Battle for the Fitzroy River: Kimberley divided over bid to harvest precious resource


‘They just can’t leave anything alone, they want to exercise what they consider their right to interfere in natural processes that have determined the landscape for millions of years.

I have briefly visited this area and can say it’s fragile, really fragile. It’s so fragile that it may take years for a vehicle’s track to be erased.

It is a beautiful place that should be allowed to remain largely untouched, that only superficial impacts be made, let the water flow, the grasses grow and die, the animals live as they have forever and actually reduce the stocking rates so that over time the Kimberley area is more like it was prior to European settlement and interference!

IMAGINE what a unique place it could be, like one huge national park managed on behalf of all of us by the traditional owners.

We loved the Kimberley’s, it’s a magnificent place despite what we have done to it over the last 150 years, let’s hope it has a sustainable future.’

Battle for the Fitzroy River: Kimberley divided over bid to harvest precious resource

ABC Kimberley By Claire Moodie


Geike Gorge

PHOTO: The Fitzroy River runs about 700 kilometres across the Kimberley region of Western Australia. (Supplied: Hugh Brown)

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It is being pitched as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to create hundreds of jobs in Western Australia’s far north.

Key points:

  • Heavily redacted emails obtained under Freedom of Information shed light on tense negotiations about the future of the Kimberley’s Fitzroy River
  • Media was not permitted to attend a meeting of stakeholders held in August
  • Proponents of a plan to harvest water from the river say it is a once in a lifetime opportunity

Proponents say tapping into the mighty Fitzroy River for irrigation could “supercharge” the region’s cattle industry, using water that would otherwise run “uselessly” into the ocean.

But, as negotiations ramp up between those who want to harvest water and those who want to protect the heritage-listed river, there is growing concern about the consultation process.

A recent complaint to the WA Government, obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information (FOI), reveals claims of “aggression” and “intimidation” at the latest meeting of stakeholders.

Held in Fitzroy Crossing in August, the gathering of more than 60 stakeholders was the first time that many Aboriginal traditional owners, who live along the river, had met in the same room with the cattle industry to try to find some common ground.

Cattle shown where to drink at Liveringa

PHOTO: The Fitzroy catchment spans 94,000 square kilometres and 95 per cent of it is covered by pastoral leases. (ABC News: Ginny Stein)

‘Chatham House Rule’

The meeting was held behind closed doors, with stakeholders agreeing to a variation of the “Chatham House ruleto keep the discussions off-limits to the media.

But, the heavily redacted emails released under FOI have cast some light on the nature of the confidential negotiations.

In a joint email to the State Government, environmental groups, Pew Charitable Trusts and Environs Kimberley, criticised an unsuccessful push to remove their representatives from the meeting as an attempt to “intimidate and stifle debate” on the future of the river.

“We have not been subject to the level of aggression and disrespect displayed in this meeting in our combined 30 years of dealing with mining, agricultural and other development proposals in WA,” the groups said.

Criticism of another stakeholder at the Fitzroy meeting, they claimed, had been “disrespectfully and unnecessarily aggressively delivered and sustained for an uncomfortable and intimidating length of time”.

“This unacceptable behaviour was not controlled or managed in any way by the WA Government departmental officers nor consultants, despite this being a taxpayer-funded meeting,” the email said.

No minutes from meeting

The claims are difficult to verify.

Proposed Fitzroy River National Park

PHOTO: The water allocation plan for the Fitzroy is part of broader discussions about creating a new national park in the area. (Supplied: WA Labor)

Media were not allowed into the meeting and were asked to move away from the public area outside the conference room at the Fitzroy River Lodge.

Asked in the days following the meeting if there was any record of the proceedings, a Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) spokesperson said that no formal minutes had been taken.

It has since been revealed, through the FOI emails, that department staff themselves were also asked to leave the meeting.

In a response to the complaint by Pew and Environs Kimberley, the Department acknowledged the forum had been “challenging at times” with some “intense conversations” but that it had “respected the wishes of all for a stakeholder-led process.”

It said it could not comment on the push to remove conservation groups from the meeting or the decision to uphold “Chatham House rules”.

“These issues were raised, and we were advised agreed to, during the period when State Government and others [redacted] were asked to leave the room.”

‘One river for all of us’

The only public record of what happened at the Fitzroy Crossing meeting is a communique, reporting “broad agreement” by the stakeholders on a list of principles.

The document entitled “One River for All of Us, Black and White” describes the two days of discussions as “wide-ranging and constructive” and said that the forum had agreed that “groundwater and surface water extraction … may be considered”.

AUDIO: Communique released on future of Fitzroy River (Breakfast)

Pew and Environs Kimberley have distanced themselves from the communique:

“At no time did we understand that we were agreeing to principles for development proposals,” their joint email said.

“Our position remains that there is a very strong case for protecting the river

The Fitzroy is part of our national heritage and is the life-blood for thousands of traditional owners … “

In its response, DPIRD said it believed the communique was a genuine reflection of the discussions among stakeholders.


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The WA Government hopes to release a draft water plan for the Fitzroy River early next year

The ABC knows of only two proposals.

Go Go station has had a long-standing proposal to take 50 gigalitres from the Fitzroy catchment to irrigate fodder crops.

*And billionaire, GINA RINEHART’s company, HANCOCK AGRICULTURE has three cattle stations in the Kimberley and reported ambitions to harvest 325 gigalitres of water.*

*The company outlined a proposal to the Director General of DPIRD earlier this year whereby land from its Fossil Downs station could be incorporated into a new Fitzroy River national park in exchange for access to water.

*The ABC has made numerous requests to Hancock Agriculture for comment but it has declined or not responded.

Backing up the case for large-scale irrigation is a CSIRO report which found 1,700 gigalitres of water could be taken from the Fitzroy catchment annually to support 160,000 ha of crops.

The CSIRO calculated the mean annual discharge into the ocean at about 6,600 gigalitres.

*But, the recent negotiations between the stakeholders have been taking place against a backdrop of parched river beds.

An untypically dry wet season has been blamed for the deaths of more than 40 endangered Sawfish in December.

An aerial of a dried out river bed

PHOTO: An extremely dry wet season has left dry conditions in much of the Fitzroy catchment. (ABC Kimberley: Courtney Fowler)

‘Let it be free’

*Chantelle Murray, an indigenous ranger from Gooniyandi, one of a number of groups with native title rights across the massive Fitzroy catchment, has already made up her mind on the prospect of water being harvested for agriculture.

*“The water should be flowing free as it has always been,” Ms Murray said.

“Let it be free … don’t interrupt with nature.

“Our small billabongs will be dried up and our way of living will be changed.

“Twenty years from now, we’ll have our grandkids and great grandkids asking:

“Why did this happen?”

portrait shot of Chantelle Murray smiling at camera, in front of bushland

PHOTO: Gooniyandi woman Chantelle Murray believes the Fitzroy River should left to run free. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)

‘There’s nothing there’

*Mervyn Street, a Gooniyandi artist, teacher and former drover also has serious concerns about the negotiations over the future of the river.

Born under a boomerang tree on Louisa Downs station in the 1940s, Mr Street said he had never seen the rivers and creeks on his traditional country so dry.

“I went all the way around the main fishing holes and they’re all filled with sand … here’s nothing there,” he said.

*“Some people say that wasted water is running into the sea but what’s going to happen when, like this time, there’s no rain, no water in the river?”

Portrait shot of Mervyn Street

PHOTO: Gooniyandi artist, Mervyn Street, says he’s worried about the health of the Fitzroy River. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)

*Mr Street is supporting a rally to be held in the coming weeks in Fitzroy Crossing which he said would give a voice to local people, who had not been involved in the consultation process.

“We don’t want to see agriculture get hurt and the traditional owners get hurt — we can make things right,” he said.

“But we got to put all these things on the one table, sit down and work together.”

A banner with writing on it that says stop the land and water grab

PHOTO: Banners are being painted ahead of a rally in Fitzroy Crossing. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)

Mixed views on the river talks

The Fitzroy and its tributary, the Margaret River, run through the Gooniyandi’s vast native title areas.

As in neighbouring Bunuba country, views on taking water from the river are complex and diverse.

*Prominent Bunuba leader, June Oscar, said the plans by pastoralists for the river were of “huge concern to her people and to the many groups that are connected to the Fitzroy River”.

June Oscar explaining something, with her arms and hands stretched out

PHOTO: June Oscar says the Fitzroy River talks are of huge concern to her people. (Supplied: Charlotte Dickie of the Kimberley Land Council)

Ms Oscar, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, told the ABC during a visit to the region to address an indigenous women’s ranger forum, that Aboriginal cultural knowledge must be considered.

“We lived in the Kimberley all our lives, we know that the river doesn’t flood every year,” she said.

“We know that the whole ecology and biodiversity that is dependent on the water flows is so important.

*“It’s not just the water that flows in the river and sits in the river — it’s around the replenishing of the aquifers and the feeding of the ecology out on the floodplains.”

Claims process ‘rushed’

Most of the Aboriginal groups along the river have been represented by an umbrella group, the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council.

*Since the Fitzroy meeting, the council’s chair, Dr Anne Poelina, has also been outspoken about her concerns about the process.

*“I and the council members are actually quite worried about the rate and the speed of which the development is being proposed,” Dr Poelina said at a recent forum in Broome.

Anne Poelina and Alistair Shields sitting together, shaking hands, on a veranda

PHOTO: Dr Anne Poelina of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council and Alistair Shields, the co-chairs of the Fitzroy Crossing stakeholders meeting. (ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)

“There’s very little resources that the council has, to be able to generate its own research, to be able to peer review some of the processes that are going on with the river.

*“They [the elders] are also quite concerned that there doesn’t seem to be the opportunity to get out to community to talk to the people who live on the land who are going to be most impacted by this development.”

A boab tree in front of red rocks

PHOTO: The Fitzroy River catchment spans about 94,000 square kilometres and about 40 cattle stations (Supplied: Hugh Brown)

Minister defends negotiations

The Minister for Regional Development, Alannah MacTiernan, has defended the consultation process which she said had been running since early 2018.

Ms MacTiernan also rejected the complaint by the two conservation groups, Pew Trusts and Environs Kimberley.

“If you are expecting everyone in these groups to come together and sing Kumbaya and that’s somehow how we are going to resolve this, it’s not going to happen,” Ms MacTiernan said.

“We were asked by the Martuwarra Council, who represents the traditional owners, and by the pastoralists’ group to enable them to conduct the meeting.

“Not for it to be conducted by departmental or ministerial people … for them to determine the meeting and set the ground rules.

“It’s not going to be without controversy, and of course it’s not going to be without some heated discussion.

“But this whole process is really designed to see where we can establish some common ground.

“At the end of the day, they decided that they wanted this forum and they ended up issuing a joint communique and quite frankly I think that’s something that should be celebrated.”

Ms MacTiernan said the consultation was already extensive and that the State Government had provided resources to all of the Aboriginal groups involved.

A man fishing on a bridge on the Fitzroy River, surrounded by trees.

PHOTO: There are about 50 Indigenous communities in the Fitzroy catchment that have recognised native title and cultural heritage rights. (ABC News: Vanessa Mills)

CEO of the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association, Emma White, said the consultation process was important because it aimed to set out not only what amounts of surface and ground water from the catchment may be available for sustainable economic development but also what needed to be safeguarded for environmental and cultural flows.

Ms White said the participants at the Fitzroy Forum had agreed to observe “Chatham House rules” in conducting the meeting and provide no media comment.

But she added in a statement:

“This does not prevent participants in the forum discussing issues relating to the meeting or the election commitments with relevant Government agencies nor amongst their own organisations/relevant groups.

“The association looks forward to continuing to work constructively and collaboratively with all stakeholders in relation to the implementation of the Fitzroy Valley election commitments and to build on the shared sentiment from the August Fitzroy forum of “One river for All of Us, Black and White.”

Geike Gorge