Aboriginal water values and management in northern Australia


[Sound of running water] [MUSIC PLAYS] (Narrator) My name is Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart. My country is Malfiyin, near the Daly River
in the Northern Territory. This story is about our rivers
and our bush tucker. [DIDGERIDOO MUSIC] Collecting bush tucker is important — it gets people out on country, it is
healthy for us and makes us feel good. Collecting bush tucker heals our spirit and
teaches young people about country and culture. (GUITAR MUSIC) (Christina Yambeing) Dad used to tell us
stories, about Dreamtime stories or about our country, you know. Mum used to
tell us stories about her dreaming. We used to take that fish net over to the creek
when there were lots of fish. (Narrator) The Mabo decision in 1992 means that our
customary laws are now recognized. This means that our use of land
and water is protected. But when decisions about water are being made,
we are often not included. Those rivers, creeks and billabongs
are important to us. We rely on those places for food
and medicines. Other people say they need water for their
businesses such as farming and cattle, but no one has really talked to us about
how important those water places are for hunting and fishing practices. (Dr Jackson) Well the National Water Policy of
2004, the National Water Initiative its called, for the first time in Australia’s history
recognised the importance of water to Aboriginal societies. And it actually urges Australian State governments
to include Aboriginal people in water planning, to understand their water use requirements and to consider the impacts of water use decisions on their societies, their economies
and their culture. [DRUM MUSIC] We haven’t had a lot of information
about how people use aquatic environments. We haven’t had a lot of information about the
value of those environments to Aboriginal people and there’s been very little understanding
of the way in which changes to water use and water management in
a wider Australia may affect Aboriginal people. (Narrator) So CSIRO, as part of the Tropical Rivers
and Coastal Knowledge Research Program, looked at how changing water uses may affect my
community in the Daly, as well as communities in the Fitzroy River
in Western Australia. (Pippa Featherston) So you went somewhere Saturday? (Emma Woodward) So it’s really about building
relationships and trust from the beginning and that drive came from
the indigenous communities themselves. (Narrator) Eighty-two households were interviewed
eight times a year. People were asked about when they went
fishing or hunting, where they went, and what they caught. (Benigna Ngulfundi) Barramundi, Pig nosed
Turtle, Catfish. (Narrator) The researchers also wanted to know about
country and the seasons. (Biddy Lindsay) That one Christmas come.
This one year round for eating. This one now they’re drying up. This one year round like
that one in the billabong. (Narrator) Seasonal calendars were made with
four different language groups. They are based on Aboriginal knowledge
of the plants and animals harvested throughout the year. (Emma) Where do you get that one from Biddy?” This information was collected to get
a better picture of how and when food is collected
during the year, and how we read the different signs
of animals and plants. (Sue) In the middle of the dry season,
we’ve got people going out and catching 5 turtles
at a time. (Miriam-Rose Baumann) Non-indigenous people
have four seasons. We, the people have many seasons and the best time is the Dry Season for when
you go and hunt and forage for these things that are in the water,
or billabongs or the creeks. (Narrator) My calendar – the ‘Ngan’gi Seasons’
– was the first. It follows the life stages of Wurr mui,
the local spear Grass. (Patricia McTaggart) From the time like,
from the new shoot up to when it’s died off and like burnt. All in between that cycle of the spear grass,
we hunt like, certain different things to eat. (Narrator) When the Wurr mui stalks start to die
and turn a reddish colour, Agurri, the black rock kangaroo
sings the wind from the east. The wind brings the dragonfly who tells you it’s
a good time for Freshwater Prawn and barramundi. (Patricia) When the wind from
that direction coming, then we know it’s time to go
and look for barramundi. As soon as that happens we can feel it
telling us Dry Seasons here, you know. And we see signs like dragonflies coming the same time as the wind and its telling
us that the Dry Season is here and there’s
going to be a bit more fish in the river. (Narrator) As the billabong levels drop during the Dry
Season, plants can be collected along the edges. These include Minimindi, the Waterlily;
Miwulngini, the Lotus Lily and Midigu, the Water Chestnut. This is also the time for Mibuymadi, the
Bush Banana and Migerum, the Native Peanut. (Biddy) …and you brush them up, finish,
take them out and eat them like nut, peanut. Yeah. This one,
medicine for pneumonia and all that. (Narrator) Red Kapok flowers tell us that
Freshwater Crocodiles have laid their eggs – we can go collect them. Bark peeling off the Ghost Gums tells us Bull Sharks are fat and ready
to be hunted in the rivers. And with less water, it is much easier to collect mussels and crabs
from the banks of billabongs and creeks. [COCKATOO IN FLIGHT SCREECHING] (Miriam-Rose) …and it’s not just the
things that live in the water. There are other things that are growing by the
banks. Stuff like berries and plums and bulbs and it’s because of, you know,
after the rain there’s other things that are growing around
the river banks as well and in the billabongs. (Narrator) By the Late Dry Season, most of our
hunting trips are to the billabongs. As the water levels drop,
the muddy banks are exposed. Plenty of Long-necked Turtles can be found
hibernating under the mud. We use digging sticks to find them. Long-necked Turtles are our favourite food. They make up over half of the food
we collect in the Daly River. Researchers compared the value of
our bush foods, such as turtle, to the foods we buy from the store. If farming were to change the way the river
flows there could be less animals to hunt, and it would cost our families a lot more
to buy food. During the Wet Season the Daly floods
and the river is too high to fish. (Benigna) And I like going fishing for anything
like bream, barramundi, pig nose turtle, catfish. What other one? Shark! I like eating shark. (Pippa) So you went fishing yesterday?
“Yes.” (Pippa) Catch anything?
“Five turtle and my other cousin’s sister, “she caught eight bream and she brought it
back for her family to eat them.” (Narrator) At the end of the Wet, when the river is high,
fruit like Mimeli, the black currant and Miwisamuy, the white currant, are collected.
Echidna and Rock Python are hunted. (Emma) So we found that people are sharing
resources on a very broad scale. So you have family groups going out
hunting and fishing. They’re bringing some back to
their own household, but a lot is being distributed very widely,
not only within the community but with communities further upstream
and down stream. And there’s also a bit of
resource exchange going on. So some communities might be able to get
magpie goose eggs, for example, and they’re flying them up to another community
who’s exchanging them with turtle to another community. So this has really important repercussions
and implications for water research managers. They need to be thinking about making planning or the implications of
water allocation decisions on not just a specific community,
but on a much broader geographic scale. (Narrator) If food currently caught from the river
and floodplains had to be replaced with supermarket food there would be less money for us
to spend on other things. (Dr Jackson) Very often the water needs
that Aboriginal groups have can be quite different to other groups. So if groups like recreational fishers,
and conservation groups and farmers are the ones that, are only, their interests are only
reflected in water use decision, then we will see that
Aboriginal people miss out and we may see some quite harmful decisions that aren’t in the best interests of
Aboriginal people. (Emma) So will you take some of this
and put it out in the billabong where there’s salvinia?
“Yes.” (Narrator) With these results researchers can work out
which are the most valuable plants and animals, and the important places for hunting and fishing. They can look at how changes in using water
may upset things. If farmers take too much water during
the dry season, this could be a problem for important fish,
such as black bream and barramundi. These two fish are important to
Aboriginal people. Nearly 1000 black bream and barramundi
were caught during the time when the researchers were doing the surveys. This information is important for water planning
because development of water resources — for example, building dams for farms —
can be a big problem for the river flows. We now have information water planners can use to work out how changes in
water use may affect Aboriginal people. (Emma) First activities that we did with
people in the communities was river use mapping. (Narrator) It provides a strong and important base
for decisions about water use. (Miriam-Rose) The river is like the heart,
the creeks and the springs that run into it are like the veins in our body. And that feeds the river,
especially in the Dry Season and of course the springs come from the aquifer. If people drain the aquifer out to farm
and all that, it will kill the river and kill the things
that are marine life in the water as well. (Dr Jackson) If farming or other water use
does increase in the Daly River catchment for example over the next 10 or 20 years, we’ll be able to look back at this data and water planners will be able to
look back at this information and say “well 10 years ago this was how people
were using the country. And they were collecting these kinds of
resources in these kinds of quantities”. If those patterns are still evident
10 or 20 years time, then we will know that water use activity has
not had any detrimental impact on Aboriginal people. So it’s a very important baseline
for helping decision makers in the future be confident that the water decisions they
have made, that the water use plans they have, the water use allocation regimes are indeed reflecting the interests and needs of Aboriginal people to continue their
subsistence resource use. (Narrator) For thousands of years Aboriginal people
have used these waterways and continue hunting and fishing practices
to this day. It is vital that kids also have
the opportunity to learn how to hunt and fish these places. It is really important that we document
how we use the rivers as it shows other people the connection
Aboriginal people have with water places. (Patricia) Working closely with Mother Earth, we will work together to try an
– she provides us with food and in return we look after her. By not doing anything that’s not pleasing her. (Narrator) To make these important water decisions we
need to work together with other water users, including farmers, to make sure the plants and animals are
protected and our traditions are preserved. [DIDGERIDOO OVER SOUND OF KIDS PLAYING IN RIVER] [MUSIC PLAYS]

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