussion afterwards.

KLC Director Robert Watson said he was amazed by how ill-informed some Western Australians are about the proposed developments in the Kimberley.

“Here we are at the cusp of plans [and] decisions … and people are so ill-informed still,” Watson said.

“We’re at the brink after 150 years of pastoralism, we’re now moving into the bigger phase of agriculture along the river, and the impacts could be astronomical … if we don’t get the balance right.”

Both Watson and Poelina pointed to the irreversible damage that has resulted from development of the Murray-Darling Basin as a situation they do not want to arise should the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River be developed.

For Watson, he feels government bureaucrats have misrepresented the situation to both portfolio Ministers and Traditional Owners.

“This consultation process has pretty much been in the hands of government employees, and they haven’t represented Government or the Traditional Owners of the river properly and it’s not satisfying. It’s unacceptable,” he said.

“In the year 2021 with this scale of development proposed for this area, we still can’t get it right.”

“All the right words are being said, but the will is still not there from the Government’s representatives to help Aboriginal people participate in a process where we have free, prior and informed consent.”

As the fight to be heard continues, Claire wants young people, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, to do their part to save the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River.

“For those young people out there, we need you to step up for what you know and tell your story and say your part, because our Elders need you. And they need us,” he said.

“It’s hard to stand up for what’s yours, but it’s not hard to stand beside someone.”

Traditional Owner Gordon Smith agrees, and says the fight to protect the river cannot stop now.

“Our people have spent so much blood, sweat and tears trying to protect [the Fitzroy River] from violation,” Smith said.

“We must uphold the First Lore of the First Practice of the First People. We were born into this fight — we can’t lay our arms down.”

By Hannah Cross


*Editor’s note: Wayne Bergmann is part-owner of the National Indigenous Times.