• Anne Poelina said Traditional Owners living along WA's Fitzroy River want any future development to be sustainable. (KLC)Source: KLC
Work is underway to make an environmental management plan for the river, set future water allocations and establish a national park.
Keira Jenkins

21 Mar 2019 - 4:00 PM  UPDATED 21 Mar 2019 - 4:00 PM

Traditional Owners hope that an ambitious idea to transform Western Australia’s Kimberly region into a major food-growing hub will carefully mange the “pristine” Fitzroy River.

A study released by the CSIRO last year said that investing in dams and other water infrastructure could unlock 160,000 hectares of land along the river, create 5000 jobs and grow more than $1 billion worth of irrigated crops

The WA government revealed this month that it could make up to 600 gigalitres of surface available to pastoralists – a fraction of the river’s 9700GL annual flow.

But Traditional Owners from the Kimberly hope the Fitzroy River and its catchment will avoid some of the long-term mismanagement issues which have led to the Murray-Darling crisis.

Twelve native title groups along the river voted to form Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council last year and have lobbied the WA government to consult with Traditional Owners about any decision involving allocating water to pastoralists.

Anne Poelina, a Nyikina woman, academic and chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, said Traditional Owners want any development to be culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable.

“It’s a pristine system,” she told NITV.

“There needs to be a commitment to do no harm to the people, do no harm to the river, and do no harm to the environment."

“Aboriginal people need pre-informed consent in any plans for the river system. If we get this wrong it will have a severe impact not just on the river, but on us as people. We need to ensure that it is protected.”

Dr Poelina, who will speak at the National Water Forum next week in Adelaide, said Traditional Owners were the “guardians of the river” and must do everything they can to ensure it remains healthy.

“We are connected to the river,” she said. "It’s a very significant system. We believe the flood plains are the lungs of the river."

One of the ways the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council have suggested to protect the ecosystem is to create a “buffer zone” between future developments and the river.

“We want the government to proceed with caution when accepting plans for development,” Dr Poelina said.

“This is an opportunity to safeguard and continue to maintain the Fitzroy River.”

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