Kimberley Traditional Owners and conservation groups have delivered a petition signed by 27,632 Australians calling for the Martuwarra Fitzroy River to be protected.
The petition was delivered to Kimberley MP Divina D'Anna and Environment Minister Reece Whitby on Tuesday on the steps of WA Parliament, urging the Premier and government to stop plans for large-scale water extraction in the Martuwarra Fitzroy River catchment and protect the river.
A delegation from the Kimberley Land Council, Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, Environs Kimberley, and The Kimberley – Like Nowhere Else also held a special screening of the awardwinning Voices of the River short film series in WA Parliament – showcasing the natural and cultural values of the National Heritage listed river and the importance of protecting it from damaging largescale development.
Kimberley Land Council chief executive Tyronne Garstone said he hoped the petition would encourage the government to meet Traditional Owners on Country in the Fitzroy Valley and "listen to what they want for their river".
"For tens of thousands of years Aboriginal people have lived along the Martuwarra Fitzroy River and share a deep and profound connection to the living waters. Traditional Owners are best placed to protect and manage this Country and should be consulted in decisions made on the future of their river," he said.
"We want government to work with Traditional Owners to co-design sustainable development pathways for the Fitzroy Valley that align with culture and protect Country."
Mr Garstone said there needs to be changes in legislation to give rights to Traditional Owners over their Country.
"Traditional Owners have not consented to water being taken from the river for large-scale development and despite native title being determined along the entire length of the Martuwarra, there is currently no legislation to give Traditional Owners the right to protect their river," he said.
The meeting is the first time Traditional Owners from the Kimberley have visited Parliament House since January's catastrophic floods, which caused widespread damage throughout the Fitzroy Valley and loss of infrastructure, homes and biodiversity.
Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council chair Professor Anne Poelina said the floods highlighted the risks that would come with large-scale development on the floodplains.
"The recovery from January's devastating floods is an opportunity to rebuild for a sustainable future. The growing impacts of climate change are being felt in the Kimberley, including extreme flooding events that put communities at risk and cause damage to culture and Country," she said.
"Laws, plans and policies in the region must properly address the rights, interests, and cultural responsibilities of Aboriginal people... The Martuwarra is the largest registered Aboriginal Cultural Heritage site in Western Australia and has been National Heritage Listed since 2011 and has been earmarked for World Heritage."
In 2021, 43,000 Australians sent submissions to the WA government calling on them to abandon plans to extract more than 300 billion litres of water each year from the Martuwarra Fitzroy River.
Environs Kimberley director Martin Pritchard said a further 27,632 Australians had signed the new petition to protect the Martuwarra.
"The WA government cannot ignore how many people want the Martuwarra protected and how renowned it is for its cultural and ecological importance across Australia," he said.
"Proposals to allow large-sale water extraction from the river will cause irreversible harm. We've seen the irreparable damage to the Murray – Darling and we don't want to see that happen to the mighty Martuwarra."
The Kimberley – Like Nowhere Else campaign manager Monique Barker said there were many sustainable development options to build a modern and vibrant economy in the Fitzroy Valley without taking water from the river.
A spokesperson for the WA government said the government is committed to protecting the Fitzroy River's significant cultural, environmental, and economic values and is working collaboratively to deliver on its commitments to create the Fitzroy River National Park, which will extend the Geikie Gorge National Park along the Fitzroy River to the north and along the Margaret River; develop a management plan for the Fitzroy River to ensure the health of the river and provide a basis for sustainable economic development; and not allow the Fitzroy River or its tributaries to be dammed.
"The proposed Fitzroy National Park is currently being co-designed with Traditional Owners and where agreed, will extend to include nearby Aboriginal cultural heritage sites, other historic sites and existing and potential tourism and recreation areas. The first of the national parks has been created - Warlibirri National Park along the Margaret River on Gooniyandi country," she said.
"Planning for the sustainable management of water resources in the Fitzroy River Catchment is building on years of community planning, new and improving science by both State and the Australian Governments and consultation with Traditional Owners and stakeholders. The State Government is committed to finding a sustainable outcome that works.
"Presently, the State Government's priority is the long-term recovery of the Kimberley after the worst flooding disaster in our State's history. Supporting this area is of critical importance to the State."