A group of Indigenous rangers are working to save the Arafura swamp after years of neglect and damage by feral animals.
Elliana Lawford

3 Nov 2017 - 9:28 AM  UPDATED 3 Nov 2017 - 11:41 AM

Rangers in the Northern Territory are working tirelessly to bring Arnhem Land’s largest freshwater ecosystem back to life, after years of damage caused by feral animals and intrusive weeds.

The Arafura Swamp is one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the Northern Territory, spanning across 1.2 million hectares.

It’s described as a supermarket by the mob that live there, rich with bush tucker.

"I was grown up here, just here in the swamp, and my dad and mum told me how to catch 5 longneck turtle, how to cook and use the bush oven, and how to cook like water lilies,” ranger, Marley Djandirri Dalparri, said. 

Marley’s colleague Peter Djigirr added: "This part is where we’ve got all them food here, hunting for magpie geese, and there’s egg, turtle, all sorts of tucker we’ve got, that’s why we need this swamp."

Now the Arafura Swamp Rangers have teamed up with Bush Heritage and launched a 10-year Healthy Country Plan - to protect culture, knowledge and the vital ecosystem’s health.

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"Not only country we’re talking about bringing country to healthy again but we’re also talking about we want to bring healthy people. Healthy people means health, education, walking and talking on country, we practice it while we on country and we can build up that skill in both way, land management conservation. And we might be looking at social cultural and thinking a way of how we can move forward to start being independent and looking after ourselves,” senior ranger Otto Bulmaniya Campion Said. 

"Arafura Swamp it’s really important it’s got big story and catchment people feed the swamp through the songlines through the language groups, all different language groups, and we have own responsibility through the speaking."

The Healthy Country plan is the work of more than 30 different clan groups, and six different ranger groups, using their traditional knowledge of the bush and country to restore the land back to good health. 

It’s a big task, not just because of the scale, but also because of the many challenges.

"Mimosa, the problem with mimosa, we go there and check all the grassland, kept coming back and coming back, this mimosa is at the Mary River and taking over the floodplains,” Ranger Paul Bunbuynu said. 

Peter added: "Some people, white people, they come and destroy all the native tucker bush tucker, we don’t want to go to shop all the time and eat food there, sometimes we don’t have money to buy, more better we just go here and eat free one, that’s why we need this place for.

"They damaged everything with pig and buffalo and everything and it’s sick, our land is sick and we’re sick."

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The rangers plan - which includes extensive weeding, burning, feral animal control and protection of sacred sites, is already yielding results. 

"We go out and we look after my land, shoot buffalo and pig and make it less, drop down number. We tell mustering mob if they come mustering - make it less, and it’s getting better this land,” Peter explained. 

Their conservation efforts are also seeing the swamps 300,000 waterbirds and seven threatened species start to thrive once again. 

"Changing all the animals, now it’s coming back from the past, and now it’s coming back. Now it’s healthy country now,” Marley smiled. 

The traditional knowledge is being praised.

"There’s a huge wealth of information that exists in the Indigenous knowledge space and often is either ignored or overlooked and it’s to the detriment of all of us, what our current western scientists can learn - the opportunities are huge. I guess the best evidence of this would be in our fire management program, where the real success of fire management in Arnhem land has been a result of that western science and that Indigenous knowledge coming together and working together and really generously sharing with each other and creating a formula that really works,” Dominic Nicholls, chief executive of the Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation, said. 

It’s knowledge that’s been passed down through generations, and is still being passed on today. 

"Sometimes we work together with the kids, teach them how to use the GPS, show the areas on the map. The kids will be finishing so school they got to work with us,” sea ranger Charlie Ramandjarri said. 

Marley added: "I know for myself, I tell my daughter, 'keep looking what I’m doing, so if you go out and you do the same thing like me', both share everything, I always tell all my younger sisters, even my daughter and my youngest brother. 

As the land continues to grow strong, it's hoped the ranger program will too.

"And we want to be guide, we’ve had enough seeing conservation people or anthropologist they all white fellas and they go and tell Yolngu stories, and we want to change that and say ‘no this is our country, this is our story, this is me, and here you are I’m welcoming you.’” Otto Bulmaniya Campion smiled.