LALC LAND: The uncharted issue of black water rights is slowly gaining momentum across the country. *Craig Cromelin takes a closer look at the issue in his home state of NSW.
Having a right to access water is perhaps a foreign concept to many Aboriginal people across Australia, and indeed here in New South Wales.
I’m a Ngiyampaa man and I live out on the banks of Lachlan River at Murrin Bridge in Wiradjuri country, Central NSW. Those who know my old country out here will tell you it’s pretty dry most of the year, so for my mob the seasonal ebb and flow of water is important for many reasons, and always has been.
For the many nations out here, further west and even all the way back over east to the coast, life-giving water is an essential part of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life.
We see it not just as a commodity to be bought or sold, but as a type of life force that nourishes and sustains us spiritually, culturally, socially and economically.
Most importantly though, its fundamental to the collective rights and aspirations we assert as the First Peoples of this ancient land.
It’s sometimes frustrating then, to have such an important issue for Aboriginal people constantly overlooked and unexplored.
It’s also why I chose to become involved in some of the work the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) is doing around black water rights led by our policy unit, especially Gomeroi man and Senior Policy Officer, Phil Duncan.
Phil’s passion for water rights has been truly inspiring, and he’s worked hard to enlighten our membership about water and the rights we need to assert as Aboriginal land owners, traditional owners and everyday citizens.
Recently we met over in Dubbo to discuss water rights amongst a delegation of our Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs) from across the basin.
What became very clear at that meeting was some of the complex issues facing the overall management of the Murray Darling Basin.
It’s fair to say ecologically, economically and environmentally, it’s perhaps the most pressing issue facing Australia today.
Firstly, it’s the sheer scale of the basin that blows your mind. It derives from two watercourses: the mighty Murray River and the Darling River. Many punters wouldn’t know that it drains an area equivalent to one-seventh of the Australian landmass.
Its vast area covers nearly every state in the country and has been known to carry up to 57,000 gigalitres of water in a good year.
By contrast, the whole of Sydney Harbour holds only 500 gigalitres.
What also came out of the Dubbo meeting was a document called the ‘Thubbagah Statement,’ NSWALC’s submission to the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which contained a number of recommendations Aboriginal people across the basin would like to see implemented by governments.
One of the key points of ‘Thubbagah’ was an extremely strong statement that Aboriginal people never gave up their lands, including the water that flowed through it. Our lands and waters of the basin were never ceded. That’s important to note, and our members were particularly strong on that.
We then asserted in plain English exactly what water means to us as Aboriginal people.
Some key points:
• The waters of the basin carry particular spiritual, cultural, economic and social significance for our mob.
• That we have certain responsibilities to care for the rivers and waterways of our dreaming.
• That water is central to our own development in terms of traditional ecological knowledge and management.
• That we have a fundamental right as the First Peoples of this country – to high quality water for our communities.
Whilst having this statement down on paper was a significant move by our LALCs, it was decided it needed even more punch. As a result, and after some robust debate, the LALC movement, backed by NSWALC, are calling for a minimum percentage in their official ‘Thubbagah’ submission of 25 percent. This figure applies to all the waters in the Murray Darling Basin for use by Aboriginal people ‘for the purposes they so choose.’
Wherever you come from, or whatever your thoughts on water rights, there’s a solid statement right there. NSWALC is determined to get the best deal from any plan that’s eventually set in stone by the Basin Authority.
We have the largest member-based Aboriginal organisation in this country. We have upwards of 23,000 members across 119 LALCs, and it’s NSWALC’s view that we most accurately and comprehensively represent the broader Aboriginal interest in NSW on this and any other environmental issues.
One aspect of this water debate though that we do need to explore with our members urgently, is the idea of water as a commodity – the so-called ‘water stockmarket.’
The power of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983, that many of us fought so hard for, means that today we have LALCs in possession of huge tracts of river frontage, lakes, dams and wetlands.
As we know LALCs are often land rich, but cash poor. But freehold title under the ALRA allows landowners to engage in economic opportunities through the ownership of water.
This entire concept is a brand new one but don’t get me wrong, there’s been some LALCs across our network that have been actively engaged in this process for some time. They’re effectively paving the way for other Land Councils, so credit must go to them.
This is an area of land rights and economic sustainability that needs to be tapped, excuse the pun, and investigated fully.
I can confirm that NSWALC, in partnership with the NSW Office of Water, is close to offering training for all LALCs on the possibilities of this later this year, so stay tuned on that.
It’s these opportunities that I as NSWALC Councillor for the Wiradjuri Region and Deputy Chairman, will be encouraging my LALCs to get involved in and unpack.
The water rights debate has essentially just begun, but I can say that I’m proud of the strides NSWALC and the land rights network has made so far.
We have our hat in the ring, and whilst a unified Aboriginal approach to water rights is still in its infancy, that’s something to smile about.
* Craig Cromelin is the Deputy Chairman of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, the publishers of Tracker. Craig is also the Councillor for the Wiradjuri Region and sits on the NSWALC Water Committee.