I grew up living and learning the laws and customs of the river. Our old people were born on the banks of the river; it gives us life from the beginning and to our end when our spirit goes back to Country.
The Martuwarra (Fitzroy River) is a vital, inseparable part of our culture and our spirit. We have fought for more than 40 years for rights to our land and as native title holders, we are now the recognised legal custodians of the land and its waterways.
The Fitzroy River has been national heritage listed for its Indigenous cultural values but to date there is no plan for the management and protection of these values.
We are demanding that the government commits to resourcing further discussion through the Kimberley Land Council and the native title groups. These discussions must include all traditional owners and native title holders with an interest in the river and its catchments.
The Martuwarra is one living system; what happens in one part of the river, affects the whole river and therefore all voices must be considered.
Protecting the Martuwarra and investing in a meaningful dialogue with traditional owners to make plans for sustainable development would be revolutionary for the Fitzroy River catchment.
It would fill people with pride and hope; knowing that the government is finally listening to our wishes and needs.
Protection of the Martuwarra is about more than squaring away a neat water management plan. The river is an intertwined part of Kimberley Aboriginal people’s spiritual connection to their country and customs, and this must be respected.
Big business wants to take water from the river for their own purposes. The government has started water allocation planning that would take water from the river to create new irrigation for cattle and agriculture.
These plans are being made without our consent or meaningful involvement. They are being made against the wishes of our people and run counter to the considered views we have on what is best for our future.
We want to see the river protected and development that aligns with our values and views.
The McGowan Government promised to protect the Fitzroy River and support sustainable development — a commitment we support.
However, this progress has been slow and increasingly driven by the aspirations of industry over those of local people. We have made our position very clear.
Native title holders have passed formal resolutions opposing the taking of water from the river, and met with and written to the government to make our views known.
We have made statements such as the Fitzroy River Declaration, which makes clear the need to protect the traditional and environmental values that underpin the river’s national heritage listing.
It has been disappointing to see disingenuous statements from the government claiming that traditional owners have mixed views on development and without acknowledgement of any of our formal statements.
We are united in our stance on protecting the Martuwarra.
The government claims that it is developing water plans to deliver much needed jobs in the Fitzroy Valley. It is true that we need and want more jobs. However, we have our own ideas and plans for those jobs and how to make them sustainable and attractive to local people.
We share the desire to lift people out of long-term unemployment, but the government must listen to us to understand local aspirations and own our plans to empower our people. Agriculture does play a role in these plans.
However, we must invest in other financial and land management incentives that could do much better for the region, other than taking water from the river.
The Martuwarra is best protected, not exploited. This is something that we have known through generations of experience and knowledge.
By Anthony Watson
Anthony Watson is a Nyikina, Karajarri, Mangala, Yawuru and Jabirr Jabirr Traditional Owner and Chair of the Kimberley Land Council.