While Queensland’s Wild Rivers initiative has attracted criticism recently, the debates have failed to focus on the facts or on why river protection is so important.
Queensland is lucky to retain some of the world’s healthiest natural river systems. They underpin regional economies and support unique and diverse wildlife. Free of dams, weirs, polluting irrigation schemes and industrial development, the natural and cultural values of these rivers remain largely intact.
River systems such as these are increasingly rare. Many of the world’s major rivers are severely degraded or on the brink of collapse. These rivers are plagued with environmental problems caused by dams, polluting irrigated agriculture, mass water diversions, destructive mines, dramatic loss of wildlife and fish, and encroaching invasive weeds and pests.
In Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is our own stark example of river management gone terribly wrong. In the early 1990s, events like the massive algal blooms in the Darling River and the escalating problem of salinity and erosion heightened the public’s awareness of the need to better protect precious river systems. More recent exposure of the effects of over-utlisation of Murray-Darling water resources, has added political impetus for fundamental national reforms about the way we manage rivers and waterways.
It is within this early period of public awakening that the Wild Rivers framework was born. In 1992, led by the Australian Heritage Commission, the Federal Government commenced the Wild Rivers Project. The Commission undertook a national assessment of Australia’s rivers, and identified pressures on wild rivers and recommended management principles for maintaining wild river values and a draft Code of Management.
Motivated by disastrous irrigation developments like the colossal Cubbie Station cotton farm in southern Queensland and the lack of regulatory protection afforded to Queensland’s free flowing rivers, the Wilderness Society and other conservation groups initiated a campaign in the early 2000s to seek government action around a Wild Rivers framework. In 2004, former Premier Peter Beattie announced his intention to protect 19 river systems in Queensland by creating a stand-alone Wild Rivers Act.
Following Beattie’s re-election, the Wild Rivers Act was passed in 2005. The legislation enables the Queensland Government to protect healthy river basins through a “wild river declaration”, following public nomination and consultation processes. A declaration is akin to a planning mechanism - it regulates new developments in defined wild river areas, setting a baseline for ecologically sustainable development.
This effectively means that big developments like dams, using the water for intensive irrigation and strip mining in the catchments is kept out of these rivers. At the same time, a declaration supports the continuation of existing activities, including grazing and fishing, as well as the establishment of smaller scale commercial uses, eco-tourism, new outstation developments and other sustainable activities.
In 2007, the government initiated negotiations, involving Noel Pearson and other Cape York Indigenous advocates and The Wilderness Society, on legislation to support return of lands to traditional owners and conservation outcomes, a process to support a World Heritage nomination, and measures to support economic opportunities for Cape York Indigenous communities.
As a result the government amended the Wild Rivers Act to put the protection of Native Title rights and interests beyond doubt and extended water rights to Indigenous communities. Despite a vicious campaign currently suggesting otherwise, this means that cultural practices as well as traditional hunting and fishing activities are not restricted, and for the first time in Australia, Wild River declarations also provide a special water reserve specifically for Indigenous economic and social use.
Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation is thus a groundbreaking achievement. It is a leading initiative in Australia’s urgent quest to reform the way we go about managing our rivers and water resources, while supporting and empowering local communities to look after their rivers. Through advocacy from the Wilderness Society, the Queensland government has initiated a program to employ 100 Indigenous rangers to manage ongoing threats to wild rivers such as invasive weeds and feral animals.
The Queensland government officially declared the first Wild Rivers under the legislation in 2006. These rivers were Settlement Creek, Morning Inlet, and the Gregory and Staaten Rivers, all located in the Gulf of Carpentaria, as well as the waterways of Fraser and Hinchinbrook Islands. Despite serious attempts by the mining industry, and peak agricultural groups to stop this from happening, the Wilderness Society formed a strong alliance with the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and Traditional Owners in the Gulf Country to ensure that the river protection measures were passed.