Arafura Swamp Partnership

Published 09 Nov 2017 

Photo by Emma Ignjic
Photo by Emma Ignjic
​Gurruwiling (Arafura Swamp) is the largest freshwater ecosystem in Arnhem Land and one of the largest contiguous paperbark swamps in Australia. It features large areas of paperbark forest, numerous lagoons, grass and sedgeland plains, floating mat communities, sandstone hills, sinkholes and springs. The swamp is fringed by extensive woodlands along with numerous patches of rainforest.

A map showing the location of the Arafura Swamp in the Northern Territory

Established: 2014
Area: 1.2 million ha / 1,200 km²
Location: 450 km east of Darwin

The Goyder River flows into the swamp from the Mitchel Ranges to the south, along with numerous small streams. Overflow to the Arafura Sea occurs via the Glyde River winding its way north . The Mitchell Ranges feature rock art and refugia where species are able to persist during climatic extremes. To the north the coastal landscapes include beaches, mangroves, reefs and offshore islands.

The swamp, its catchment and adjacent sea country support over a thousand species of plants and hundreds of fish, bird, mammal, reptile and other animal species. Its large and diverse wetland habitats support as many as 300,000 birds at any one time. 


The Traditional Owners

Arafura Swamp and its catchment and adjacent sea country are rich cultural landscapes where language, ceremonies, art, knowledge and responsibilities continue to be strong.

Arnhem Land is home to roughly 16,000 Traditional Owners — the Bi in the west (including the Nawarddeken Bi groups of the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area), the Yolngu people east of Arafura Swamp (including speakers of the Yolngu languages Djinang, Djinba, Djambarrpingu, Ganhalpuyngu, Mandhalpuyngu, Ritharrngu, Wagilak) and the Rembarrnga-speaking Bi Ngong of the swamp and its catchment. 

Yolngu and Bi people are interconnected by a complex kinship system that governs fundamental aspects of life. Their entire world is divided into two parts: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Each person belongs to one of these; as do animals, plants, places and cultural practises. An individual's relationships with and responsibilities to other people and to everything in nature depends on whether they are Dhuwa or Yirritja.

Arnhem Land, including Arafura Swamp and its catchments, is entirely owned by Aboriginal people and held in trust by the Northern Land Council. Today 37% of the region is protected as part of Australia's National Reserve System. Significant areas are designated as Indigenous Protected Areas and are managed, in part, for conservation.

Lighting cool fires prevents damaging wildfires from sweeping through swamp and surrounding savanna.
Lighting cool fires prevents damaging wildfires from sweeping through swamp and surrounding savanna.
What we're doing

Our partnership with the Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation (ASRAC) has been developing since they invited us to offer support in 2014. ASRAC is made up of ranger groups co-ordinated from a hub in the township of Ramingining. Satellite ranger bases operate on homelands across the region.

Ranger work and land and sea management programs provide opportunities for training and a decent income while people carry out traditional responsibilities to care for their Country. The ranger groups are committed land and sea managers, successful innovators and leaders in savanna fire management.

Healthy Country Planning
Healthy Country Planning
Bush Heritage is supporting ASRAC as it develops governance and administrative capacity. With Charles Darwin University and the Northern Land Council we have worked extensively with ASRAC and the communities around the Arafura Swamp as they developed their Healthy Country Plan for the region. The plan will guide their work through to 2027.

‘We have been inviting Bush Heritage to visit our Country, we feel very happy, giving us time to talk face-to-face and do the field trips. The bush trips are very important to us, giving us the opportunity to express ourselves, supporting the rangers and the local families, to look after our lands.

– Otto Campion, Arafura Swamp Senior Ranger / ASRAC Chair

The Arafura Swamp Rangers' Healthy Country Plan

ASRAC launched their 10 year Healthy Country Plan in 2017. The plan is focussed on building sustained employment and community involvement on Country as they protect biodiversity and culture across their homelands. 

For our people, land, culture and country are never separate. Bringing many partners together to protect our law and culture is really important... This land is our supermarket and our university. We never take too much, just a little, and then leave some behind. Our people are surviving on this land so we must protect it.” 

– Otto Campion

Plumed Whistling-ducks. Photo by Daniel Hartley-Allen
Plumed Whistling-ducks. Photo by Daniel Hartley-Allen
Where to from here?

Our joint priorities for the next three years are:

  • to support the effective implementation of the Arafura Swamp Healthy Country Plan;
  • to increase our support for monitoring, evaluating and adapting the Arafura Swamp Healthy Country Plan;
  • to support ASRAC to develop effective and efficient corporate systems and business plans to strengthen ASRAC governance and the management of land and sea activities and business enterprises.