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Managing country in southwest Victoria

Land and seascapes stretching west beyond Portland's Nelson Bay and are covered by the 2015 Ngootyoong Gunditj, Ngootyoong Mara Southwest Management Plan. Photo: Jenny Norvick

Land and seascapes stretching west beyond Portland's Nelson Bay and are covered by the 2015 Ngootyoong Gunditj, Ngootyoong Mara Southwest Management Plan. Photo: Jenny Norvick

 

Published 7 December 2016

Jenny Norvick explores how Gunditj Mara culture and ecological knowledge are becoming integral to park management.

"I'll take you to Lake Condah," offered Denis Rose, a Gunditj Mara man and Project Officer with the Gunditj Miring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation.

"I can show you the eels. They're fat and plentiful this year after all the rain we've had."

 

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Lake Condah is a creation of the Tyrendarra lava flow, which poured out of Mount Eccles when it erupted some 30,000 years ago, a wondrous sight witnessed by Gunditj Mara people.

The lava coursed south to the sea along the Darlot Creek valley, interrupting the creek's flow and creating the lake and a series of wetlands and pools as it made its way south to the sea.

The pools and wetlands provided a livelihood based on eel farming, and the capacity to live a settled life that has been dated back 6600 years.

By the time we visited, the rains had been too good and Lake Condah was in flood. We couldn't get through to see the system of pools and channels constructed by Denis's ancestors to trap and farm eels, nor to explore the remains of the domed stone and slab-roof houses where they used to live.

Instead, we visited Kurtonij Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), a Gunditj Mara-owned property downstream on the lava flow.

We saw how stone blocks from the lava flow were used to construct pools, and trapping points where cylindrical woven-reed traps could be placed to trap eels. En route, Denis showed us the Lake Condah Mission site where surviving members of the Gunditj Mara were herded in the 1860s, after they had been driven off their lands.

The Mission holds a special place in the post-European settlement history of the Gunditj Mara people, as many families continued to live on or visit the mission up until recent times.
This ongoing link formed the basis for their first successful claim for land; ownership of the Lake Condah Mission was handed back in 1988.

 

Native title

The Gunditj Mara were granted native title in 2007. Their lands are bounded by water, three rivers - the Glenelg on the west, the Wannon (north) and the Eumerella (east) - and the sea to the south.

They include 2000 parcels of vacant crown land, national parks, reserves, rivers, creeks and the sea, and encompass volcanic lands, limestone caves, forests, marine national parks, sea country and a rugged coastline.

In 2011 they were granted joint native title with the Eastern Maar over lands to the east between the Eumerella and Shaw Rivers, including Deen Maar (Lady Julia Percy Island).
During the early 2000s, the Gunditj Mara set about purchasing the private land along the lava flow, using funds from the Indigenous Land Corporation.

This land was incorporated into six IPAs, three of which, Lake Condah, Kurtonij and Tyrendarra, are declared as part of the national reserve system while the other three are proposed.

Along with Mount Eccles National Park (soon to be renamed Budj Bim National Park) and the Lake Condah Mission, they form the Budj Bim Heritage Landscape, which was included on the National Heritage List in 2004.

An early murder site, the Convincing Ground at Allestree, is also part of the Heritage Landscape.

 

UNESCO listing

The Gunditj Mara have applied for UNESCO World Heritage Listing with the support of the Victorian Government, which has also provided $8 million in funding to develop tourism facilities.

"We'll use some of that tourism money to build an all-weather road to our eel ponds and settlements," Denis Rose told me as we stood looking at the flood-cut road at Lake Condah.

"We want to share our history and culture with as many people as possible."

When native title was granted, GMTOAC was made comanager of Mount Eccles National Park with the State, which is represented by Parks Victoria, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and the Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority.

The Budj Bim Council was set up to steer the comanagement process. It has ten members, six Traditional Owners and four staff from the three agencies.

"So what does co-management involve?" I asked Parks Victoria ranger, Peter Hill, in his Portland office.

"Good question!" he says. "While the native title agreement specifies how co-management should look, the Budj Bim Council has had to discover how it works in practice.

"But all parties to the agreement think that is a good thing. It enables us to work together as partners to develop practical local responses to issues, using the best available scientific knowledge and the cultural and ecological knowledge of the Traditional Owners."

Although the term co-management isn't used, the Gunditj Mara are also equal partners in the Ngootyoong Gunditj, Ngootyoong Mara Southwest Management Plan 2015, which provides the framework for managing all Parks Victoria and Aboriginal-owned and managed land in the region.

The Gunditj Mara cowrote the plan and partner in its implementation, and their influence shows.

The plan takes a new approach to land management. It still sets environmental, visitor and tourism, cultural and research objectives. But it also embeds the narrative of Gunditj Mara history, cultural and ecological knowledge and spiritual beliefs as an integral part of how the land is perceived and of how the land should be managed in the future.

 

Respectful relationships

Parks Victoria still takes responsibility for the environmental issues and park management throughout the broader park system, says Peter Hill, and the Traditional Owners provide support and alternative management directions.

"We consult with Gunditj Mirring on a broad spectrum of management concerns; for example, on keeping machinery and fire away from a scar tree during a burn-off," he says.

"If the Traditional Owners raise any issues, we seek a resolution as a group.

"For the most part our objectives are the same, whether it is controlling the numbers of koalas in parks or working together to prevent off-road vehicles from driving over the sand dunes, eroding them and potentially destroying shell middens or Hooded Plover nests.

"The partnership works because the people involved actively promote respectful relationships," Peter tells me.

"The Gunditj Mara leaders are progressive thinkers, passionate about the environment, culture and heritage and providing information to the wider community. There's a lot of pride in the group and that has created pride and confidence in their community."

More info

This story first appeared in the December 2016 edition of our magazine Park Watch. You can read more stories in our online version, and if you become a member of the Victorian National Parks Association you will receive your own copy in the mail.

Become a member today >>

 

More info

This story first appeared in the December 2016 edition of our magazine Park Watch. You can read more stories in our online version, and if you become a member of the Victorian National Parks Association you will receive your own copy in the mail.

Become a member today >>