One of Western Australia’s top tourist destinations, the World Heritage-listed Purnululu National Park remains at the center of a three-decade dispute between its recognized traditional owners.
- Decades-long dispute between two groups over traditional ownership of UNESCO park remains unresolved
- The Federal Court ruled that neither of the two opposing Indigenous nations had exclusive rights
- Stakeholders say the problem is hampering the site’s tourism potential
The Bungle Bungle Range in the park has been a sacred place to the indigenous peoples of the East Kimberley for tens of thousands of years.
But as visitors flock each dry season to marvel at the impressive beehive rock formations, the future of the park is in a cloud.
In October, the Federal Court attempted to settle the dispute and found that two opposing Indigenous groups both held Indigenous title rights to Purnululu, a step on the road to an Indigenous title determination.
Because the ruling did not clearly favor either claimant, both groups felt that “white man’s laws” are not equipped to deal with “blackfella” disputes.
Who claims ownership of Purnululu?
The national park is wedged between two indigenous nations, Gija (or Kija) to the north and Jaru to the south.
But after centuries of social upheaval, there is no agreement on a border.
Bonnie Edwards is part of the Gajangana Jaru claim, or as she puts it, âNordic-speaking Jaruâ.
For three decades, she maintained that Purnululu was in the land of Gajangana Jaru.
“We are the sovereign owners of this national park,” she said.
Traditional owner Ben Cross is part of the opposing Purnululu claim, a group the Federal Court has heard identified primarily as Gija.
He said his claim was with the rightful traditional owners, be they Gija or Jaru.
âWe are called Gija, and this comes from my mother’s lineage. However, we also speak Jaru,â he said.
“So it’s a Gija-Jaru dialect in this part of the world, because it’s right on the border of two language groups.”
He disagrees with Ms Edwards’ opinion that the Gija tribal boundary does not include Purnululu.
âOver time, with fluctuating climates, people came and went, so it’s not a difficult border,â he said.
Who is right under Australian law?
In her summary of the Federal Court decision, Justice Debra Mortimer said several different Indigenous groups all came from Purnululu.
“It was not a country only for the ancestors of the Jaru people, or only for the ancestors of the Gija people. It was more mixed,” she said.
Ms Edwards said the decision was wrong and some lacked patience and prepared to “declare war on the other tribe”.
âWe told the Federal Court that if you can’t fix it, we’ll have to fix it the aboriginal way,â she said.
A handful of people were named in the two claims, a situation which angered Ms Edwards, but Mr Cross said this reflected the complex family trees involved.
He wants both sides to put aside their differences.
âThese people (Gajangana Jaru’s claimants) were not excluded in the first place. They were part of the original group,â he said.
“All the old people told me the door is always open for them to come in, but for some reason some personalities got in the way.”
What does this mean for the management of the park?
Unlike two other high-profile UNESCO World Heritage business cards, Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta, the dispute has prevented Purnululu from being jointly managed with the traditional owners.
Rangers from both cultural groups are employed for day-to-day operations.
A spokesperson for the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions said in a statement to the CBA that it hopes to establish joint management once the indigenous title holders create a prescribed legal person.
“DBCA looks forward to an agreement between the groups and the opportunity to work with them to present the cultural heritage and natural values ââof the park to visitors from all over the world,” the spokesperson said.
But Ms Edwards said she would not participate in the joint management with Gija’s claimants.
“It’s not going to work. It’s just going to fall apart,” she said.
“We don’t want to have joint management with people like that.”
âHandbrakeâ on the potential of Purnululu
Members on both sides of the argument and the government agree that the conflict has kept Purnululu from reaching its full potential.
âMore cultural interpretation in the park is welcome,â the DBCA spokesperson said.
âOn a practical level, the immersive cultural interpretation and tourism experiences have been limited by the contestation of claims between the Jaru and Gija peoples. “
Mr Cross said his dreams for his country did not come true.
âIt’s (the dispute) about the handbrake (the park)â¦ it’s cultural value and just the level of value it has,â he said.
Ms. Edwards has her own vision of a wilderness lodge that offers tours and cultural products.
But she couldn’t find government support until the dispute was resolved.
“We were going to get the young people – instead of being on drugs and alcohol – all out there,” she said.
“So that they can show their country to park visitors.”
“Should be a process of truth”
The region’s leading indigenous property organization, the Kimberley Land Council, says the situation highlights weaknesses in indigenous title laws.
Interim CEO Wayne Bergmann says the adversarial nature of the court process could pit Indigenous families against each other.
âThe judge heard both sides of their stories and made a decision and that decision (was) neither the plaintiffs nor the defendants will control (the park),â he said.
He said it was clear that more resources were needed to deal with cases as complex as this and that there was a strong case for moving the model to an inquisitorial system, as used in the North territory.
“There should be a truth process and it is an inquisitorial model, where a commissioner is there to do their utmost to uncover the truth and resolve these issues,” Bergmann said.