Northern Australia Indigenous Water Rights Demands

The NAILSMA 'Indigenous Water Policy Group' demands:

• Indigenous people be paid for the commercial use of water;
• An Indigenous Water Fund be set up to compensate indigenous people for water use;
• Indigenous rights over water be recognised "regardless of legal proof of native title";
• A "cultural flow" of water be recognised;
• Any water plan in tropical Australia include an "equitable" allocation for indigenous people;
• Indigenous water rights be "temporarily tradeable' - the water leased but the freehold rights remaining with Aboriginal people; and
• Planning and management of water be done jointly with traditional owners.

Some of the delegates of the IWPG

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) is an alliance between Kimberley Land Council, Northern Land Council, Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation. The Indigenous Water Policy Group (IWPG) is an initiative created and facilitated by NAILSMA.

North Australian Indigenous Water Policy - pdf

Campaign for Indigenous water rights

Iskhandar Razak Wed Mar 24, 2010

Indigenous leaders are launching a campaign in Darwin this morning to get legal rights over lakes, rivers and underground basins across northern Australia.

Aboriginal people in northern Australia already have land rights and rights to some waterways, which means developers need approval to use these areas and pay royalties.

Today's launch marks the start of a push to get those same rights and privileges over lakes, rivers and aquifers.

Joe Morrison from the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance says like the land, Aboriginal people have maintained water resources and need to be treated as its legal owners.

"Whether it's surface water or ground water it doesn't really matter," Mr Morrison said.

He says Aboriginal people need to be a part of the planning and development process.

"And also that Indigenous people share in any of the benefits from commercialising water use in northern Australia."

He says water rights will not change the way existing developments and communities access water, but future projects will need to get Aboriginal permission or pay royalties.

Indigenous water ownership

Source: ABC TV Stateline NT
Published: Friday, March 26, 2010
VIDEO: (Expires June 24, 2010)

Interview Transcript

Joe Morrison from the North Australia Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance discusses water allocation for Aboriginal people.

Water flows past rocks on the Archer River in far-north Queensland.
(Wilderness Society: Glenn Walker)

MELINDA JAMES, PRESENTER: Should Aboriginal people have a bigger say in how water is managed across the north of Australia? Indigenous leaders are campaigning for water allocation so aboriginal people can use it in the future to develop commercial projects. The push has raised fears of a divisive legal battle over who owns water and who'll have to pay. I spoke with Joe Morrison from the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance. Joe Morrison, thanks for talking to us.

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: Thanks for having me.

MELINDA JAMES: Let's begin by clarifying exactly what this is all about. Is this a campaign to win legal ownership of rivers and lakes and aquifers in Northern Australia, so that the water would be owned by Indigenous people?

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: No, not at all. This is really a policy statement that we put out this week which really does two things. Firstly, it puts on the spotlight the need for Indigenous people to be part of the water management process, and I think that should be celebrated, given the amount of land owned by Indigenous people in northern Australia, and, secondly, it allows Indigenous people, and particularly Indigenous people to work with the states and territories and the Commonwealth to come up with a way in which Indigenous people can contribute to economic development in northern Australia through commercial use of water.

MELINDA JAMES: so, it has been reported that the rights you are seeking over water would be the same as land rights, in that they'll be similar to the inalienable freehold title that's held by recognisable traditional owners over land at the moment. Is that accurate?

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: No, that's not accurate and in fact it's far from the truth. What we're calling for is really for Indigenous people to be part of the water planning process and to be part of the equitable sharing of the commercial allocation of water resources in northern Australia. So, I want to make it clear that, firstly, Indigenous people want to share the water with all other people in northern Australia. But they want to make sure that they're at the table when it comes time to negotiating the use of water, and also the commercial use of water.

MELINDA JAMES: In that case, how would this work. Are you hoping to reach and agreement with governments on behalf of Indigenous people about access to water, for not just Indigenous people but other possible water users as well?

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: Absolutely, I mean we understand the context of northern Australia. There's a lot of people and other landholders, there's different land tenures in northern Australia. So, we want to make sure that we work with the states and the territories to come up with a way in which Indigenous people can in fact contribute to the better management as well as the use of water. And so this has really been part of the discussion we've been having for a number of years to come up with a policy statement. There's nothing legal about this, this is just a statement of intent by Indigenous people right across northern Australia that they want to be considered in the use and management of water resources.

MELINDA JAMES: So, it would be about bringing traditional owners who own land through which waterways run to the negotiating table when water allocations are being decided - is that right?

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: Absolutely, and also for disaffected Indigenous groups where, for example, there may not have been a Native Title settlement due to historical reasons. We want to make sure that those Indigenous people in those particular places are able to sit down and discuss with states and the territories ways in which they can participate in the management, but also ways in which the water planning process can help to alleviate poverty in those particular places.

MELINDA JAMES: Are you hoping that water will be set aside, because water is owned by the Crown at the moment, that water will be set aside when the Crown is deciding how to allocate this water for Indigenous people for possible future commercial use?

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: Absolutely, yes.

MELINDA JAMES: So, Indigenous people, would they be treated any differently or given any special treatment in terms of being promised an allocation of water into the future for some, as yet unspecified, purpose?

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: Well, I guess that, I guess if you get to the hub of the policy statement itself, and I guess the word, rights, may confuse some people. So, from an Indigenous point of view, Indigenous people see themselves as having a longstanding connection to the lands and the waters, and understanding that people don't necessarily see it, the difference between land and water and people. It's all intrinsically entwined and part of one system and what we want to do is make sure that people are part of that process of, you know, better management of water.

MELINDA JAMES: So, can I take it from what you've said you won't actually be seeking any royalties-based system for the use of water that does run through Aboriginal land?

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: Ah, no, we're not saying that at all. I mean, what we are talking about is the way in which Indigenous people can participate in the development of the North, and that's, I guess, the primary underlying goal of the policy itself was to ensure that Indigenous people are part of the broader discussion about development of the North. We've heard recently the report on the release of the Northern Taskforce Report. I think what gets lost in a lot of this is that Indigenous people have a very special place in connection to northern Australia and we want to make sure that we maintain that connection, which is why people talk about their inherent, custodial, long-standing rights.

MELINDA JAMES: Joe Morrison, let's just finally talk about the political response to your policy launch this week. The Territory government seemed very positive at first, then seemed to backtrack a little to say that it wasn't supporting Indigenous rights over water per se, and the Territory Opposition leader's come out strongly, saying this is taking things a bridge too far. How do you feel about the political response you've had so far?

JOE MORRISON, NAILSMA: Well, firstly, I can't see how we could be taking a bridge too far when we're just saying we want to be part of the water resource management process firstly. And, secondly, that we want to ensure that the water resources the Indigenous people have been managing for a long time in northern Australia, people actually use some of that water and we're talking about equity here, not all of it, we're talking about an equitable slice of that water for economic development purpose for future generations of Indigenous people.

MELINDA JAMES: Joe Morrison, we've run out of time, but thank you for talking to us.


Aboriginal coalition wins backing for water rights campaign

Lex Hall The Australian March 25, 2010

An Aboriginal coalition has won Northern Territory government support for a radical plan to give traditional owners legal and commercial rights over inland waterways, lakes and underground basins across northern Australia.

The coalition, steered by the father of reconciliation Pat Dodson, says traditional owners have a right to equal access to water and to a share in the commercial benefits it brings.

Territory Indigenous Development Minister Malarndirri McCarthy said she supported the idea, saying water rights could secure the economic future of many remote-area Aborigines.

`We have to be smart about the way we look at the vision of the future, but we also have to be mindful that we cannot leave anyone behind," she said.

Indigenous leaders from Kimberley to Cape York, gathered in Darwin yesterday to launch the campaign for legal ownership of the lakes, rivers and aquifers in tropical savannah land across the north of Australia.

"The rights of indigenous people to have access to that water for cultural and social purposes is very important," said Mr Dodson, who is advising the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

"It's also important that in this emerging age there's got to be some equity, some equality, about our access to the consumptive pool, that is the area where the commercial aspect of the water is going to be made available for use in various industry purposes."

NAILSMA, which comprises the Kimberley Land Council, the Northern Land Council, Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, is calling for a percentage of water to be put aside for economic development, which may include leasing water to users.

The areas under consideration include the Kimberley in Western Australia, Cape York and the Gulf country in northern Queensland and the Top End of the Northern Territory.

NAILSMA chief executive Joe Morrison said traditional owners had been taking care of the waterways for thousands of years and deserved recognition.

"At the moment, there's no mechanism that allows indigenous people to participate in commercial allocations of water," Mr Morrison said.

He said said there had been no talk of royalty payments. "This is about indigenous people wanting to find a solution to the better management of water resources."

The policy has been developed by NAILSMA through the Indigenous Water Policy Group.

The NLC's Robbie Dalton stressed the group was not aiming for a complete takeover of water rights, and was focused on access to the so-called consumptive pool.

This is water used for critical human needs and agricultural and commercial purposes.

"Aboriginal people have been locked out of emerging markets such as biofuels and if water is going to be seen as a commodity, and it's our view that the government is moving that way, then absolutely we want Aboriginal people to be a part of that," Mr Dalton said.

Waubin Aken, chairman of the Balkanu Cape York Development, said Aboriginal people had already been denied economic opportunities because of the Queensland government's Wild Rivers legislation, which aims to conserve waterways in the state's north.

"The government needs to understand that 40 per cent of our export markets come out of the north and we want to be a part of that," he said.

NT Cattlemen's Association chief executive Luke Bowen said Aborigines owned up to half of the Territory and therefore had to be included in the debate over water rights.

But he said the focus had to be on development of future markets, noting it would be "unfair" to deny landholders water allocations for commercial ventures.

"If we're going to be equitable of this, we have to consider those future needs," he said.

Tribes sign marine conservation pact

AAP Brisbane Times March 27, 2010

Nine indigenous groups will team up with conservationists to protect turtles, dugongs and dolphins in the Great Barrier Reef.

The Girringun Aboriginal Corporation and WWF Australia will sign the agreement in Townsville today.

WWF spokesman Cliff Cobbo says the agreement aims to advance the capacity of traditional owners to conserve and protect their land and sea resources.

The partnership will focus on the conservation of marine turtles, dugongs and inshore dolphins while respecting Aboriginal tribes' special right to hunt a small quota of dugongs and turtles.

Girringun chief executive Phil Rist said the deal helped strengthen already good relations with conservationists.

The Girringun Aboriginal Corporation consists of nine tribes: Bandjin, Djiru, Girramay, Gugu Badhun, Gulnay, Jirrbal, Nywaigi, Warrgamay and Warungnu.