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Arnhem Land Traditional Owners petition Federal Parliament to protect the Roper River

Giovanni Torre -

Traditional Owners from across the Northern Territory travelled to Canberra on Tuesday to ask for protection of the Roper River from threats posed by new water intensive industries in the catchment, and for Traditional Owners to be at the forefront of decision-making for the river.

Representatives of communities across the vast river catchment presented a 13-metre hand-painted cultural map and associated statement, which has been signed by hundreds of remote community residents, to the Federal Parliament.

There are proposals to take hundreds of thousands of litres of surface and groundwater from rivers including the Roper for big industries including cotton, fracking and mining. The cotton industry has flagged 100,000 hectares will be bulldozed for crops in the Northern Territory by 2030, which could lead to a Murray Darling style disaster. Traditional Owners say they have not been properly consulted about these plans and their cultural knowledge and community aspirations have not been considered.

Alawa Traditional Owner Naomi Wilfred said "We've got so many important springs to protect" on her Country near Minyerri.

"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," she said.

"We want to see this river protected for our future generations."

The river catchment – which covers an area about the size of Tasmania - boasts some of the last intact native savanna and free-flowing tropical rivers in Australia, but the future health of the river is under immediate threat, Traditional Owners warn.

The delegation is calling on the federal government to acknowledge their Indigenous water rights, to implement proper consultation mechanisms about major water decisions, and for the whole of the river catchment – including important cultural and dreaming sites – to be properly protected.

Artist Simon Normand, who worked with communities to create the map, said the map is "an Aboriginal way of showing their world to an outside audience".

"It is the culmination of 18 months' collaboration with communities in south-east Arnhem Land, who are extremely worried about their river system being irreversibly destroyed," he said.

"The map draws on more than 25 years of working with elders who want their songlines preserved."

Mitch Hart from the Pew Charitable Trusts, who supported the delegation to travel to Canberra, said water intensive 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."

The map was officially unveiled in the Mural Hall of Australian Parliament on Tuesday 28 November at an event featuring a cultural performance by songmen from Numbulwar.

Traditional Owners speak and explain the map. Image: supplied.

The Roper River is the Northern Territory's second largest river. Its headwaters extend northwards right up into Arnhem Land and south into the drier expanse of the Beetaloo Basin. In the dry season, the Mataranka hot springs are fed by vast underground aquifers which spill over into the Roper and keep the river flowing to the Gulf of Carpentaria at Port Roper.

The Roper is important river for commercial fishing as it helps to feed Australia's most valuable prawn fishery and accounts for much of the banana prawns available in supermarkets.Threatened species on the Roper River include the Curlew Sandpiper, Gulf Snapping Turtle, Northern Quoll, Red Goshawk, Gouldian Finch, Australian Painted Snipe, Mitchells Water Monitor, Crested Shrike tit and Grey Falcon.

In November 2022, some of the most eminent water experts from across the country wrote to the NT Chief Minister to outline strong concerns around water management in the Northern Territory. These include Professor Sue Jackson, Professor Barry Hart, Professor Quentin Grafton, Professor Marcia Langton, Professor Richard Kingsford, Professor Anne Poelina and others.

In September 2022, an FOI request by the Environment Centre NT revealed that the NT Government's Director of Water Planning had warned in an internal memo that allowing 80 per cent of the Mataranka Tindall Limestone Aquifer in the region to be extracted, could "cause water [in the Roper River] to flow in the opposite direction", and "potentially impacts on the environmental and cultural values" of the Roper River.

In August 2022, a report by the Centre for Conservation Geography outlined that major aquifers in the Daly and Roper river regions are already 'overallocated' (the volumes of allocated water exceed the NT Government's estimated sustainable yields), and there is insufficient water available to meet existing commitments for strategic Aboriginal water reserves.

In February 2021, a comprehensive scientific study evaluating the environmental state of play in Australia was published.  Of the 19 Australian ecosystems which met the criteria to be classified as "collapsing" are the Northern Territory's tropical savannas, where large-scale agriculture could be expanded in the coming decades, particularly in the Daly, Katherine and Roper River catchments.

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

"The department is aware of concerns that recent water planning and licencing decisions in the Northern Territory could threaten significant cultural and environmental assets that depend on water, including in the Roper River catchment," they said.

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

Petitioners with Minister Tanya Plibersek. Image: supplied.

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