“I believe the numbers will change the game,” said First Nations activist and artist Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth in an interview with Green Left Weekly about the global climate emergency and the water crisis in the Murray-Darling river system.
“We, as grassroots people, now need to start rising up to say we need to start doing things for our future generations.”
This is the message he has powerfully presented to several climate emergency actions organised by Extinction Rebellion and other groups building the September 20 Climate Strike.
“It's about our survival and the survival of our children and our children's children”, he said.
“We are the first generation to experience the climate change crisis and we may be the last generation with a chance to fix it.
“It is extremely important that we work quicker on climate change. That means using renewable energy, stop polluting the air, stop polluting our rivers, stop polluting our food and put water back in our rivers.”
Shillingsworth is a Muruwari and Budjiti man who grew up in the town of Brewarrina, on the banks of the Barwon River in far north-east New South Wales.
“It's where the Darling River starts. The Barwon runs into the Darling and, further down, the Darling runs into the Murray.
“Over the Christmas break, we saw the devastation of our rivers: they are drying up and our communities have suffered the brunt.
“Down in Menindee, on the southern part of the Murray-Darling, there were lots of fish kills. It was all over the news and talked about in the broader community.
“It also affected our First Nations communities in a lot of ways.
“When we were growing up, we spent a lot of time on the river: we camped and we fished. My mother, who lived by the river and is in her 90s now, has never seen the river this dry.”
Shillingsworth has since been trying to bring a First Nations voice into the discussions about how to address the water crisis in the Murray-Darling river system.
He has pulled together activists into the Water For The Rivers Campaign, addressed forums and protests, and taken the message around through a series of exhibitions of paintings that he and other members of his family have done, inspired by traditional life around the rivers.
“All these paintings relate to the river. They tell river stories including my mum's story of how our people lived on the land for thousands and thousands of years.
“These painting also get out a message about how we can fix the rivers.”
Any real solution to the crisis in the Murray-Darling river system has to involve First Nations people who know the rivers, argues Shillingsworth.
“Over the last 230 years, non-Indigenous people have tried to fix our rivers, but look at what they have done: it has got worse.
“Now, our river towns are reduced to using bore water. It has a lot of salt in it and it is not very healthy for these communities. And we are tapping in to the underground water from the artesian basin and slowly but surely that is going to run dry. Where do we go then to look for our water?”
The water crisis hitting the towns along the Murray-Darling river system has thrown light on the widespread corruption of various water privatisation schemes, some dressed up as grand plans to restore water flow to the rivers.
“There are big corporate bodies that are taking a lot of the water. For corporate greed they are filling huge dams, like on Cubby Station whose dams hold more water than the Sydney Harbour.
“In the old days the Aboriginal people said no one owns the water; it's there to share. Today, we need to share it properly for all the people living along the rivers,” Shillingsworth said.
“Governments have supported these big corporations. A lot of those big dams and big irrigation schemes were funded with our money. Some 75% of the water is now 'owned' by these companies and we have to buy our own water back!”
Shillingsworth supports the calls for a royal commission to investigate these corporate rackets that have cost billions of dollars of public funds. “We need to make those people accountable,” he added.
The next major project that the Water For The Rivers campaign in the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival which will go through several remote river communities in western NSW from September 28 to October 4.
“Yaama means 'welcome', Ngunna means 'us' and Baaka meaning 'our rivers’ — 'Welcome to our rivers'.
“We are going to hit the river towns of Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Wilcannia and Menindee. We're organising the biggest gathering they have ever seen.
“This is going to be as big as the 1965 Freedom Rides and it is going to draw attention, not only in Australia, but across the world.”
The concept of the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival is a radical combination of a cultural festival, exposure tour and a grand series of community gatherings that helps link up country and city folk, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Shillingsworth explained.
“In the evenings we will hold a huge corroboree, in way First Nations people have done for thousands of years.
“We'll sing the land, sing the river and gather our people. This will empower our communities.
“We'll sit with the elders and listen to their stories ... and we'll gather as many people as we can to share that experience.”
These gatherings, Shillingsworth added, will “bring back a collective of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to discuss strategies to fix the river”.
“We need to fix our environment, bring those natural cycles back, especially the water cycle. We need water to fill the creeks, the billabongs and lakes. We need to start putting plants back in the ground, put them back like Mother Nature did.”
People will have “different ideas, different skills and different opinions” and we want to use all these to come up with solutions, he explained.