Australia’s indigenous people, the Aboriginals, are the oldest living civilization on Earth. Their creation myth traces their ancestry back 50,000 years when Ngurrandi and his two wives settled on the banks of Lake Mungo in South Australia. And indeed 50,000 year-old human remains have been found there. While today the population of 750,000 is scattered, living in every area of Australia and speaking different languages, they share a common understanding of their relationship with the earth .
Their creation myth and understanding of their existence on Earth is known as The Dreaming. It is a comprehension of reality that transcends place and time, with a multilayered possibility and explanation of how the geography of the land and waters came to be and their relationship to the Earth .
The inland waters, rivers, wetlands, sea, islands, reefs, sandbars and sea grass beds are inseparable from them. The sea and the spectacular marine life are inseparable from them. The Aboriginals feel a deep responsibility for example, to the whales, believing that what affects one affects all .
Accordingly, it is with much pain that the Aboriginals witness wasteful and cruel fishing practices, the poisoning of the land with pesticides, the pollution of the sparkling waters with fossil fuels, the bleaching of the coral from the warming waters, and the toxic emissions from industry spewing into the blue sky. They understand that this is destroying them as well. They know that the air and the water must be healthy for people and animals to be healthy.
The ancient tradition
The laws of the Aboriginals have been handed down by oral tradition all of these years. They were only translated to the written word in the mid-1800s after the English settled the land that had been theirs. It is recorded now that these peoples consciously respect Miwi, the inner connection to lands, waters and all living things. It is their responsibility to act as stewards.
Many of the water sources in Australia embed a spiritual connection and a responsibility on the part of the Aboriginals to safeguard that sacred connection. Accordingly, the draining or re-routing of waterway disrupts their very connection to the earth .
The primary governing law of the Miwi is do not be greedy, don’t take any more than you need, and share with each other . The nonindigenous viewpoint is quite different, viewing water as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.
The Australian government recognizes water rights as the legal authority to take water from a water body and retain the benefits of its use. This can be in the form of licenses, concessions, permits, access and allocations to industry, agriculture or for recreation.
To their disadvantage, the Aboriginals have not been very involved historically in the laws governing water rights. Nevertheless, the Australian national government has shown itself willing to recognize the significance of the Aboriginal cultural values. There are certain legal protections the Aboriginals can avail themselves of in order to assert their rights.
The Australian government has also ratified a number of international human rights instruments that specifically set forth the right of indigenous people to clean water access. Unfortunately, most of the instruments having the effect of law have been interpreted to give the native peoples only a nonexclusive right to water, with the government having the overall ability to dispense with it.
Protection of Aboriginal knowledge
All states, territories and the Commonwealth have laws protecting indigenous people’s cultural heritage, giving preservation and protection to areas of particular significance. These laws could definitely be availed for the protection of areas with spiritual significance.
The Wild Rivers Act and the subsequently passed Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act of 2007, regulate future development with a goal of preserving the natural value of undeveloped rivers. They explicitly declare a water reserve or allocation to indigenous peoples for each river under its umbrella.
The Aboriginal Water Initiative, passed by Australia’s Department of Primary Industries in 2011 is probably the best first step for Aboriginals interested in becoming involved and asserting their interests. Its objectives are to involve the Aboriginal communities in water management, focusing on water sharing plans up for review, developing skills of the Aboriginals to understand and participate in water delivery plans, and helping them identify water-related environmental, social, cultural and economic opportunities within their framework. Workshops are conducted regularly and participation is encouraged.
The Ngarrindjeri Nation Sea Country Plan
An example of a plan prepared by an Aboriginal community is the Ngarrindjeri Nation Sea Country Plan drafted in 2007 to help government agencies, natural resource developers, industry and the wider Australian community to better understand the rights and responsibilities of those living there.
It begins as follows :
Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan (Listen to what Ngarrindjeri people have to say):
Our Lands, Our Waters, Our People, All Living Things are connected. We implore people to respect our Ruwe (Country) as it was created in the Kaldowinyeri (the Creation). We long for sparkling, clean waters, healthy land and people and all living things. We long for the Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country) of our ancestors. Our vision is all people Caring, Sharing, Knowing and Respecting the lands, the waters and all living things.
Our Goals are:
For our people, children and descendants to be healthy and to enjoy our healthy lands and waters. To see our lands and waters healthy and spiritually alive. For all our people to benefit from our equity in our lands and waters. To see our closest friends – our Ngartjis (special animals) – healthy and spiritually alive. For our people to continue to occupy and benefit from our lands and waters. To see all people respecting our laws and living in harmony with our lands and waters.