Indigenous involvement in environmental and heritage management

Integrative commentary
Rowena Brown and Peter Creaser (eds) Alinytjara Wilurara NRM Services, South Australia and the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage;
Sean Kerins, Northern Land Council;
Jane L Lennon, Jane Lennon and Associates;
Mona Nugula Liddy, Daly River Community Reference Group
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006

Lake Victoria: a case study on Indigenous involvement in environment and heritage management

  • Background
  • Operations
  • What has been achieved?
  • References
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    Lake Victoria is located west of Wentworth and north of the Murray River in south-western New South Wales (Figure 1). There is extensive evidence of Aboriginal occupation of the shores of the lake and surrounding dunes spanning the past 18 000 years.

    In 1994 about 240 burials were found in six burial grounds on the Frenchmans Islands, at the southern end of the lake. Burials were made in the low sand ridges that became islands after 1927 when the lake level was raised by water regulation. The higher lake level led to increased erosion of areas previously rarely flooded and exposed much Aboriginal cultural material.

    The presence of large numbers of burials and the natural landscape of the lake and its environs are important components of its spiritual and cultural significance to the Barkindji Aboriginal people.

    Modern Lake Victoria sits within a larger Pleistocene lake bounded on the north and west by sand plains and on the east by a high lunette, a dune formed from windblown fine sands from the lake floor and beaches. Pre-regulation, the high water level was about 21 metres AHD. South of the lake, stretching from Rufus River about 30 kilometres east to the junction of Frenchmans Creek with the Murray is a low floodplain covered with creeks, billabongs and ancient meanders. The vegetation pattern is strongly related to the nature of the landscape: river red gum woodlands line the rivers, creeks and southern lake shore, black box dot the flood plains away from channels and the higher ground is open with low chenopod shrubs and some casuarina woodland.

    Lake Victoria is a major water storage operated by SA Water on behalf of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (MDBC). A system of regulators, channels and levees were originally constructed in the 1920s, allowing water to be diverted into the lake from the River Murray via Frenchmans Creek and released from the lake back to the River Murray via the Rufus River. Releases are made to supplement flows in the River Murray to meet South Australia’s entitlement flow, to assist in mitigating the impacts of surface water salinity and to provide enhanced environmental flows in the Murray.

    The MDBC recognised the significance of the lake to the Aborigines and acknowledged the potential of lake operations to cause damage to Aboriginal relics or to exacerbate foreshore erosion. Due to the need to continue operating Lake Victoria as a water storage, the MDBC applied in April 1998 for consent to destroy, deface or damage an Aboriginal relic/place under Section 90 of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, as well as for a permit to disturb relics under Section 87 of the Act. The application did not seek permission to destroy, deface or damage or any burials. All known in situ burials (now numbering over 400) have been protected by extensive sand nourishment and protection works involving revegetation at Lake Victoria. Where it was not practical to protect the burials in situ, the Barkindji elders agreed to removing the remains and reburying them in the dedicated cemetery established for this purpose.

    The MDBC commissioned an extensive environmental impact statement (EIS) in support of the application. The EIS identified that continuing storage operations had significant impacts upon the Aboriginal cultural heritage (Hope 1998) and that, together with the regulation of the River Murray, the operation of Lake Victoria has also had an adverse impact on the surrounding environment, particularly the floodplain east of the lake. The main impacts are waterlogging caused by constant inundation, and land salinisation caused by rising groundwater.


    The MDBC’s objectives for the management of Lake Victoria are to balance the cultural, spiritual, social, economic and environmental values of the lake. They have been implemented through investigations, operational changes, on-ground works and greater community involvement in management to improve the environment of Lake Victoria. To this end, the 18 conditions of the consent that permitted continuing operation of Lake Victoria as a major water storage required:

    • formalising the Aboriginal elders’ role in decision making about the management of their heritage at Lake Victoria by the establishment of a Lake Victoria Advisory Committee. Wherever possible, conservation and protection works would be undertaken by members of the local Aboriginal community
    • establishing a communications strategy involving the Aboriginal community with historic and traditional ties to the lake and wider community interests, including land owners and water users who benefit from the lake’s water supply
    • preparing a cultural landscape plan of management that recognises the significance of the Lake Victoria environment and its spiritual significance to the Aboriginal people. The plan provides for work to protect cultural sites and rehabilitate the natural environment where possible, to minimise further environmental degradation and for continued monitoring and reporting
    • changing the previous operational practices at Lake Victoria to enable the establishment and maintenance of native vegetation on the foreshores and within the littoral zone so as to minimise damage to Aboriginal relics or to the foreshore of the lake
    • recognising that the MDBC would continue to manage the Lake in accordance with the relevant New South Wales legislation and the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.

    The permit and consent were issued for a period of eight years to allow changes in operating strategies and application of the specific consent conditions. These are now under review.

    What has been achieved?

    The Lake Victoria Advisory Committee, with a majority of Barkindji elders, was established by the MDBC in 1996 and formally recognised by acceptance of the consent conditions and plan of management in 2002. It has met on average three times each year to discuss work programs and issues, and has been supported by a dedicated project officer over the period.

    Lake Victoria Advisory Committee's inspection of regeneration and sandbag repairs, East Moon Island, July 2005 (JL)
    Lake Victoria Advisory Committee’s inspection of regeneration and sandbag repairs, East Moon Island, July 2005 (JL)

    SA Water appointed an Aboriginal man as Cultural Heritage Manager to oversee all the on-ground works at the lake. These have involved:

    • maintaining burial protection works with seasonally recruited local Aboriginal staff, perimeter site inspections at low water and after storm events
    • recording any new cultural heritage material exposed
    • assisting with repatriation of local skeletal remains from museums
    • controlling feral animals
    • installing water supply lines to divert stock from the lake shore
    • controlling access to the lake
    • assisting in the scientific monitoring of both flora and geomorphological conditions.

    New protection works layout, east toe of Snake Island, July 2005 (JL)
    New protection works layout, east toe of Snake Island, July 2005 (JL)

    The Barkindji Elders Council (BEC) members assist with selection of recruits, pipeline route surveys and site inspections.
    Communication has varied, relying on personalities and levels of commitment on both sides. Currently the BEC only want to be consulted on consent condition issues within the lake area and not the rangelands, yet there is a logical interaction of heritage protection covering both areas. The MDBC provides resources for the BEC to meet (sitting fees and transport) but not for wider community consultation, so there is a need to consider partnership funding of a wider community education program. Community education has occurred via newsletters, radio talks, memorial days at Rufus River, newspaper interviews, visitor information in tourism outlets, the current construction of the information shelter at the lake and schools education programs.

    Elders going on inspection, east shore of Lake Victoria, July 2005 (JL)
    Elders going on inspection, east shore of Lake Victoria, July 2005 (JL)

    In 1999 a working group of Advisory Committee members, including three Aboriginal persons, prepared the Cultural Landscape Plan of Management. The final draft was accepted at the end of 2001 after delays in agreeing on conditions for monitoring erosion and revegetation. Annual reports summarise the monitoring surveys.

    The Lake Victoria Operating Strategy is a companion document to the Plan of Management (MDBC Technical Report No. 2002/01). Its central principle is that the water level is to remain at the 27-metre high water mark for as short a time as possible during spring and summer, and be drawn down quickly for irrigation so as to minimise the inundation of perimeter vegetation protecting cultural heritage sites.

    Indigenous interest and involvement in monitoring lake operations remain high, with regular site visits and questioning of the scientists and engineers involved. Despite monitoring of transect profiles since 2001 by Dr Wayne Stephenson, it is unclear what the long-term shoreline behaviour of Lake Victoria will be, and whether it is in a state of equilibrium following the raising of the lake or whether it is still responding to that previous operating regime. Maintenance of perimeter transect markers is crucial to this work and fixed stations have recently been installed with BEC approval.

    Revegetation has been conducted manually on the Frenchmans Islands with excellent results. Natural regeneration has also occurred. This is a source of delight to the elders and to those involved in the work. Vegetation monitoring conducted by Dr Ian Sluiter from 2001 to 2005 shows that, in general, the condition of vegetation improved as indicated by an increase in plant biomass and cover of the southern lakeshore vegetation between 26 and 27 m AHD after the floods of 2003. However, there has been a marked deterioration in the biomass and plant cover of terrestrial vegetation on the lunette on the eastern side of the lake, possibly due to stock grazing on Snake Island; kangaroos populations, which need monitoring and treating; sheep grazing on the foreshores of Talgarry and Nulla Stations; and rabbits existing at high levels on the lunette.

    The Lake Victoria Rangelands Action Plan covers landholdings with frontage to Lake Victoria itself and/or to channels of Frenchmans Creek and Rufus River. Management issues identified include salinisation, vegetation decline, protection of Aboriginal heritage sites, degradation of the cultural landscape, wind erosion and declining rural productivity. Barkindji elders have been involved but remedial solutions lie with the landholders.

    Elders going on inspection, east shore of Lake Victoria, July 2005 (JL)
    Elders going on inspection, east shore of Lake Victoria, July 2005 (JL)

    Despite frustrations arising from changing personnel, technical concepts and language, bureaucratic delays in implementing recommended works and seasonal conditions, the involvement of the Barkindji elders in the management of their cultural heritage has been a very positive development. The Lake Victoria Advisory Committee has been a model, with MDBC financial and personnel support, perseverance by the committed elders and local landholders, and frank meetings where issues are aired and resolved. Changes recommended by the committee are now part of the operations of SA Water at the lake. The next challenges are for the Barkindji elders to organise successors from the next generation and to undertake their own administrative support in monitoring protection of cultural heritage. However, the younger generation do not seem so interested in ‘bones and stones’. The agenda has been gradually shifting to issues such as full-time employment, a task beyond the core business of lake operations, and future ownership of properties neighbouring the lake, which have been purchased by government agencies to facilitate grazing controls (and hence protection of cultural heritage) on the lake foreshore.


    Hope J 1998, Lake Victoria: finding the balance—a response to the competing interests of cultural heritage, environment and resource use, Background Report No. 1, Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Canberra.

    Hope J, Shawcross W, Orchard K and Quinlan D 2002, ‘Cultural Heritage of the Lake Victoria Rangelands’, River Junction Research for the Lake Victoria Rangelands Management Action Plan. Unpublished report for the Lake Victoria Rangelands Management Action Plan, Wentworth, NSW.

    Murray-Darling Basin Commission 2002, Lake Victoria Cultural Landscape Plan of Management, Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, Canberra.

    Murray-Darling Basin Commission 2002, Lake Victoria Operating Strategy, MDBC Technical Report No. 2002/01, Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, Canberra.

    River Murray Water, Lake Victoria annual reports, July 2002–03, 2003–04, 2004–05, Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Canberra.

    Sluiter IRK 2005, Flora and fauna of the Lake Victoria area, Southwest New South Wales, No. 9, Analysis of vegetation monitoring sites at Lake Victoria in May–June 2005, Ogyris Ecological Research Report No. 2005/03, unpublished report to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Canberra.

    Stephenson W and Thornton L 2005, Lake Victoria Monitoring Programme: assessment of shoreline change 2005, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.