I was privileged recently to join a delegation of First Nations leaders from across Canada in a trip through Northern Australia. This article from a Sydney newspaper shares a little of what we were doing.
Meet one of my heroes, Jeffrey Lee:
Ancient wisdom sends message across the world
They are on their way to meet the stone country people on the remote Western Arnhem Plateau, but first the delegation of Canada’s First Nations stops in Kakadu National Park to visit the man who said no to millions of dollars.
Senior custodian Jeffrey Lee takes them to Koongarra, his bush site that might have become a uranium mine worth as much as $5 billion. If only Lee had said yes.
”Money don’t mean nothing to me,” he says. ”Money come, money go. Once you take my land away, you can’t put it back together again.”
His 11 guests from nine First Nations find nothing strange in this.
”Heartwarming, but not surprising,” says Steve Nitah of the Lutsel K’e Dene Nation. Nitah says native Canadians derive 70 to 90 per cent of their diet from the land but are fighting their own battles with resource developers, from foresters to gas pipeline builders and tar sands miners. They only wish they had the power of veto that Lee enjoys under the Northern Territory land rights act.
Lee’s father and grandfather had wanted the mine but, after a decades-long battle, he has succeeded in his own determination that Koongarra be folded into the world-heritage park that surrounds it.
When Lee divulges his cut from the mine might have been $7.5 million, a 26-year-old member of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s tribal parliament, Jess Housty, shrugs: ”The money is the least interesting thing. If we want to calculate the value of a proposal, the question is, ‘What’s at stake?’ My identity is based on the stories my people have written in the landscape. If you kill the land, you kill our stories. If you kill our stories, you kill the people. It’s as simple as that.”
They are sweltering in temperatures of 30 degrees-plus. Some of them are more comfortable in -30 degrees. But they find they have much in common with indigenous Australians like Lee.
It is why the Pew Charitable Trusts has brought them here. The US-founded global philanthropic giant, which built its perpetual fund on the Pew family’s old oil fortune, is focusing its environmental work on the world’s remaining ”big scale” treasures – the kind of intact ecosystems over vast landscapes that can still be found in Canada and Australia.
So early on Saturday, we board single-engine planes bound for Warddeken, an indigenous rangers’ camp in the stone country of the Mok clan. This tiny outpost is protecting what Pew’s Australian director, ecologist Barry Traill, calls a ”global gem of biodiversity”.
The Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area is half the size of Switzerland, almost 1.4 million hectares that contain species found nowhere else on the planet: the black wallaroo; the Oenpelli python, rock rats, birds, many plants. It boasts thousands of rock art sites.
But wildfires that can burn for months and grow to ”the size of Sydney” would threaten it all if not for the pioneering indigenous fire management at Warddeken, says Traill. This work earns Warddeken and neighbouring indigenous groups a break-even $1.2 million a year for the abatement of 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.
Warddeken is one of 58 Indigenous Protected Areas that cover more than 51 million hectares of Australia and employ almost 700 indigenous rangers. Launched by the Howard government and expanded under Labor, IPAs are not forms of land tenure. They are agreements between the federal government and traditional owners under which the locals are supported to care for land that is otherwise neglected.
Pew supports several IPAs and believes they can be a model for the Canadians and their own treasures such as the boreal forest, the largest intact forest in the world. The visitors agree. ”I’ve been fighting for something like this for six years,” says Douglas Neasloss of the Kitasoo-Xaixais Nation.
But Warddeken may never have happened if not for ”the old man”, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, AO. Locals had left the area for bigger settlements around World War II and earlier. Nadjamerrek was among pioneers who led a homeland movement back into Arnhem Land in the 1970s and ’80s and, finally, a return to his own country in the late 1990s. He lived until 2009, just long enough to witness its declaration as an IPA.
Much damage was done in those lost years by wildfire, invasive weeds and feral animals.
Trail says: ”We usually think of conservation and say people are the problem. But one of the biggest problems in outback Australia is the lack of people. In more than 50 per cent of Australia there are fewer people managing the environment today than there have been for the past 50,000 years.”
The IPAs, he says, allow the people who know best to work ”on country”.
The on-site operations manager at Warddeken, Jake Weigl, says their controlled mosaic burning ”absolutely replicates” ancient fire practice but exploits modern tools. In the early dry season, they drop incendiary devices from helicopters. He describes how a helicopter will drop a team of just six to nine rangers – armed with only rake hoes, chainsaws and leaf-blowers – to resist fire fronts as big as 50 kilometres.
”For a fire that size in Victoria they’d bring in hundreds of firefighters, but that’s fire suppression – not management. If they managed it, they wouldn’t need so many resources.”
The chairman of Warddeken Land Management Limited, Dean Yibarbuk, points to the return of emu to the area as evidence of the rangers’ success and the recovery of species.
The Nature Conservancy also supports the operation. Pew has backed IPAs elsewhere, including the Kimberley. It is supporting the Ngadju people to protect the Great Western Woodlands in the south-east of Western Australia.
It worked with graziers and indigenous groups to secure the exclusion of mining leases from the Queensland Channel Country rivers and floodplains that feed Lake Eyre, but now they are battling the Newman government’s declaration that it will allow mining after all.
Pew has some enemies, notably elements among recreational and commercial fishers who believe it has supported research that overstates the threat to global fish stocks. Pew stands by the research. Traill derides a conspiracy theory that Pew is backing marine parks in Australia to exclude oil exploration – to benefit American oil producers.
Pew no longer has any money in oil, he says. When established in 1948, founder J. Howard Pew wanted to ”acquaint the American people with the evils of bureaucracy and the values of a free market”. His heirs have a less conservative focus but the group claims to be non-partisan.
Little of this concerns the daughters of Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, Lois and Hagar. They welcome the First Nations people to their country by inviting them to enter a spring, where they pour water over their heads. In their dreaming, it is the nectar of the sugar bee.
”We are really proud to have that mob coming from Canada,” Hagar says. It was their father’s vision to share their knowledge with the world, she says.
Lois adds: ”I believe we are following his vision.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts assisted Fairfax Media’s travel from Kakadu to Arnhem Land.