Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal Water Values and Resource Development Pressures in the Pilbara Region of North-West Australia

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Aboriginal Water Values and Resource Development Pressures in the Pilbara Region of North-West Australia

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Pilbara is a remote arid region with a significant Aboriginal population, rich mineral resources and rapid rates of mineral resource development. Pilbara Aboriginal people claim deep ongoing connections to the land and waterscapes of the area and value water sources and features for a range of socio-cultural, economic and environmental reasons. Those water sources have come under increasing pressure from a new phase of development in the mining sector and so Aboriginal people have a strong interest in the long-term sustainability of this activity. We outline research generated through an agreement between the CSIRO and a major mining company in which fieldwork interviews were combined with the first peer-reviewed synthesis of the diverse and scattered literature describing Aboriginal people's water interests in the area. The paper describes and contextualises Pilbara Aboriginal peoples" relationships to water, highlighting its significance as part of the creative legacy of the ancestral beings, as an elemental resource for life, as reflective and constitutive of group and individual identity by relating people across time and space, and as a key focus of concerns about the ongoing effects of resource development. The scale of water use pressures in the Pilbara and the depth of feeling among its Aboriginal traditional owners and residents emphasise the need for greater resource allocations and engagement by those involved in mine water management and regional water planning, as well as in Aboriginal advocacy and research.

Introduction

There is a growing body of literature explicitly documenting and analysing the ways in which Aboriginal Australian societies attribute meaning to water and the place of water in their formalised systems of knowledge and social institutions (Barber, M 2005; Barber, K and Rumley 2003; Jackson 2006; Langton 2002, 2006; Rose 2004; Strang 2001; Toussaint et al. 2005). Water is a key constituting feature of Aboriginal cultural landscapes and people conceptualise water sources and rivers, as with the land, as having derived from the actions of mythic beings during the Dreaming, when the world attained its present shape and the socio-cultural institutions governing water use were formed (Barber, K and Rumley 2003; Langton 2002; Toussaint et al. 2005). The importance of water is evident in myth, painting, film and dance, as well as in practices, beliefs and ideas (Magowan 2001; Morphy and Morphy 2006; Toussaint et al. 2005; Yunupingu 1994).

As well as examining this 'intellectual use', as Trigger (1985) describes the symbolic, metaphorical and conceptual significance of water, these studies also reveal the material use of water and water's economic significance as a vital element underpinning the Aboriginal harvest and intracommunity distribution of aquatic life (Altman 1987, 2004; Barber, M 2005; Behrendt and Thompson 2004; Finn and Jackson 2011; Keen 2003; Strang 2001). Historically, Aboriginal interventions improved rates of harvest of certain species. For example, river flows were manipulated with the construction of fish traps, weirs and small dams in numerous Australian river systems (Bandler 1995; Keen 2003). Water emphasises the interconnectedness of places from an Aboriginal point of view and associates the material and the economic with notions of sociality, sacredness, identity and the giving of life (Jackson 2005, 2006). Its vitality in unifying the mythical and material in sustaining Aboriginal lives is evident in accounts from across Australia (Barber, M 2005; Langton 2002; Weir 2009).

Consistent with accounts from other regions of Australia, Aboriginal people in the Pilbara perceive water as a crucial constitutive element of the broader cultural and ecological landscape, held and managed under customary systems of law. Water sources are the most important features of the country, having been derived from the actions of mythic beings during the creative period described in one of the local languages as 'when the world was soft' (Ieramugadu and Rijavec 1995). …

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