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Dr Richard Baker : About Me : Working on Country : Kowanyama Land and Natural Resource Office

Kowanyama Land and Natural Resource Office

Jocelyn Davies and Gary Drewien

Since it was established nearly a decade ago, Kowanyama Land and Natural Resource Office (KLANRO) has supported and guided Kowanyama people in sustainable resource management, integrating the work of community rangers with that of scientists, under the leadership of local elders and community members.

Located at the mouth of the Mitchell River in the Gulf of Carpentaria on the western side of Cape York, Kowanyama community has the same problem that affects everyone else who lives at the bottom end of a river catchment - everything that happens on the land and waters in the catchment affects their country. Coupled with this, the adjacent gulf waters are used intensively for commercial fishing and the community's lands are an attractive area for recreational fishing and camping. By the mid 1980s the combined pressure of these uses was taking a heavy toll on the community's own use of its country for subsistence fishing and private enjoyment. Furthermore, tree clearing and construction of dams in the upper catchment and potentially damaging mineral exploration activities further downstream posed immediate new threats to the community's well-being.

The strategic planned regional approach to management of land and waters which Kowanyama community embarked on at that time was triggered by these impacts and by the community's conviction, drawn from experience, that participation in other people's data collection and planning exercises would not lead to recognition of their right to self-governance. Kowanyama's approach rapidly earned it a reputation as a leader in natural resource management, among indigenous groups and in the 'mainstream' (see Young et al. 1991; Dale 1992; Daphney & Royee 1992; Carr 1993; RAC 1993; Smyth 1993).

Kowanyama community has a population of about 1400 people and its elected council holds a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) - a form of land title granted to Aboriginal groups over former Aboriginal reserves under Queensland legislation - over about 2500 sq km of wetlands and savannah woodlands. The community also owns two pastoral leases that were purchased by the council in recent years. Most Kowanyama residents, who are drawn from a number of different linguistic and clan groups, have strong traditional links to these areas as well as to other adjoining lands and waters. In effect, just about every member of the community is a traditional owner.

For Kowanyama people, their country is the source of their cultural heritage and identity as well as a rich source of food, bush medicine, and raw materials for the production of traditional items. These supplies are important to the people economically, as well as culturally, and their economic value is heightened because the community is quite remote. In the dry season Kowanyama is about a day's drive from Mareeba and Cairns, the nearest large towns. In the wet season, road access is frequently impossible.

When the Kowanyama Land and Natural Resource Office (KLANRO) was established in 1991, its brief was to maximise Aboriginal control of lands held by the Kowanyama Aboriginal Council (KAC) in a way meaningful to the Kowanyama community, and to ensure the development of natural resources was controlled and determined by the community and supported their aspirations. It has done this through securing appropriate technical support, utilising both indigenous and academic knowledge; developing a policy-making capacity and mechanisms to implement policy through management and enforcement; and maintaining a commitment to bargaining and negotiation (Sinnamon 1995). A strategic directions document developed by KLANRO in 1993 (KLANRO 1994) drew on discussions at a bush meeting and on issues and strategies which KLANRO had been working on for some years. It also drew on guidance that the community had sought from networks it had developed with Native American community leaders. When this strategy was reviewed in 1999, by KLANRO staff leading community elders through an informal evaluation process, the community confirmed its strong support for the achievements and ongoing work of the Office.

KLANRO's brief could not be achieved by operating narrowly within the boundaries of the Kowanyama DOGIT lands. Already in 1989 the community had begun helicopter surveillance to detect illegal commercial fishing in the Mitchell River delta and was engaged in negotiations about the impact of commercial fishing. As part of a strategy to achieve government and industry support to close the South Mitchell River delta to all but local subsistence fishing, KAC funded the buyback of two barramundi licences, thus compensating the fishing industry for lost effort. In these early years KLANRO also initiated and organised the Mitchell River Catchment Conference, which brought together local people from across the catchment with government representatives, and which developed goals and a planning process for integrated catchment management (Sinnamon 1995). This was the first time that this concept had been discussed in Queensland.

The day-to-day operations of KLANRO currently revolve around the work of four rangers and a coordinator. They work on all aspects of natural and cultural resource management within the township area and across a much bigger region. They are engaged in such diverse activities as supporting development and maintenance of homelands on Kowanyama land and the needs of elders living at the homelands, control of noxious weeds, seasonal patch burning, management under permit of recreational camping on Kowanyama lands, management of dog registration in the community, and advising on site planning for developments within the town area. All of this is carried out with close attention to how the weather and the tides are affecting the prospects for fishing and for gathering freshwater turtle, mud crabs and shellfish in the wetlands and estuaries. Everything is also done with the routine participation of a diverse array of community members, both elders and younger people.

KLANRO's longer term programs include mapping of the clan estates and cultural heritage places of Kowanyama people, monitoring commercial fishing activities and estuarine crocodile populations, supporting native title claims and the negotiation of Indigenous Land Use Agreements, coordinating a range of research activities, and mapping and assessing wetlands in order to develop a monitoring system. KLANRO has been using GIS for several years to systematically record information and its data base - which includes catalogued reports, files, maps, artefacts, historical and recent photographs, and genealogical records, as well as electronic data - would be the envy of many other natural resource management agencies. The Office has an open-door policy, which means that these resources are accessible to community members, who value them highly.

Kowanyama people's cultural rights and responsibilities in the Alice and Mitchell River National Park, which adjoins the Kowanyama DOGIT lands, are being pursued at a very practical level. While the national park office is very remote from the park, some Kowanyama people visit the park regularly - it is part of their country. KLANRO is surveying the park's natural resources and progressively developing a strong capacity to manage park visitor use and other issues. For this park, the Kowanyama people have always been the managers. A claim over the park has been lodged under the Queensland Aboriginal Land Act 1991, but the traditional owners do not intend to proceed to a joint management arrangement under this legislation for this would mean that, immediately after their ownership is recognised, they would have to lease the park back to the Queensland government. Instead they are working on an Indigenous Land Use Agreement under the Native Title Act 1993 which would provide for joint management to be based on an equal partnership between traditional owners and the national parks agency.

KLANRO's efforts over more than a decade have developed from and reinforced the community's commitment to 'planning our future ourselves'. When government agencies and researchers approach Kowanyama seeking the community's involvement in their projects or activities - which happens frequently because of Kowanyama's record of achievement - KLANRO is able to assess these proposals rigorously in terms of their benefits and costs to the community. Often the response will be 'sorry, but we are busy working on our own priorities and getting involved with your project will only distract us'.

Some key features that have promoted Kowanyama's effectiveness in natural resource management are:

  • the structure that KLANRO provides for the community rangers to work within and to keep the community's 'corporate memory' of natural and cultural resource management
  • strong support for KLANRO from the Kowanyama Aboriginal Council, including funding from its budget for ranger positions and operational costs, and good communications between it and KLANRO
  • 'ownership' of KLANRO by the community, developed through close involvement by community members in KLANRO's strategic planning and through its open-door policy
  • long-term commitment by people employed in the KLANRO coordinator position over the past decade
  • a strong vision, effective planning, and a willingness to negotiate.