Time to protect our Channel Country once and for all

First published in the Courier Mail

Deep in the heart of Australia, the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin is one of the world’s greatest desert river basins. Covering nearly one sixth of the entire country, it is a massive area that holds special significance to the Traditional Owners who have lived in and cared for the land for tens of thousands of years. Despite the environmental and cultural importance of this amazing landscape, it remains threatened by a range of development pressures.

I belong to the Mithaka people. Our mob are Kurrithala Tjimpa (Black Hawk) and our country is bordered by Cooper Creek to the east and the Diamantina river to the west. In my language, this country is known as Kirrenderri, but it’s more widely known as the Channel Country. Mithaka people feel it’s not only our right but it’s our responsibility to look after the country and its rivers. 

For Traditional Owners, caring for country is more than a matter of economic prosperity, it is a sacred and ancient traditional responsibility carried forward from mother to daughter, father to son and includes social, environmental, and cultural considerations. Traditional peoples live by the seasons and think of country as their mother and of water as the sacred lifeblood, keeping them connected through hunting, fishing, and ceremonial practices. We are kept strong and understand our culture by connecting to the stories and songs that live in our country, and through them continue to observe our own traditional lore, customs, cultural boundaries and obligations.

For tens of thousands of years the Basin has supported Aboriginal settlement and use, reflected today in the diversity of Aboriginal cultures and the many areas of high cultural significance. The patterns of life and economics of early Aboriginal inhabitants of this area were largely determined by the boom and bust cycles of the landscape. Food production associated with the rain events and the refuge offered by widely scattered springs and waterholes during the dry periods remain an integral part of Aboriginal culture and life in their traditional country. Today, a significant percentage of the 60,000 people living within the area are Aboriginal.

These rivers and the floodplains sustained thousands of peoples over tens of thousands of years. They provided food and water for us such as mussels, fish, and birds. The rivers were our trading routes where we met, shared with, and learnt from our neighbours. They provided swimming holes, fishing, and camping places. They are the sites of our birthing places and our resting places. These waters are the basis for the strong relationships between land, plant, animal and humans over thousands of years. 

All along these iconic rivers you will find the foundations of our stories, with many either starting or ending at significant waterholes. These stories are of the Mowana (budgerigar), Multhuri (pelican), Magwiri (stork), Miljoori (spoonbill), Munkerran (white ibis) and many more. These are stories that connect us all and help us remember the ways that we are supposed to be. They continue to form the basis of our governing laws and our relationships, and maintain our way of being. 

In 2011, an Aboriginal forum was held in New South Wales, with Traditional Owners from across the Basin coming together to discuss the future of the basin’s rivers. Agreements from this meeting formed what became known as the Tibooburra Resolution – an eight-point declaration that agreed that large-scale irrigation and gas fracking should be excluded from the river and floodplain areas within the Channel Country – the risk to the health of the rivers being unacceptable to all of us. In the Channel Country, strong Traditional Owner support was instrumental in putting legislative protection for our rivers in place

But just two years later, these protections were cut back – placing the Channel Country’s rivers and floodplains at risk once again. During the 2015 Queensland election, the Palaszczuk government committed to protect our rivers and floodplains but this promise is still yet to be enacted. With the next state election now just one year away, it’s time that this promise was followed through.

Earlier this year, representatives from a number of Traditional Owner groups throughout the Basin came together again to discuss caring for our traditional lands, rivers and waterways. As with eight years ago, we affirmed our concerns that  gas fracking should be excluded from the river and floodplain areas because the risk to the health of the rivers is too high. We committed to work together and with  governments and stakeholders to deliver cultural, social, economical and environmental benefits for Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin and its people.

These rivers are more than just a resource for making money. They are significant to this country as its birds, animals, its people and their stories and dreams depend on the rivers.  We can create jobs through the protection of these rivers, not through the destruction of them, and we can build a sustainable future for ourselves and our environment, one that Aboriginal people have maintained for tens of thousands of years.

This commitment of protection has been in place for hundreds of generations of my people – now is the time for governments to honor their promise and provide long term protection for the unique rivers, wildlife, natural landscapes and people of the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin once and for all.

George Gorringe is a Mithaka man from Windorah, Queensland