Kimberley area gets indigenous protection

By John Pickrell 25 May 2011
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A new reserve managed by traditional owners will one day protect 26,000 sq. km of Kimberley wilderness.

ON THE NORTH COAST of the Kimberley, in a remote spot untouched by roads and development, hundreds of kilometres of white sandy beaches and rocky escarpments dotted with gum trees meet the milky turquoise expanse of the Timor Sea. Thousands of rock art sites – many never seen by whitefellas and some nearly 20,000 years old – attest to the long Aboriginal history of the region.

Over thousands of years the Wunambal Gaambera people have hunted in the seas and estuaries for barramundi, snapper, emu and crocodile, and they have gathered along the plentiful coasts, in the billabongs and among the stringybark and paperbark trees for oysters, water chestnuts, waterlilies, river figs and yams.

But when a mission was opened up in Kalumburu, in neighbouring Balangara country, in the early 20th century, most of the traditional owners left this vast area of northern Western Australia. Today, just one family remains on the land at Mitchell Plateau, site of the spectacular Mitchell Falls.

Blackfella national park

But the creation of the new Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) – or “blackfella national park” as the locals call it – is part of an ambitious community-led project to bring pride in culture back to the Wunambal Gaambera people and take the young folk out of the troubled Kalumburu community and back to the land of their ancestors.

At a ceremony on Monday at the remote, heritage-listed Mungalalu-Truscott Airbase – an 80-minute flight west of Darwin – the Federal Court of Australia returned a 26,000sq. km area of the Kimberley to the Wunambal Gaambera people in a landmark decision over native title rights that has been more than 10 years in the legislative pipeline.

“This is a groundbreaking decision for the Wunambal Gaambera people – and a great conservation gift to all Australians,” said Tony Burke, Federal Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

“Uunguu – meaning ‘living home’ – abounds in native wildlife including many threatened species. Dolphins, dugong and marine turtles are found in seagrass beds off the coast and sand goanna, bush turkey, euro and rock wallabies live in spectacular woodland and escarpment country. Countless significant rock art sites form one of the most stunning open air art galleries in Western Australia,” he said.

Immediately, a 3400sq. km section of sea and land was declared by the new native title holders to be part of the Uunguu IPA. It will now be managed by traditional owners to IUCN (World Conservation Union) standards, a move the people hope will return the land to full health and help provide them with the recognition, funding and resources to manage region in the traditional way.

Indigenous rangers take on conservation duties

Senior Wunambal man Sylvester Mangolomara is acting as a cultural consultant to the rangers. (Credit: John Pickrell)

“This will make my people proud – we’ve been fighting for this for over 15 years and finally we’ve got the native title that they will hand over to us today,” senior Wunambal man Sylvester Mangolomara told Australian Geographic on Monday. 

“Country is important for us because if you just walk away from it, it will all die and the spirits will go to another place where people will look after them. This country is life to us people. We gotta keep looking after the land otherwise it most probably won’t take care of us,” said Sylvester who is acting as a cultural consultant to the indigenous rangers.

Over coming years subsequent additions to the IPA should see it cover the full 26,000 sq. km of Wunambal Gaambera country. An IPA offers some level of conservation protection, but also allows for development to bring wealth to the community, through ecotourism and other ventures.

Conservation charity Bush Heritage Australia has been working with the Wunambal Gaambera to help them devise a ‘Healthy Country Plan’ to help reach land management goals over the next 10 years. Bush Heritage will also station a permanent ranger at Gambemirri – site of the Truscott Airbase – and is helping train the indigenous rangers using extensive expertise from those at 33 conservation reserves across the nation.

Native title struggle

“The Wunambal Gaambera people have been struggling for native title for a long time, but they also wanted to find a way, once they got their land back, to be able to reoccupy it and care for it with land management. They were looking to put together a plan and they approached us in 2006 to develop a partnership,” said Emma Ignjic, Bush Heritage Australia’s indigenous programs officer for northern Australia, based in Cairns.

“Now the people have got their native title rights, so the first stage of this Indigenous Protected Area has been declared,” she says. “The second stage will follow [over a larger area of land] and they are hoping for a third stage where they will also declare their sea country, which includes all the islands as well – and that’s a new kind of arrangement for an IPA to include sea in addition to land.”

Government funding is helping cover the cost of six indigenous rangers who were recruited from Kalumburu, and have already been working ‘on country’ for a number of years.

“Indigenous Protected Areas and working-on-country rangers are one of Australia’s most successful conservation stories – they protect Australia’s biodiversity while providing training and employment for Aboriginal people doing work that they love on their own country,” the minister said.

Australian Geographic and John Pickrell thank Bush Heritage. 

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