As Western Australia prepares for its upcoming election, Kimberley Land Council is gearing up to fight for Country and culture.

The proposed Fitzroy River allocation plan could see the State Government take hundreds of gigalitres of groundwater and surface water from the river — threatening important cultural sites for Traditional Owner groups along the river.

Kimberley Land Council chair Anthony Watson, a strong Nyikina, Karajarri, Mangala, Yawuru and Jabirr Jabirr man, said Traditional Owners must be in control of their cultural heritage.

“We should be in the front seat directing industry on world’s best practice and having free, prior and informed consent towards development,” Mr Watson said.

“With the State proposing what’s heritage and what is to be destroyed or not, is not on. It has been an insult — when will this practice stop?”

Mr Watson wants the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River) to remain national heritage listed and protected from becoming a multipurpose use waterway for the Government to take from as it pleases.

“Other parties have come into the picture, developers, when the conversation should have been held with the Traditional Owners to hear their concerns of what heritage is,” he told
the National Indigenous Times.

“This river has been around for centuries, and Traditional Owners have been in control of sections of the river for centuries.

“We want to make sure it’s being preserved for centuries to come.”

While the cultural heritage impacts of taking water from the Fitzroy River are huge, Mr Watson said the research behind the State’s plan hasn’t been done properly too.

“There is a lot of research that hasn’t been done. There’s been a rush of wanting to impose a structure that doesn’t have more science behind it,” he said.

Mr Watson said Traditional Owners were concerned about their heritage, environment and lore, and don’t want a repeat of the Murray-Darling Basin debacle.

“All of this discussion needs to be had with Traditional Owners, about the allocation,” Mr Watson said.

KLC chief executive and Yawuru man Brian Wilkinson said the land council would be a good conduit for Traditional Owners and the State Government.

“The KLC has had a lead role in getting Native Title determination for Traditional Owners,” Mr Wilkinson said.

“But a big part of what KLC does is caring for Country. State Government needs to come through KLC and we will ensure they’re engaging with all Traditional Owner groups and facilitating that discussion.

“As that central peak body, we can have line of sight on all conversations … and transparency of what’s going on.”

The chief executive said any parties with interest in accessing the river must consult with Traditional Owners, as they hold Native Title over the entire catchment area.

“They must consult and have a conversation with them . . . heritage, the protection of the environment, and cultural and sacred land along the river is sacrosanct.”

“But it does not mean Traditional Owners aren’t willing to be part of the conversation for
proposed activities,” he said.

The Fitzroy River discussion paper is open for comment until May 31.

Water Minister Dave Kelly said the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation had consulted with a range of stakeholders about “protecting the cultural and environmental values of the river to underpin the development” of the plan.

“The discussion paper reflects the range of views we’ve heard by talking to people who live, work and interact with the Fitzroy River catchment, and are committed to its future,” Mr Kelly said.

“Our election commitment to no dams on the river is very clear and the most important
policy for protecting the river.”

A statement regarding the plan says “no final decisions have been made in relation to any option or approach proposed in the discussion paper.

At the conclusion of this public comment period, the State Government will consider all
feedback received and prepare a draft Fitzroy River water allocation plan”.

Mr Watson agreed protecting the river was important, but remains steadfast Traditional Owners must be catered to, as it is their cultural and Native Title right.

“We have to put Traditional Owners in the best position,” he said.

By Hannah Cross