First Nations unite to fight industrial exploitation of Australia’s Martuwarra

This story first appeared in Mongabay.

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  • The Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, one of the country’s most ecologically and culturally significant waterways, is facing proposals of further agriculture and mining development, including irrigation and fracking.
  • In response, First Nations communities in the region have developed different methods to promote the conservation of the river, including curating cultural festivals, funding awareness campaigns, and working with digital technologies.
  • First Nations land rights are held along the length of the Fitzroy River, the first time this has occurred across an entire catchment area in Australia.
  • The catchment is the last stronghold of the world’s most “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered” species, the freshwater sawfish (Pristis pristis) and is home to the threatened northern river shark (Glyphis garricki).

WEST KIMBERLEY, Australia — November marks the end of the dry season in the Kimberley, the northernmost region of Western Australia, the country’s largest state. As the monsoonal rains start to fall, the country comes alive with the cries of red winged parrots (Aprosmictus erythropterus) and the Fitzroy River begins to run.

Stretching more than 700 kilometers (435 miles), the Fitzroy River is one of Australia’s most powerful waterways, a free-flowing system that passes through range, savanna and desert country to empty into the Indian Ocean each year.

Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Warrwa traditional Indigenous custodian of the river, said it’s her duty to care for the Martuwarra, the river’s original and enduring name.

“Martuwarra is a living, ancestral being,” she said. “It has a right to life, to live and to flow. We live by an obligatory law to protect the River of Life. It is the essence of our spirituality, identity, culture and law.”

The river was granted National Heritage Listing in 2011 due to its spiritual, cultural and environmental values. Native title, a federally recognized titling to traditional Indigenous lands and waters, is now held along the entire length of the river, the first time land rights have been held across an entire catchment area in Australia.

The Fitzroy is also the last stronghold of the world’s most “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered” species, the freshwater sawfish (Pristis pristis). According to a 2019 study, its continued existence in the waters is due to the low level of human disturbance — namely mining and agriculture — compared to other rivers around the world. The authors recommended that any “further anthropogenic disturbance [to the Fitzroy River] should be minimized to maintain what is still a relatively pristine habitat.”

However, on the world’s driest inhabited continent, these life-giving waters are now a source of contention. Currently, agricultural and mining development proposals are being assessed to develop the Fitzroy catchment and the greater Kimberley region.

Such is the cultural significance of the river, that proposals have been met with scrutiny by traditional owners, and have led some to implement methods to preserve the river’s cultural and ecological significance.

Agriculture debate continues as fracking proposals arise

Chief among the industrial proposals earmarked for the Fitzroy are those linked to agriculture. Pastoral opportunities have long been debated in the Fitzroy catchment, with dams unsuccessfully planned along the river since the 1990s. In 2018, however, the incumbent state government pledged that there would be no future dams along the Fitzroy or its tributaries.

Despite this, the future of the Fitzroy remains uncertain. First announced in November 2020, the WA state government is currently assessing the feasibility of allowing up to 300 billion liters (79 billion gallons) of surface water to be taken out of the river each year through irrigation development to grow fodder for livestock. Conservationists say this will affect the flow of the river and, consequently, the diverse and unique ecosystem it supports, with threatened species including the northern river shark (Glyphis garricki), one of the world’s rarest fish.

While the debate rages on over pastoral activities in the catchment, there are other questions being raised about opening up the catchment to hydrofracturing stimulation.

Commonly known as fracking, hydrofracturing stimulation is an extractive process that involves injecting a high-pressure fluid made of sand, water and chemical additives into a drilled well to crack the rock and free natural gas from deep underground.

As much of the Fitzroy catchment sits on the Canning Basin, the largest shale gas reserve in Australia, the region has become a central focus of the federal government to boost the country’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery and strengthen the local energy market.

As Mongabay previously reported, a 2016 moratorium on fracking in WA state was lifted three years ago, allowing fracking in just 2% of the state. Much of that area falls in the western Kimberley, including parts of the Fitzroy catchment. In October 2021, the state government further backtracked on this minor concession and granted an exemption to the policy for an oil and gas company, Bennett Resources.

A subsidiary of Texas mining company Black Mountain Metals, the company has proposed drilling 20 exploratory wells, one of which lies just a kilometer (0.6 miles) from a tributary of the Fitzroy.

Bennett Resources did not respond to requests for comment from Mongabay. However, the company announced that it is seeking to extract up to 900 terajoules (953 million cubic feet) of gas a day once the gas fields peak.

In Australia, companies are able to secure mining leases that incorporate land recognized as native title. Rather than grant First Nations complete autonomy over their land, native title legislation mandates that communities enter into negotiations with mining companies regardless of whether they welcome industry on their land or not. Consequently, mining leases can incorporate the lands of multiple groups divided over development. As such, while the wells proposed by Bennett Resources are located in the territory of one community that has entered into fracking agreements, other groups on the lease either remain opposed to the process or are still undecided.

Roger Cook, the WA minister for state development and deputy premier, did not respond to requests by Mongabay for comment on industrial development in the Fitzroy catchment. However, in October, Cook told national broadcaster ABC that the exemption for Bennett Resources was granted because the project would help build gas pipelines to connect the area to the broader WA energy network.

Just how significant the resulting pipeline will be or whether it will cross native title land or the river itself remains to be seen.

Bennett Resources’ proposal says potential impacts could include contamination of surface aquifers due to well integrity failure. WA’s Environmental Protection Authority is currently assessing the proposal to ascertain whether the catchment will be compromised and the effects on species.

A festival to protect the river

For Joe Ross, director of the Bunuba Dawangirri Aboriginal Corporation, his connections to the river are ancient. An Indigenous Bunuba man whose ancestors come from the area, Ross is a seasoned advocate for the protection of the Fitzroy River catchment. In the late 1990s, he was influential in stopping the damming of the river for irrigation proposals.

In July this year, Ross organized a festival on his ancestral territory of Danggu, also known by its colonial name, Geikie Gorge. Named Yajilarra, meaning “let us dream” in the Bunuba language, the three-day festival included traditional stories told through stage performance. According to Ross, this enabled Bunuba children to interact with their elders and explore their identity.

“The aim of the festival was to celebrate our culture and revitalize our language,” Ross told Mongabay. “In doing so, we were promoting local industry, leadership for our younger people and our connection to country and the river itself.”

Following this, the festival featured a night of music and discussion about the river’s cultural and ecological values, bringing together some of the most influential and powerful individuals and corporations in Australia, including Australia’s richest man, mining mogul Andrew Forrest.

Significantly, Forrest’s investments in the Kimberley in recent years relate to the industrial proposals the Fitzroy catchment now faces. In 2019, Forrest’s privately owned energy company, Squadron Energy, bought into fracking interests in the western Kimberley. And in December 2020, he finalized a deal that saw the purchase of two pastoral stations bordering the Fitzroy River, giving livestock access to the water.

“We are passionate about the unique environment of the Kimberley, and the precious waterway and lifeforce that is the Fitzroy River,” Forrest said in a media statement last year.

“We strongly believe in the principle of balancing the need for sustainable agriculture and job creation for local communities, with the need to preserve culture and heritage sites, while restoring the land and its original fauna to its natural habitat.”

However, shortly after the Yajilarra festival, Squadron Energy abandoned its fracking interests in the Kimberley, calling the move a strategic decision given that the process is at odds with the organization’s climate policy.

For Ross, the festival achieved what it set out to.

“The feedback we have received is that the Yajilarra festival was as good as could be,” he said. “What this shows is that we have the capacity to continue these events, to promote our culture and to build ongoing dialogue about the future of the Kimberley.”

A campaign to encourage public engagement

The Kimberley Land Council (KLC), one of Australia’s most prominent First Nations land rights organizations, has also backed proposals to protect the Fitzroy catchment. Though the KLC is tasked chiefly with advocating for its member communities, taking a stand against disputes is rare given the organization is constantly entering into negotiations with government and industry. However, the KLC’s stance became unequivocable in regards to the future of the river.

Declaring that traditional owners “have never consented to the extraction of water and oppose development of the river and its floodplain,” the KLC encouraged the general public to support the protection of the river. This was done by making submissions to the state government’s call for public consultation titled the “Fitzroy River Water Discussion Paper.”

The KLC followed this through with an awareness campaign that involved running an advertisement in WA’s highest-selling daily newspaper. This resulted in more than 43,000 submissions to the discussion paper, one of the largest results in public feedback for an environmental issue in state history.

According to a media statement by the KLC, the river should be preserved in its current state as a cultural and linguistic landscape.

“The cultural management of the Fitzroy River catchment is a responsibility that traditional owners have had since creation and take very seriously,” said the organization’s CEO. “Traditional owners have not consented to large-scale irrigation extraction processes and want to see the river protected as a healthy and thriving ecosystem.”

New media and digital technologies

When the proposals began, Anne Poelina, an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of Notre Dame, Australia, who focuses on Indigenous environmental policy, was driven to act, given the risks she felt were posed to the river system and beyond.

“The first element that needs to be acknowledged is that we believe these living water systems are already fully allocated,” she said. “Any alteration to the river, the taking of water or the compromising of the catchment, will impact our lifeways, our culture, our conservation and our values.”

Concerned at the potential for industry to hinder the flow of the river and its consequential effects on culture and ecology, Poelina, as executive chair, helped unite six native title nations along the river together to form the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (MFRC).

Formed in 2018, the MFRC brought nations from across the river’s reaches into a united body through which to engage with government and industry. Under Poelina, the council used digital technologies to promote the cultural and ecological values of the river, producing multiple films to encourage traditional owners throughout the catchment to promote the multiple values of the river.

Floodplain of the Fitzroy River with Willare and King Sound in the far distance. Image courtesy of Yaru Man via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“Digital storytelling has had a remarkable impact,” Poelina said. “We have a global platform from which to discuss our relationship with the river and the response to our work has been overwhelming. We have been asked to address global forums and be a part of multiple film festivals around the world.”

These resources have also helped in the preservation of Indigenous and scientific knowledge. By engaging with scientists and geographers, Poelina has been able to orchestrate studies that have confirmed the ecological, cultural and legal significance of the river country, one of which has included Martuwarra itself as a co-author. This has advanced the argument for legal recognition of the river as a living ancestral being and granting it certain rights.

“We have also used technology to create a whole database of maps, like the water and vegetation types of the river,” Poelina said. “This has helped map and conserve our cultural heritage, our songs and our ongoing, ancestral connection to the Martuwarra.”

Questions for the future

Anthony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum professor of engineering emeritus at Cornell University, told Mongabay there’s no straightforward way to answer how many fracking wells would be needed to produce Bennett Resources’ goal of extracting up to 900 terajoules of gas a day.

Drawing on examples from the United States, Ingraffea said that at a certain rate and with advanced technology, “it would take a few hundred wells to produce 850 million cubic feet a day over a sustained period of time.”

However, he said that in any case, three factors are at play: the length of time for a certain production rate, how quickly the operator can put wells into production, and the quality of the shale gas produced.

“All shale gas wells experience what is called a decline curve of production, that is, the rate of production rapidly decreases over time,” he said.

Ingraffea highlighted a case in Texas in which approximately 2,000 wells were drilled over a cumulative period of six years to produce 850 million cubic feet a day, the same output that Bennet Resources is aiming for.

Given the significance of the Fitzroy River’s aquatic and mineral resources, the future of the catchment will be discussed at all levels of government as the feedback from the Fitzroy River Water Discussion Paper is released and future fracking development is proposed.

Ross and Poelina say they would like to ensure that the ecological and cultural significance of the river to First Nations communities is taken into account in that conversation.

“The Kimberley is one of the last places in the world that has not been taken over by mass industrialization,” Poelina said. “Our people have walked this country since the dawn of time, we know it better than anyone. We want to continue to care for the land as she looks after us.”

Fitzroy River, downstream from Fitzroy Crossing Bridge. Image courtesy of Yaru Man/Flickr.

Citations:

Lear, K. O., Gleiss, A. C., Whitty, J. M., Fazeldean, T., Albert, J. R., Green, N., … Morgan, D. L. (2019). Recruitment of a critically endangered sawfish into a riverine nursery depends on natural flow regimes. Scientific Reports9(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-019-53511-9

RiverOfLife, M., Poelina, A., Bagnall, D., & Lim, M. (2020). Recognizing the Martuwarra’s First Law right to life as a living ancestral being. Transnational Environmental Law, 9(3), 541-568. doi:10.1017/S2047102520000163

Banner image: The Freshwater Sawfish (Pristis pristis) is the most Evolutionary Distinct and Greatly Endangered (EDGE) animal in the world. Its last stronghold is the Fitzroy River catchment. Image courtesy of Peter Kyne/Wikimedia Commons.

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