Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

A Time for Change? Indigenous Heritage Values and Management Practice in the Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes Region, South Australia

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

A Time for Change? Indigenous Heritage Values and Management Practice in the Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes Region, South Australia

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes in South Australia have long been recognised under the Ramsar Convention for their natural heritage values. Less well known is the fact that this area also has high social and cultural values, encompassing the traditional lands and waters (ruwe) of the Ngarrindjeri Nation. This unique ecosystem is currently teetering on the verge of collapse, a situation arguably brought about by prolonged drought after decades of unsustainable management practices. While at the federal level there have been moves to better integrate typically disparate 'cultural' and 'natural' heritage management regimes--thereby supporting Indigenous groups in their attempts to gain a greater voice in how their traditional country is managed--the distance has not yet been bridged in the Coorong. Here, current management planning continues to emphasise natural heritage values, with limited practical integration of cultural values or Ngarrindjeri viewpoints. As the future of the Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes is being debated, we suggest decision makers would do well to look to the Ngarrindjeri for guidance on the integration of natural and cultural values in management regimes as a vital step towards securing the long-term ecological viability of this iconic part of Australia.

Introduction

For the last 65 years we have witnessed the decline in the health, wildlife and other resources of the lakes and river, made worse by the deliberate introduction of exotic species ... and destructive farming practices ... As a result of this destructive land management, the Coorong, for thousands of years a major focus of our culture and economy, began to deteriorate and is rapidly dying today (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:15). In Australia the closing decades of the twentieth century saw a number of fundamental changes relating to land rights, commencing with Indigenous Australians being included in the census as citizens (1967), followed by the enactment of an array of national and state land rights and cultural heritage protection legislation, and culminating in the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), which provides for recognition of the pre-existing rights of Indigenous peoples to lands and waters. The international legal arena concurrently experienced the evolution of norms in regards to the nondiscrimination of people on the basis of 'race' and the right to self-determination (Sutherland and Muir 2001). Such developments have contributed to the blurring of the nature-culture divide in the entangled fields of heritage and natural resource management, resulting in the recent emergence of more closely aligned management strategies designed to achieve sustainable use of the environment for the benefit of future generations (Johnston, C 2006). This approach is much more akin to traditional Indigenous models of land management, where strong attachments to country translate into ethics of care and custodianship (cf. Rose 1996). Such paradigm shifts have had important ramifications for Indigenous peoples' assertions of their ownership and rights over country, and the roles they can play, and are playing, in environmental management (Berkes 2008, 2009; Borrini-Feyerabend, Kotharia and Oviedo 2004; Veitayaki 1997). The ultimate outcome will hopefully be the emergence of cohesive management strategies recognising and protecting heritage values in a sustainable, integrated fashion (Johnston, C 2006). However, the idea that traditional Indigenous knowledge and traditional owners are critical to such management strategies is only slowly gaining currency in Australia (Brown et al. 2006; Corbett, Lane and Clifford 1998; Lawrence 1996; Young et al. 1991). Of an estimated 6000 protected marine and terrestrial areas in Australia, not even 0.5% were under formal joint management arrangements at the start of the new century (Baker, Davies and Young 2001:12; Muller 2003). Even when management does engage Indigenous communities, it is still the case that there is often a trade-off between the rights and interests of Traditional Owners and those of government conservation agencies, causing further alienation (Smyth 2001). …

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