A partnership in the Kimberley

Saturday 20 June, 2009

Bush Heritage is collaborating with Wunambal Gaambera people on their traditional land in the Kimberley, a region of extraordinary diversity and cultural richness. Stuart Cowell reports

The magnificent Wunambal Gaambera country in the Kimberley region, WA. Photo courtesy The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

The magnificent Wunambal Gaambera country in the Kimberley region, WA. Photo courtesy The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

Travelling by Cessna, earplugs firmly in place to counter the din of the engine dragging us ever upward, I am eagerly looking for the evidence of yesterday’s fire lighting. In the rugged and complex country below, encouraged by dry grass and the midday sun, but thwarted by creeks, rainforests and wetlands, the first fires of the season are creating a healthy patchwork landscape.

A short dusty drive from the bush camp at Garmbemirri, in the far north-west of Australia, we take off from MungalaluTruscott airstrip, once home for over 1,500 people during the Second World War, and now a busy transit facility for crews heading to and from off-shore oil and gas platforms.

Garmbemirri is one of the main camps for the traditional owners of this landscape, the Wunambal Gaambera people. The fires we are looking at from our noisy perch represent a process of traditional owners regaining management control of their country, protecting its extraordinary values.

Traditional owners Janet Oobagooma and Margaret Mangulu with Uunguu Rangers in the background at a Healthy Country Planning workshop in May 2009. Photo Lyndall McLean.

Traditional owners Janet Oobagooma and Margaret Mangulu with Uunguu Rangers in the background at a Healthy Country Planning workshop in May 2009. Photo Lyndall McLean.

For over three years Bush Heritage has been gradually building a partnership with the Wunambal Gaambera people to collaborate on ensuring that their country remains, in their terms, healthy, and in ours, protected. We are, collectively, developing a Wunambal Gaambera Healthy Country Plan to guide management actions into the future, including establishing an Indigenous Protected Area, and conducting field research to confirm the values of the country.

To date, Wunambal Gaambera country – 925 000 hectares of freshwater country (open-canopied eucalypt woodland interrupted by deep green riparian and rainforest zones) and 1.6 million hectares of saltwater country (diverse seagrass meadows, mangrove forests and sponge gardens with over 1,000 islands) – has escaped the wave of extinction and landscape transformation that has swept across the Australian continent in post-colonial times. It remains one of the few places on the Australian mainland that retains the environmental values of pre-European times, and the Aboriginal culture that shaped and lived with that ecology.

A Brahminy kite (Haliastur Indus) that's taken up residence in the region. Photo courtesy The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

A Brahminy kite (Haliastur Indus) that's taken up residence in the region. Photo courtesy The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

Wunambal Gaambera country is made up of a number of land parcels, and is recognised internationally and nationally for its natural values. Despite the presence of two national parks, a significant portion of its extraordinary conservation values (more than 500 000 hectares of freshwater and all the saltwater country) are poorly protected by tenure or management action.

The region is best known as the location of the Mitchell Falls (PunamiiUunpuu), the Bougainville Peninsula – the largest single extent of rainforest in Western Australia – and a coastline recognised as one of the most pristine and ecologically diverse in the world. It's a breathtaking region with an extraordinary biological diversity and cultural richness.

It includes three of the Global 200 priority eco-regions for global conservation, identified as being relatively stable or intact in status while similar systems around the world are under severe threat, and is recognised internationally and nationally as a biodiversity hotspot.

Wunambal Gaambera country also contains many endemic species (not found anywhere else), including at least 16 fish species, 10 frog species, 31 reptile species, two bird species, and six mammal species. Important animals include the golden bandicoot, scaly-tailed possum, monjon, nabarlek, golden-backed tree rat and Kimberley rock rat, and of course birds such as the Gouldian finch are regularly recorded.

The nabarlek is one of six important mammal species in the region. Photo Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.

The nabarlek is one of six important mammal species in the region. Photo Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.

Within this diversity, 44 plant species, five mammal species, three bird and six reptile species are rare or threatened, and a range of vegetation associations and ecosystems are officially at risk.

Rainforests and gorges embedded in the savannah landscape create a relatively high plant diversity (around 1627 plant species, with 102 species as strict endemics), with over 200 species traditionally used by Aboriginal people. Two of the major rivers, the Mitchell and Prince Regent, have been added to the Register of the National Estate, and the whole region is being considered for similar inclusion.

These natural values are part of and overlain by a rich, complex, and living cultural landscape. Wanjina and Wunggurr (the creator spirits) and gwion (the so-called Bradshaw paintings) are pervasive and dictate interactions with many places throughout Wunambal Gaambera country. Wunambal Gaambera spiritual knowledge and onground action guided by that knowledge breathes life into the country, enriching the biodiversity values with a perspective lost to many parts of Australia.

A mangrove tree growing in rocks on the foreshore, which is part of the saltwater country of the Wunambal Gaambera country. Photo courtesy The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

A mangrove tree growing in rocks on the foreshore, which is part of the saltwater country of the Wunambal Gaambera country. Photo courtesy The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

The region has become topical over recent months and years as the proposed location of on-shore gas processing facilities and possible bauxite mines. While gas processing is, for now, proposed elsewhere in the Kimberley, together with bauxite mining it remains a real threat to the region’s natural and cultural values.

However, while significant, our collective focus on these big, bold, and obvious industrial threats is masking the pervasive threatening processes gradually insinuating their way into Wunambal Gaambera country. Now recognised as among the most critical threats to Australia’s biota, introduced pest plants and animals, poor fire management, and the changes wrought by climate change will inevitably lead to the extinctions and loss of values seen elsewhere.

The Wunambal Gaambera Healthy Country project has made significant progress with a series of field trips for research and land management, and joint ‘on-country’ planning workshops. Field work to date, with assistance of the Kimberley Land Council and WWF, has included plant and animal surveys confirming the abundance particularly of small mammals, a critical conservation value; a trial of GPS-based monitoring techniques for protected and culturally important marine turtle and dugong; and the completion of a project started in the late 1990s, working with elders to record language names of plants and animals to be turned into field guides for rangers and others to use.

Our task now is to complete our joint planning and secure the resources required to support the Wunambal Gaambera Uunguu Rangers and Bush Heritage staff as they implement the critical actions required for protection of this country’s important cultural and natural values. Our key activities are establishing an effective fire regime, managing feral animals, particularly cattle and increasingly pigs, and building an effective understanding of traditional use of landscape resources.

How you can help

Establishing an effective fire management plan is one of the key activities of the partnership. Photo courtesy The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

Establishing an effective fire management plan is one of the key activities of the partnership. Photo courtesy The Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

Conservation in this globally significant region will only be sustainable if we get alongside the Wunambal Gaambera peoples and support their aspirations for their country. Our work today will establish a Healthy Country Plan and assist traditional owners to have an Indigenous Protected Area declared, and our ongoing partnership will then carry out active conservation management.

Given the remoteness of the area and the inaccessibility (no roads, broken stone country), the cost of doing business on Wunambal Gaambera country is high. However the cost of losing the values in this landscape is incalculable – our investment now is critical.

We believe that our investment now in partnership with Wunambal Gaambera people will yield lasting environmental, economic and social benefits for future generations of Wunambal Gaambera people, and at the same time manage a national and international treasure.

Acknowledgments

A number of other organisations are collaborating on this project, in particular the Kimberley Land Council, the North Australia Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance and WWF. Bush Heritage would like to acknowledge Jean Hadges, The Nature Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy’s David Thomas Challenge for their generous support of this work. We would particularly like to thank the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation and Uunguu Land and Sea Rangers for their support in making this work happen.

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