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Remote NT Traditional Owners left out of river consultations: "Hear my voice"

Jess Whaler -

Alawa Traditional Owner Naomi Wilfred has spoken out, voicing her concerns for the future of the Northern Territory's river systems.

In November, Ms Wilfred travelled to Canberra with other Traditional Owners representing eight separate language groups and communities from across 20,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory, to ask for protection of their river systems and acknowledgement of Indigenous Water Rights as the cotton industry poses a risk of damaging the Roper River system.

The Traditional Owners said they have been excluded from environment planning consultations surrounding Roper River and their cultural knowledge and community aspirations have not been considered. They are urging decision makers to visit their communities and hear their voices.

Ms Wilfred was born and raised on Alawa Country, in Minyerri community in the NT. She is Alawa (on her father's side) and Mara (on mother's side, from Ngukurr), and she is one of nine sisters. Ms Wilfred told National Indigenous Times that the community representatives came to Canberra and brought a water map so that everyone can see their connections to the rivers, demonstrating where they are from and who they are.

She highlighted a number of issues that have existed with prior consultations, which has included remote language groups not being engaged with or represented fairly, due to governments and/or businesses engaging with larger organisations who speak behalf of these groups, when they have no authority to be speaking on behalf of other clans.

"We don't want no cotton and fracking because they take lot of water out. Every time we see this truck comes in, pick up more water than a little bottle - a billy can size like they told us. But it just like a truck, two truck, draining all the water out," she said.

"What if our rivers get contaminated? We looking at ten years time, long term. That's the big worry, how our little second generation going to growing up and be affected.

"That's why we came here to bring our map, to be recognised. Need to listen to us, if we don't want the mining, we don't want cotton, we want the land to stay healthy and safe for our future.

"We just need to be recognised, we're the real Traditional Owner of that boundary. Along that riverside you have TO's, they haven't had any say. That's why we came over here to show people who we are and why we have this big concerns.

"We getting pushed out from everywhere. But we have our rights because we born and raised in community."

Ms Wilfred was nominated by community members to speak on their behalf due to her responsibilities given to her by the Elders in her community who have passed.

She said the responsibility that has been passed down to her is akin to Native Title rights and she wants the government to understand that their Elders and communities give the right people those rights.

"They should respect us," she said.

"The river system, the water is life, we live on that water, all the time. We used to drink the water all the time."

She shared a story about her family and how they used to access the water by going down to the billabong with a flour drum and stick.

"It's all about water, water is main thing for our life, it's a life, we live on that land the land feeds us. Water is very important. We use water for everything," Ms Wilfred said.

"In the dry season when the water dry up, we know where to go and get water. But when this cotton or fracking gonna take it away, where else water are we going to get?

"Right now in my community, our Minyerri Community, everybody worrying about it. People need to come out there and consult with my people, so they can talk about on behalf of them and they can share their complaints and concerns. There are people in our community that are waiting and no one ever comes across, they don't know where to go and get help and get information."

She said the status and health of the river system is "a big worry".

Ms Wilfred spoke of a site visit where community members saw pipes that were draining waste into bushland, which she said rain would then wash the waste down to their rivers and lands.

"They should be listening to the right Traditional Owners," she said.

Ms Wilfred said the Minyerri Community as Traditional Owners want to establish partnerships with the Commonwealth Government so that they can create programs and economic opportunities to support the community.

"So that we can work together, look toward the future generation, we want to implement a good strategy plan about working like ranger, pastoral lease, arts centre. What we have is no money to put in our corporation for work," she said.

The art centre that Ms Wilfred operates provides more than art for the community, she said centres like this provide employment opportunities. However, without adequate funding these services can't support the community.

"We need consultants on the ground from all of those departments that work and serve Aboriginal communities. Recognise the rightful TOs, so we can make a good partnership and we can make a community safe community for us," she said.

"Minyerri is 600km from Katherine, 400 acres, it's a big area. We need the consultants to come and see us. We've got so many important springs to protect.

"We made that map to show Canberra about the water connection. The threat we're worrying about is cotton is coming in and I think we'll have no water left. We want to tell them to stop taking water and start listening to the rightful Traditional Owners. We want to see this river protected for our future generations."

Mitch Hart from the Pew Charitable Trusts, who supported the delegation to travel to Canberra, said water-hungry industries, such as industrialised cotton production, are setting up shop along rivers like the Roper – despite the damage caused by over-extraction, bulldozing and pollution.

"Communities that live along the Roper and rely on it for survival are extremely concerned about its future. The Federal Government has an opportunity to respond to this powerful message from Traditional Owners and support communities who rely on these rivers," he said.

"We cannot let mistakes made in the Murray Darling be repeated on the Roper."

Ngukurr Elder and former ranger Uncle Clarry Rogers said: "I've been down south, I've been on the Murray and I went on a boat and said, 'This is a disaster'. So when we started getting concerns about this river, we weren't notified about the volume of water that is going to be taken, especially from underground up near those hot springs in Mataranka. The level of water will drop and then we will suffer because we won't be getting any flows downstream."

Uncle Clarry Rogers with the water map that was presented to Parliament. (Image: supplied)

"We've got songlines, they follow the dreaming tracks, when we travel from one bit of the country to another they show us where the water is, we want to keep it that way for our ceremonies and our culture," he said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water told National Indigenous Times they acknowledged the map is "an important source of knowledge on the connection of many language groups to the Roper River and its interconnected songlines".

"The Northern Territory Government has primary responsibility for the management of groundwater," they added.

National Indigenous Times has contacted Northern Territory Minister for Environment Kate Worden for comment.

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