Aboriginal communities fear their culture will be lost amid Northern Territory cotton boom

Aboriginal elders and Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory are urging farmers to reassure river communities that their water systems will remain pristine and intact as the cotton industry is set to expand.

          Ngangiwumirri elder Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart.

Ngangiwumirri elder Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart. Source: SBS

Ngangiwumirri elder Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart has grown up on the banks of the Daly River. Fishing, hunting and gathering provide a link to her culture and Country.

“When you’re out bush you can really think properly,” the 62-year-old told SBS News. 

“In our culture, we work closely with Mother Nature; she provides us with things that we want and if she sees us doing something that she’s not happy with she won’t give it to us.” 

Ms Marrfurra McTaggart lives in the small river community of Nauiyu, in the Katherine Region of the Northern Territory. It has a population of just over 300 people.

Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart
Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart has grown up on the banks of the Daly River. Source: SBS

It was built as a mission in the 1800s and later taken back by the Traditional Owners of the region and today remains home to 16 different Aboriginal groups.

Ms Marrfurra McTaggart said she “fears what could happen to the river” that she’s spent her life living nearby if the cotton industry expands in the region.

“If the river dies, the younger generation won’t be able to do their hunting and gathering.” 

“It would also be sad for the animals and plants along the river.”

Aaron Green is a Malak Malak ranger. He said culture isn’t the only thing he worries will be affected.

“A good wet brings in good fishing and has a flow-on effect to the community.” 

“When the fish come the tourists follow.”

Aaron Green is a Malak Malak ranger.
Malak Malak ranger Aaron Green. Source: SBS

Fears around cotton stem from the devastating impact the industry has had along the Murray-Darling river systems due to water mismanagement.

In 2017, an ABC Four Corners investigation revealed allegations that upstream irrigators in New South Wales were taking billions of litres of water designated for the environment. 

The problems persisted with millions of fish dying in the Darling River due to poor water quality and perpetuating drought seasons. 

Cotton growers in the Territory have said there will not be a repetition of this environmental crisis assuring the community that cotton there is predominantly rain-fed.

Daly River at the crossing
Source: SBS

“What we’re currently doing is that we’re in a trial phase of learning how to grow cotton under rainfall,” said Bruce Connolly from the NT Cotton Growers Association (NTCGA).

When the fish come the tourists follow. - Aaron Green, Malak Malak ranger
“Water in the Territory is heavily regulated; it’s metered, and the meters are checked every month.

“We also have to do a water return every month and have to explain to the water officers how much water we’re using.”

Bruce Connolly from the NT Cotton Growers Association.
Bruce Connolly from the NT Cotton Growers Association. Source: SBS

Speaking on behalf of his community and Malak Malak Traditional Owners, Mr Green added that while he understands most of the crop is rain-fed, he's concerned by unpredictable wet seasons. 

“Two years ago we had a bad wet season here and most of the billabongs were dried up before it even started raining again.”

“Where are they [the cotton growers] going to get their water from when there is a bad wet season?”

Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart walking to her favourite fishing spot.
Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart walking to her favourite fishing spot. Source: SBS

Mr Connolly said there is a “misconception” in communities that extra water will be taken from the rivers, adding that with no rain they’ll likely have a bad cotton season.

“In the past, we have grown cotton with irrigation licenses but we had to stop growing the other crops [under the license],” he said. 

“You have a finite amount of water available to you in that license and you can’t just use the water ad nauseam, it has to be within that license.”

Aaron Green
Aaron Green is concerned about how the cotton industry will impact the region. Source: SBS

In the Territory, water allocation is governed by a longstanding 80:20 rule that determines how much of the resource must be allocated to the environment and how much can be used by industry. 

“That means that 80 per cent of any streamflow should remain in the stream for environmental purposes and we actually agree with that,” Mr Connolly said.

“Of that remaining 20 per cent, anybody who uses water - and that’s everybody - gets a chop at that 20 per cent.”

If the river dies, the younger generation won’t be able to do their hunting and gathering. - Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart, Ngangiwumirri elder
Mr Connolly said cotton growers have welcomed partnerships with local communities and have tried to engage in community forum events in the past.

“We’d much rather partner with the Traditional Owners, and there are local farmers in the NT who would welcome that opportunity with open arms.” 

Cotton up close
Source: SBS

Next month a cotton gin will be constructed 35 kilometres north of Katherine on Tarwoo Station. It's hoped its construction will allow for the expansion of cotton which industry members hope will increase to about 20,000 to 25,000 hectares over the next five years.

Tipperary Group of Stations general manager David Connolly said it is hoped the gin will also reduce freight costs to farmers and put money back into the Territory's economy.

“Unless processing takes place locally, the freight costs to get the cotton round bales or modules down to processing in the south make the business up here mostly unviable,” he said. 

Tipperary Group of Stations general manager David Connolly
Tipperary Group of Stations general manager David Connolly. Source: SBS

“I’m hoping to see the families who have invested in this type of cropping find it profitable because that allows development in the Northern Territory; it’ll allow them to expand their own farms in other aspects and diversify ways.

“It’ll also allow them to employ people, meaning those people who are employed will spend money in the Northern Territory, which will see the growth in our community.”

Mr Green said he doesn’t agree it will be a benefit.

“But at what expense? You take away a natural resource, then you’ve got nothing left.”

5 min read
Published 30 July 2021 at 1:11pm
By Aneeta Bhole
Source: SBS