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Systemic change needed to secure Indigenous water rights, says Ozwater’20 expert

With Indigenous communities in northern Australia facing further development of land and water resources that are sacred to cultural beliefs, one leading activist and expert says it is no longer acceptable to ignore the perspectives of Traditional Owners when it comes to water rights. 

Managing Director of Indigenous community organisation Madjulla Incorporated, Dr Anne Poelina, who will present a keynote address on Day 8 of Ozwater’20 Online, said there must be collaboration with Traditional Owners in relation to water use and development due to the cultural importance of land, water and people. 

“The time has come for structural reform and systemic change in the way water resource development strategies are planned and implemented. Orthodox development cannot proceed as ‘business as usual’ at the regional, national and global levels,” Poelina said. 

“Economic development in the West Kimberley region, particularly regarding ‘water resource’ development of the Martuwarra, Fitzroy River Catchment, must involve collaboration with Traditional Owners.

“As Indigenous Australians, we do not separate land, living waters and people as they are intrinsically entwined.”

Dr Anne Poelina. Dr Anne Poelina. (Image: Madjulla Inc.)

Poelina said her presentation at Ozwater’20 will draw on her current work, which explores the entrepreneurial ‘New Economy’ opportunities for Indigenous people along the National Heritage-Listed Fitzroy River.  

“My work involves a special place, the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River), which is an iconic, heritage-listed unregulated river system of global value and significance,” she said. 

“These environmental and cultural values are recognised in both the Western Australian Aboriginal and National Heritage Listings.

“We are at a crossroads to ‘develop the north’. By supporting developments that adapt to the local environment and include, rather than ignore, local Aboriginal communities, government assistance may indeed pass the test of benefits exceeding costs, making initial support both economically and socially desirable.

“At Ozwater’20, I will share water leadership and water governance through a film, Voices for the Martuwarra, that showcases the wisdom of Indigenous people and our ethics of care and love for the Martuwarra Fitzroy River. 

“It will showcase scientists and other experts who highlight opportunities to do water justice and business on the Martuwarra in a different way.”

Poelina said the creation of the Fitzroy River Declaration and the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council left no excuse for failing to collaborate with Traditional Owners regarding further developmental activities in the north. 

“In 2016, Traditional Owners expressed a collective vision for the Martuwarra in the Fitzroy River Declaration,” she said. 

“In 2018 we established the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council as a ‘collective governance model to maintain the spiritual, cultural and environmental health of the catchment’. 

“The river must be promoted and protected for the benefit of present and future generations to live and flow.”

Don't miss Dr Anne Poelina's keynote address on Day 8 of Ozwater'20 Online. To learn more and to register, click here.