Traditional owners in Western Australia’s Kimberley have called on the WA government to work with them to protect the State’s national heritage-listed Fitzroy River.

The newly-established Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council wants only sustainable, culturally and environmentally appropriate development—and says action is needed before it’s too late.

“We have an obligation globally with climate change and water scarcity to work together to prevent a disaster on this National Heritage-Listed Fitzroy River and learn from the lessons of the Murray-Darling Basin,” said MFRC member and Nykina woman Anne Poelina.

“This is not about stopping development, this is about doing development the right and sustainable way with Traditional Owners at the front and centre of any decision-making.”

MFRC members met with WA government representatives in Perth on June 19, the council’s first gathering.

Among the MFRC’s priorities are the implementation of a Martuwarra Fitzroy River Catchment Management Plan and a freeze on all future water allocations in the river catchment until a plan is in place.

The council also wants the State Government to act on a declaration handed down by Traditional Owners in 2016 to protect the river.

The council was set up following a two-day meeting in Fitzroy Crossing in May.

Native title has been determined along the length of the Fitzroy River and across its catchment. Traditional owners also own about half of the pastoral leases in the catchment.

It is the first time Traditional Owners hold native title rights across an entire catchment area and it’s seen as a precedent for how government and industry engage with Indigenous locals.

There is currently no management and protection plan for the river, the group said.

A WA government spokesperson said it had begun comprehensive community consultation across the east Kimberley as part of a commitment towards creating Fitzroy River National Park to ensure long-term health of the river and sustainable economic development.

A community workshop was held in Fitzroy Crossing in March with about 80 key stakeholders, including Traditional Owners and representatives from Aboriginal groups, pastoralists, environmental organisations, government agencies, industry and the wider community, the spokesperson said.

On-going targeted consultation was continuing and was expected to take 18 months.

“As part of the McGowan Government’s election commitment to create a Fitzroy Management Plan, the Department is working on a water allocation plan,” the spokesperson said.

“This plan will determine how much water can be taken from the system, while taking into account the environmental, social and cultural needs of the area.”

Wendy Caccetta