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New Yarra River law gives voice to traditional owners

A new law passed by the Victorian Government combines traditional Indigenous knowledge with modern management practice to protect the Yarra River.

The Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 legislates the custodianship of the Woi-wurrung people over the Yarra, and recognises the river and the land it travels through as a “living, integrated entity”.

A spokesperson for the Wurundjeri tribe described the legislation as “groundbreaking”.

“This is the first waterway in Australia to be afforded this status,” the spokesperson said.

The Act is also the first in Victorian history to include traditional language in its preamble and title.

“There is a sense of change; a sense that we understand our shared past and are more committed to moving forward together in unity,” said Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Alice Kolasa.

“We hope that further partnerships can enable First Nations from across Victoria to truly affect the decisions and policies that impact their country.”

The Act enshrines an independent voice in the new Birrarung Council, on which at least two Wurundjeri Tribe Land and Compensation Cultural Heritage Council members will sit. Members are elected by the Minister for Environment with a four-year term, and include representatives for the environment, agriculture and local community.

The council will guide Melbourne Water on the development, implementation, operation and effectiveness of the new Yarra Strategic Plan. The body will also advise the Minister for Water more generally on the protection and preservation of water resources.

Earlier this year, water specialist Brad Moggridge spoke to the Australian Water Association about the low value Australian policyholders typically place on First Nation peoples’ knowledge of the land they’ve lived on and cultivated for thousands of years.

“Under the current water management regime, [Aboriginal people] are just add-ons and we don’t really have a fair say or get a fair share of water,” Moggridge said.

He advocated working with Aboriginal people to shape new models around held cultural values.

“Even if [the Birrarung Council] can’t actually make decisions about its protection, or take people who damage the Yarra River to court, it does enshrine a voice for traditional owners in the river’s management and protection – a voice that has been unheard for too long,” Monash University Professor Katie O'Bryan told The Conversation.