Traditional Owners and former Burragorang Valley residents are fighting to save Gundungurra heritage against the New South Wales government’s plans to wipe out their culture.
The New south Wales Gladys Berejiklian government wants to raise the Warragamba Dam — which supplies most of Sydney's water — by up to 17 metres, flooding 6000 hectares of the World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains Area.
The Gundungurra are one of the few Traditional Owners who, perhaps, uniquely under colonial occupation, remained settled on country until the 1950s when they were forced to move after Warragamba Dam was built to flood the Burragorang Valley and form Lake Burragorang.
Having lost their land and homes, without compensation, the Gundungurra are now fighting to preserve what remains of their important rock art and ceremonial sites.
Gundungurra woman Kazan Brown, who has been leading the fight to save significant sites, told Green Left that not many important sites are left and they are determined to save what is left.
“A lot of places will be inundated: we’ve got two major art sites left that will be inundated; burial sites; campsites; scar trees; and ceremony grounds — it’s all down there. [Important] things will be lost — we won’t be able to get to our significant places.
“My grandfather used to refer to the Nattai River as our Vatican. It’s basically the spiritual centre of Gundungurra nation.
“We’ve been locked out for 70 years: people cannot take their kids back in there to show them where things are.
“My kids need to know their culture and my grandkids and if it’s gone, how can they learn it? The whole river system and the surrounding landscape are part of the Dreaming Story.
“It’s better if we learn on site and the kids can see the rocks that are shaped like the animals or the drawings on the rocks. It’s a whole different thing to a book”.
Brown said that about ten families lived in the Burragorang Valley, at St Joseph’s Farm, and that it “was a different sort of place”. A Catholic priest, Father Dillon, first settled there and “made sure that we were safe”.
“There were no forced removals of children. I think there was only one death of an Aboriginal person at the hands of a white person. It was a very different place: black kids and white kids went to the same school. Aboriginal people had businesses. It wasn’t like the rest of the country.
“John Joseph Riley, my grandfather’s grandfather, was the first Aboriginal person in New South Wales to own land, here, in the Burragorang Valley. His father George Riley was, the family suspects, the first Aboriginal person on the electoral roll and allowed to vote.
“But, they were all chucked out when the dam came along in the early 1950s. We were the last Aboriginal family to leave, and we didn’t go until just before it flooded.”
While a committee was formed at the time to resist the land grab, there was no compensation, because, as Brown put it “we were Aboriginal”.
“It was just: ‘Pack your stuff up and go’.”
The Gundungurra have limited access to their remaining sites in the Burragorang Valley.
“We can’t get in. You have to apply to National Parks and then to Sydney Water and they decide whether or not we go, and then they send escorts,” Brown said. “Right now, no-one’s got access.”
“The Gundungurra tried to put a land claim in years and years ago, but as it is the Sydney Water Catchment, no-one’s going to give Native Title.
“Now, there’s an Indigenous land use agreement, under which we’re supposed to get access, but they don’t make it easy”, Brown said.
Brown and the Gundungurra Traditional Owners are part of the Give a Dam campaign, to protect the cultural and environmental values of the UNESCO World Heritage Listed area.
“It involves people from different areas who oppose the dam — the Colong Foundation for Wildnerness, Landcare groups and people fighting for plants, animals, for water quality, and us fighting for our Aboriginal heritage. We’re working together.”
While the Gundungurra are the Traditional Owners of the valley, when the area was World Heritage Listed for protection by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Gundungurra cultural landscape was not included.
“That makes it a little difficult”, Brown said. “There aren’t a lot of laws that protect Aboriginal culture. When there is one, the government just changes it to suit itself.
UNESCO has criticised plans to flood the World Heritage-listed site, but the NSW government changed the law and now it can be flooded anyway,” Brown said.
There is an “Aboriginal Places” listing on the State Heritage Registry, but that only means it is going to be recorded, not protected.
Brown criticised the government’s lack of engagement with Aboriginal people in Sydney Water’s Aboriginal heritage study, which has now been leaked.
“They only surveyed a quarter of the area,” she said. “They wrote their report without speaking to us. The woman from Niche Environment and Heritage, who wrote the report was in the field for one day. She made her decisions based on photographs.”
Brown is also frustrated by the attitude towards Aboriginal heritage by some in the local community.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to look at Aboriginal sites and try to understand their significance. One of the councillors from the Hawkesbury looked at some sites and said: ‘It’s just a hand print on a wall, it’s no big deal’.
“You know that hand print could be 40,000 years old.”
But such attitudes are changing, particularly after Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.
IAG Insurance announced at its AGM on October 23 that it was withdrawing support for raising the dam wall because of shortfalls in the government’s review, particularly its assessment of the impact on Aboriginal heritage.
Earlier, insurers had been vocal supporters of raising the dam wall because it would reduce the cost of insuring properties downstream at risk of flooding in heavy downpours — which will increase under climate change.
But Warragamba Dam represents less than a third of the threat of flooding from the complex catchment and tributaries flowing towards the populated floodplain of the Western Sydney basin.
Australian National University flooding expert Professor Jamie Pittock said that rising the dam wall is not the answer to downstream flooding.
“The government’s flood strategy is relying solely on raising Warragamba Dam wall which would expose residents to flood risk,” he told Australian Associated Press after flooding took place in February.
The dam mostly captures water from the catchment, while the Hawkesbury River and its tributaries — such as the Nepean and the Grose Rivers — fill up at choking points and eventually spill over during heavy rain events.
“There have been many damaging floods that did not involve floodwaters coming past Warragamba Dam,” Pittock said. “They shouldn’t proceed with raising the dam wall. The key is to stop building suburbs in flood-prone areas.
Brown wants the whole dam project scrapped. She has vowed to keep going. “We’re not going to give up.”