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Connecting with Traditional Owners

National Reconciliation Week 2021 will run 27 May to 3 June, and this year’s theme is “More Than a Word”. In the lead up to the week, some Australian Water Association members share their reconciliation journey.

Learning from Traditional Owners about connecting with and caring for Country is crucial to reconciliation within the water sector, according to one water professional involved in partnering with Traditional Owners on a range of works.

The theme for this year’s National Reconciliation Week is "More than a word, Reconciliation takes action", and Barwon Water Strategy and Sustainability Manager Kate Sullivan said learning from Traditional Owners about connecting to Country is an important first step for all Australian water utilities.

Part of connecting to Country is about spending more time with Traditional Owners on Country in order to learn, Sullivan said of Barwon Water’s recent reconciliation efforts.

“Rather than drawing up a nice little plan in the office without having visited the site under consideration, we are learning how to sit down and observe, understand what's happened and is happening on the site in terms of water, but also land,” she said.

“It’s about taking time on Country to appreciate it and understand it. We work from that initial connection to plan how we’re going to move forward. This includes collecting information on the cultural and environmental significance of the site.

“But it’s also crucial to learn how to care for Country moving forward. This is about working with, not against, Country; being proactive, not reactive; replenishing, not depleting; and working with our heads and our hearts.”

This approach has been practiced throughout one of the utility’s current projects at Porronggitj Karrong — a 66-hectare parcel of land it owns featuring a heritage-listed aqueduct.

Working closely with Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, Barwon Water is exploring opportunities to open the surrounding land, which is not required for operational purposes, to the community.

The land is significant for the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners, who have a connection with the river and surrounds dating back thousands of years.

“In partnership with Wadawurrung and other stakeholders, we will engage broadly to develop a plan that, when implemented, will enable the area to be accessed and enjoyed by the whole community for its high ecological, heritage, cultural and recreational values,” Sullivan said.

Closer partnership

Referred to as Porronggitj Karrong — place of the brolga — the cultural and community precinct proposed for the area is intended to be an opportunity to walk, ride, paddle, reflect, and investigate, rediscover, trial, rehabilitate and introduce traditional land and water management practices.

Plans will be developed in partnership with Wadawurrung Traditional Owners and in consultation with the broader Geelong community.

“The Wadawurrung are having significant input into this project and we’re learning a lot as we go, particularly about how to pace ourselves,” Sullivan said.

“We're a fast-paced organisation, as many water authorities are. And one of the key things I've learned from working with Traditional Owners is that we need to pace ourselves; we need to take the time to learn about Country from Traditional Owners.”

Barwon Water recently signed a three-year partnership agreement with Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, which Sullivan said has been an important step in ensuring genuine collaboration with Traditional Owners on various projects.

“The agreement outlines all the things we are requesting Wadawurrung to work on, and when. It gives them certainty and allows them to organise resources,” she said.

“It commits to working together on a whole range of things, but also specifically outlines the projects that we have planned.

“We established the partnership to correct a common approach to Traditional Owner participation, which is coming in at the last minute and saying: ‘Oh, can you tell us a bit about this?’

“The partnership agreement ensures we are bringing Traditional Owners in early and engaging with them on their terms, rather than on ours.”

Getting reconciliation right

And while Barwon Water is due to begin work on its next Reconciliation Action Plan, Sullivan said the utility is still learning about how to do reconciliation right.

“The way I see it, we're here to support Traditional Owners invest in their self-determination. It's not about us doing it for them, which is something people sometimes struggle with. We need to be careful not to take over,” she said.

Sullivan said working towards reconciliation requires taking the time to invest in and build meaningful relationships, which also involves understanding Traditional Owner’s political landscapes.

“It's all about building strong and very respectful relationships, taking time to understand the Traditional Owners, what drives them, and their business. One of the ground rules we had at the start in our partnership agreement was to talk before taking action,” she said.

Sullivan said it is also important to be open to seeing Country, as well as the water that facilitates it, from the perspective of the Traditional Owners that utilities are learning from.

“Don’t assume that you think in the same way that Traditional Owners do. Every time I engage with a Traditional Owner, they bring a very different and valued perspective to whatever it is we're doing,” she said.