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Thanks to culturally led management and exclusion fencing, Weemol Spring is running clear, Dalabon Country, NT. Photo Sara Weir.
Thanks to culturally led management and exclusion fencing, Weemol Spring is running clear, Dalabon Country, NT. Photo Sara Weir.

Looking both ways

Location: Dalabon, Rembarrnga and Mayili Country, Northern Territory
Words by: Fatima Measham
Published 21 Jun 2024

The air turns lively with the sound of play as children and dogs take their afternoon dip at Weemol Spring on Dalabon Country in south-central Arnhem Land.

Flycatchers flit overhead, the metallic sheen of their feathers catching the late sun. Pandanus trees form a lush fringe around the water, which appears crystal blue from the refraction of light off the limestone bottom. 

It is a picture that speaks to the relational dimensions of protecting Country. For millennia, water has been at the heart of community and Country – the mirror that reflects the health of both people and landscape. 

In the case of Weemol Spring, water quality and vegetation structure have suffered from the impact of introduced buffalo, horses and pigs.

Since 2016, we have been in partnership with Mimal Land Management, an Indigenous owned and operated land management organisation that focuses on bringing benefits to Dalabon, Rembarrnga and Mayili peoples’ Country and culture. 

We have supported the development of their Healthy Country Plan and as part of this, helped with the completion of the first phase of their Healthy Waters Project. The project’s focus is on protecting three culturally significant freshwater places. 

Together, we installed exclusion fencing around the springs and undertook baseline surveys to monitor changes at each site. The difference within five years at Weemol Spring has been unmistakable. 
Thanks to culturally led management and exclusion fencing, Weemol Spring is running clear, Dalabon Country, NT. Photo Sara Weir.

“Our vegetation is coming back and looking healthy,” says Mimal Ranger and Traditional Owner Leon Lawrence, who has seen the return of water lilies, crayfish, fish, water goannas and turtles.

“The recovery was quite rapid,” agrees Bush Heritage Aboriginal Partnerships Ecologist Brittany Hayward-Brown. “People feel safe to swim now, and the condition of the water and vegetation inside the fence starkly contrasts the outside area.” 

The fences were complemented by baseline ecological monitoring, which focused on building capacity for rangers, including the Women’s Ranger Program.

The survey outcomes have also helped raise community awareness about the benefits of excluding introduced herbivores. 

In late 2023, the next phase of the project was confirmed with a new Memorandum of Understanding that extends our eight-year partnership with Mimal Land Management. The future will see a deepening of the interaction between the Indigenous cultural and western scientific components of the project. 

This will include support of Elders and rangers recording biocultural knowledge, supporting on-Country camps, and co-developing a land management plan that is aligned with Mimal Land Management’s seasonal calendar. 

For Mimal Ranger Vanessa Murray, the work has brought “a lot of fun, a lot of learning in-between, sharing each other’s knowledge”. She adds, “Now that I’m learning more as a researcher myself, I like to know more about science.” Vanessa plans to implement a range of surveys at the sites later this year.

Traditional Owners Dudley Lawrence, Leon Lawrence and Elisabeth Lawrence at Weemol Spring. Photo Brittany Hayward-Brown.

“It’s about acknowledging these two worldviews and keeping the integrity of both while bringing their strengths together,” Brittany says. “We will be thinking carefully about assessing the health of Country by co-developing culturally led monitoring tools based on seasonal indicators that tell us a meaningful and culturally appropriate story about how Country is changing, and its response to our management efforts.” 

What this might look like is the seasonal call of a particular species detected during a bird survey, which prompts a bushfood survey due to its association with a ripening fruit in the landscape. 

Brittany notes that childhood memories of certain bushfoods are themselves “a rich baseline that go much further back than our ecological monitoring”.

Vanessa reflects on the value of restoring Weemol Spring for her community. “It’s a place where old ladies used to love going to do their weaving,” she says. “They’d spend their whole day weaving and sorting out pandanus and boiling the colours.”

“It’s always been an Indigenous-led process,” Brittany says about the Healthy Waters Project. “If stage one can give an indication of what we can achieve together, the next few years look very promising for the health of Country and people.”

We thank and gratefully acknowledge Mimal Land Management for their partnership, and the Dalabon, Rembarrnga and Mayili people for welcoming us to their Country.

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