More than 43,000 people have urged the State Government to listen to Traditional Owners and protect the Martuwarra Fitzroy River in a petition in response to the Government’s discussion paper on water extraction from the river.

Anthony Watson, chair of the Kimberley Land Council, told the National Indigenous Times the level of public support sent “a strong message from the community”.

“For any decisions about land and waters, the Traditional Owners need to be at the forefront,” Mr Watson said.

“It affects us. We need to be at the centre of the decision making process.”

“The State Government really needs to engage with Traditional Owners in any discussion. They need to engage with us at a better level. We won’t want to just have our comments heard; we need to be at the forefront of these decisions.”

Dr Anne Poelina, chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, told the National Indigenous Times in addition to the more than 43,000 petitioners who stood “in solidarity with the Martuwarra Fitzroy River”, many people had written submissions in response to the Government’s paper.

“The Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council worked closely with the WA Environmental Defender’s Office and the Australian National University Water Justice Hub, eminent global scholars and practitioners, who spent considerable time researching and comparing the two major submissions,” she said.

“These submissions are not being made public and there are widespread concerns about the limitations of transparency and accountability to the greater public interests in this national and Aboriginal cultural heritage listed that is the Martuwarra Fitzroy River.

Dr Poelina is a Nyikina Warrwa Traditional Owner, adjunct professor, a senior research fellow with the University of Notre Dame, and a research fellow with Northern Australia Institute (Charles Darwin University).

“Of particular concern is the lack of climate science, more importantly, how climate change is real and is now impacting on the health and wellbeing of our Aboriginal people living in remote areas on Country, right now,” she said.

Dr Poelina told the National Indigenous Times many believed that without specific legislation for “climate science, governance, and adaptive management of the Martuwarra”, the river was at risk of “foreseeable harm”.

“We need a statutory framework, with serious investment to bring everyone to the table to co-design any ‘water plans’ for this system,” she said.

The Nyikina Mangala Native Title Determination of May 29, 2014, covers roughly 50 per cent of the river.

More than seven years later, the State Government has not provided compensation for past extinguishment of native title in the area.

A State Government spokesperson told the National Indigenous Times the submissions were now being compiled by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation for consideration by the Government.

The spokesperson said while it “is the intention that the submissions will be publicly released”, this “will be subject to a final decision by Government”.

By Giovanni Torre