Traditional Owners take on park management
Doug Humann AM was Executive Director of the Victorian National Parks Association from 1990 to 1997 and is an Honorary Life Member. Now as Deputy Chair of the Dhelkunya Dja Land Management Board, he writes about a new way of looking at national parks in Victoria.
In my childhood in the 1960s I slept under canvas at Melville Caves in central Victoria. During the day I roamed the open park-like woodlands of its northern side, the air full of the blossoming wattles and my mind full of who might have lived there.
I've visited what is now Kooyoora State Park many times since, but in November 2015 it was as a member of the State Government appointed Dhelkunya Dja ('healing country') Land Management Board.
Dja Dja Wurrung Traditional Owners, including Parks Victoria ranger staff who are jointly badged as Dja Dja Wurrung Traditional Owners, took us to an extraordinary rock arrangement which evidences Dja Dja Wurrung presence in this landscape and highlights the ongoing attachment of Jaara (Dja Dja Wurrung people) to Djandak (country).
In other parts of Australia, joint and co-management arrangements with Traditional Owners have been in place for decades. It is 40 years since the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT), but progress has been slower in Victoria.
A number of Victorian Traditional Owner groups are now forging their own opportunities for joint management arrangements in the national parks estate alongside wider efforts to build economic and social
prosperity and invigorate cultural identity, including renewal of language and cultural practice.
In the case of Dja Dja Wurrung, this opportunity is built on the back of the Victorian Parliament's Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 and the Recognition and Settlement Agreement (RSA) signed by Dja Dja Wurrung and approved by the Victorian Cabinet in 2013.
Joint management is established under the terms of the Act, which provides a framework that recognises native title in Victoria and allows for parks and reserves to be returned to Aboriginal ownership under a form of land title called Aboriginal Title.
Land under this title will continue to be managed as national parks or other forms of public parks.
The RSA achieved resolution of Dja Dja Wurrung claims to 266,532 hectares of Crown Land, recognises Dja Dja Wurrung as Traditional Owners of this country and - among other outcomes - established the Dhelkunya Dja Land Management Board to jointly manage six parcels of land.
Dja Dja Wurrung Traditional Owners have now been granted title to six parks and reserves within their native title settlement area: Greater Bendigo National Park, Kara Kara National Park, Hepburn Regional Park, Kooyoora State Park, Wehla Nature Conservation Reserve and Paddys Ranges State Park.
These parks will be jointly managed and overseen by the Dhelkunya Dja Land Management Board.
A powerful influence
It needs to be explicitly stated that the extent of dispossession and the degree of hostility inflicted on Dja Dja Wurrung and other Traditional Owners in Victoria following European occupation was nothing short of horrendous.
Despite this, Dja Dja Wurrung presence remains as a powerful influence, standing with dignity and humility and offering, through the Dhelkunya Dja, Dja Dja Wurrung Country Plan 2014-2034, produced by the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, a blueprint for the aspirations of both the Corporation and the Dhelkunya Dja Land Management Board.
Dja Dja Wurrung people have lived on their traditional lands for many thousands of years, with dreaming stories that explain the creation of the land and associations with the land.
It is this connection that is being continued.
The Dhelkunya Dja Land Management Board has a majority of Dja Dja Wurrung members and has been operating for just 18 months. Another similarly structured board in East Gippsland with responsibilities over 10 'appointed lands' is the Gunaikurnai Traditional Owner Land Management Board.
The key piece of work that both boards are now engaged in is the production of joint management plans for their appointed lands.
For the Dhelkunya Dja Board, work is about to commence on these. Among a range of research, this will involve community consultation before the preparation of a draft for public comment and adoption by Victoria's environment minister.
The Board produced its first Annual Report to Parliament in 2015 and enunciated its Vision (the knowledge and culture of the Dja Dja Wurrung people is recognised and incorporated into the management of the Appointed Lands), Mission (to provide a platform for the development of the Dja Dja Wurrung people and their lands) and Values (including to support Dja Dja Wurrung cultural obligations to look after country and act in good faith for the best interests of Jaara).
It is expected that other similar boards will be established shortly. The work of these boards and the opportunities for increased Traditional Owner activity in national parks and other public lands in Victoria opens a new door for engagement for the VNPA, and for the wider Victorian community. This is welcome and long overdue.
Connection to Country
In writing this, and turning more widely, I acknowledge Traditional Owners and the relevant custodians and elders of all the land and sea country in and around Australia and the continuing connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Country.
The Indigenous 'owned' estate (in the legal sense of the word) held under various land rights and Native Titles currently covers about 23% of Australia's landmass, not to mention very substantial areas of sea country.
For example, the Wunambal Gaambera people of the northern Kimberley have responsibility for 1.6 million hectares of sea country.
The National Reserve System includes the more than 10,000 protected areas in Australia and covers 17.88% of the country; there are now 72 dedicated Indigenous Protected Areas that make up 40% of the National Reserve System.
The lens through which we consider the national parks model has changed.
While the principal purpose of parks to conserve, protect and manage the natural and cultural environment, and to engage people through education and research, remains, expanding partnerships which
reflect community aspirations and which build a sustainable base to enable those aspirations to be met must be found.
This remains the responsibility of government, but will only succeed with cooperation and support from the wider community. Joint management of Victoria's national parks is a big step in that direction.
This story first appeared in the June 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.