Yorta Yorta struggles for land justice and the Barmah National Park

by roadsideservice

‘How much compensation have we had? How much of our land has been paid for? Not one iota! Again, we state that we are the original owners of the country. We have been ejected and despoiled of our god-given right and our inheritance has been forcibly taken from us’

– William Cooper, Yorta Yorta, 1939
Previous blog entry on William Cooper can be read here

Since Yorta Yorta people lost their Native Title claim in 2002 I have been involved in various capacities of solidarity with them and environment groups in campaigning for a hand-back/lease-back arrangement of remnant State Forest in Victoria and New South Wales. Basically, the aim was for the land to be handed back to Yorta Yorta, and then Yorta Yorta would lease back the Barmah Forest (think Uluru or Kakadu), and this rent would not have strings attached to it, so Yorta Yorta would decide how this money is invested.

As tends to happen this got whittled down to getting Barmah State Forest, etc, turned into National Parks, cattle grazing and logging ceased, and some minor other restrictions. Yorta Yorta Nations will be on a joint board of management and already there are four Yorta Yorta rangers at work managing the forest.

The Barmah Forest officially became a National Park last week with Yorta Yorta joint management. This is a win. I think it is reasonable to say that this represents a pretty big compromise by Yorta Yorta. However, since, as one elder puts it, they “have always negotiated from the same position of nowhere”, this finally gives Yorta Yorta some negotiating leverage which will have a positive impact on local Koori community (and which hopefully will not be set up for failure through poor funding and bureacracy). But it is still a win.

Yorta Yorta and the Barmah-Millewa Collective have a pretty remarkable history, one that other enviro groups in settler societies could learn a lot from. Here is some history, but you should read the whole article:

Discussions of a coordinated campaign to protect Barmah-Millewa began in earnest in 1998 when the Yorta Yorta occupied the Dharnya Centre in Barmah Forest as a protest against the Kennett and Howard governments’ racist “10 point plan” to water down native title legislation. Many traditional owners and supporters such as FoE attended the occupation, and new alliances and campaigns were established.

Two in particular shaped the future of FoE’s – yet to be established – Barmah-Millewa Collective. Discussions between Traditional Owners led to the formation of Murray & Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), the federation that has become a driving force in the fight to protect the cultural and ecological integrity of the Murray-Darling system. And, FoE received a formal request from Yorta Yorta elders to join them in a campaign to protect Barmah-Millewa and re-establish their rights to manage the forest.

Independently of these happenings, other conservation groups – notably the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) – had long been interested in establishing a system of red gum protected areas. Victorian red gum forests were almost entirely unprotected, having missed out on even the minimal protection outcomes of a regional forest agreement. The only significant area, Barmah State Park, was a park in name only, as grazing and logging were allowed under an upper house deal secured by the National Party. The VNPA always refused to acknowledge it as a protected area.

Following the Dharnya occupation, the Yorta Yorta initiated dialogue with FoE, GVEG and the VNPA, seeking a formal campaign protocol detailing shared objectives and how the groups would work together. These discussions were challenging for some conservationists, as they were asked to commit equally to achieving majority management control and employment opportunities for the Yorta Yorta as to conservation goals such as removing logging and grazing. They felt it was unstrategic or even counter to their organisational mission to step outside the scope of pure nature conservation. To do so, it was argued, would risked damaging their credibility as it required engagement in what was seen as areas of social policy in which they had no expertise. For the Yorta Yorta, whose rights and country were daily trampled upon, this was a false separation, as social outcomes were intrinsically a consequence of environmental protection.

According to Monica, “the Elders were concerned about recovery and rejuvenation and protecting Barmah for future generations.” Issues of management control stemmed logically from that concern. Ultimately, all four groups were able to commit to the protection of the biodiversity and cultural integrity of Barmah-Millewa through joint management of a Barmah-Millewa Conservation Reserve. The Barmah-Millewa Campaign was born.

Yorta Yorta elder and Melbourne Uni academic Dr Wayne Atkinson has come up with the following time line of Yorta Yorta struggle for land justice:

  • Yorta Yorta Claim for Compensation for interference to Traditional Fishing Rights 1860.
  • Petition to NSW Governor for Land 1881.
  • Attempts by Matthews to Secure Land from Victorian Authorities 1881–87.
  • Application to Victorian Board for Land to Establish a Fishing Reserve at the Barmah Lakes 1887.
  • Petition to NSW Governor for Land 19 July 1887.
  • Matthews’ Final Attempts to get Land 1889–92.
  • Applications for Additional Cummera Land 1890 onwards
  • Formation of Aboriginal Political and Land Rights Movement 1930s.
  • Petition to King George V for Human Rights including Land 1935.
  • Efforts to get back Land 1959.
  • Further Deputations for Land 1959–66.
  • Campaign to get back Land 1966.
  • Land Rights Deputation to Canberra 1972.
  • Claim for Barmah/Moira Forests 1975.
  • Fight for Return of Cummera Land 1972–83.
  • Claim for Barmah Forest 1983.
  • Yorta Yorta v State of Victoria and Ors (1994–2002).
  • National Parks and Joint Management

I’m not sure anyone can say (and I hope no one is) this is the the end of a land rights struggle on Yorta Yorta country. For one, there is still the issue of water/river country and the need for “cultural flows” on the flood plain. With the drought and climate change, these issues are going to be more and more contested. I would say that in getting the flows for the forest, and in fighting for river country the same old protagonists will rear their heads: irrigators, governments on ALL levels, fishermen, apiarists, fat cat corporations, shooters and golf clubs. It truly is a thing to encounter seeing all these different groups working together whenever Indigenous people south of the tropic of capricorn ask politely for simple recognition.

I’m not sure if it is because I have been out of the loop for a little bit, but this seems to have passed without much notice among non-Indigenous solidarity folk. In any case, I am glad that after such a long campaign there are Yorta Yorta people on the ground taking care and responsibility for their country.

bryan Andy (program coordinator), Des Morgan (ranger), Mark Atkinson (team leader), Carl Blow (ranger). Photo Ray Sizer, Shepp News