Preserving traditional lands: Australia’s Standing Rocks

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(Image via lockthegate.org.au)

From the Barrier Reef to SA and the Kimberley, Australia’s First Nations are leading environmental campaigns. The Standing Rock victory may help draw attention to their efforts, says Nick Rodway.

THE END of 2016 saw a conservation victory in the defeat of the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Sioux Nation, other First Nations allies and supporters at Standing Rock.

In a year filled with doubt and suspicion within the international political system, the campaign stood out as a period of protest that captured worldwide attention despite a local mainstream media blackout. It is probable that the success of Standing Rock will be remembered as a definitive example of Indigenous autonomy — a new wave of independence and land management in the face of a disintegrating political landscape.

Unfortunately, like many stories that originate in the United States, the success of Standing Rock remained solely on American soil. It did not evolve to highlight the conservation struggles faced by Indigenous groups the world over, particularly by First Nations people in Australia. Some of these campaigns have been waged for years and are just as significant as the Standing Rock example when it comes to the preservation of country.

Australia has perhaps the world’s richest history when it comes to fighting to protect its natural environment. It is not an exaggeration to say that battles such as the Franklin Dam blockade have etched themselves into the national psyche. They have decided elections, made and destroyed careers and saved iconic landscapes. Words like "Franklin" and "Pedder" are not just events, they are ideals that continue to inspire and invoke controversy in equal measure.

However, in the past, the fight of Aboriginal people to keep their traditional lands free of industrialisation has not received the same sort of media coverage as city-led actions — such as the current Save the Reef Campaign, which is based in Brisbane. This is due partly to the isolation of the places in question and to their seemingly low significance to the political sphere. Now, however, as the world furiously debates the future of clean energy, these mineral-rich, vulnerable areas will become increasingly important to all, city and country alike.  

The question of industrialisation of country for the sake of clean energy has raised various issues. Recently, for example, individuals and collectives from the Adnyamathanha people in South Australia have been at the forefront of the debate on nuclear energy. However, for now, nuclear energy in Australia remains just that — a debate. More pressing matters are at hand, with perhaps the key conservation issue facing First Nations being the presence of LPG gas on traditional lands. One of these critical places is in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The West Kimberley – the land that roughly stretches from Broome to Derby – forms part of one of the last great wilderness areas in this country. However, the region abounds in mineral wealth and is, therefore, no stranger to prospective industrialisation. The early years of this decade, for instance, saw a fight to protect the area of the Dampier Peninsula known as Walmadan – or James Price Point – from the formation of a gas hub linked to the offshore Browse Basin.    

The key point that cannot be emphasised enough is that the Walmadan campaign was headed by First Nations people. In particular, the grassroots effort by members of the Goolarabooloo traditional owners helped deliver an outcome that preserved the beauty of the coastline as well as ancient burial sites in the sand hills behind. Although there were – and continue to be – disagreements over the financial and logistical repercussions of the gas hub not proceeding, Walmadan has been preserved by its custodians for future generations. 

Now, the fight continues in the region.

Micklo Corpus, Yawuru traditional owner and local ranger, has been leading a protest against gas company Buru Energy for over two years from his bush camp east of Broome. Buru has prospective plans to drop large numbers of gas wells across this region, a controversial decision considering the significance of this area to traditional owners. Irrespective of what other groups in the region think, Corpus represents 96 percent of the Yawuru community who do not want hydro-fracturing on their ancestral land.   

This week, Corpus is attending court in Perth, challenging a case laid out by the local authorities to evict him from his campsite. Regardless of the outcome, he has pledged to return to the Kimberley to continue his fight. And, although he has carried this campaign, he is no longer alone. Key environmental organisations such as The Wilderness Society have joined in his cause, and awareness and support concerts have been organised in Western Australia and Melbourne as a result.

Micklo Corpus’ struggle is further evidence that conservation is alive and well in Australia and is another example of First Nations people taking the lead in the fight to conserve country and resources. We need to take the example of First Nations people with respect to conservation and build on the awareness that Standing Rock has provided internationally.

Nick Rodway is a conservationist and writer based in Melbourne. He has previously worked in Aboriginal youth support in the Kimberley.

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