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(WESTERN AUSTRALIA) Purnululu National Park Report: Premier tourist destinations, the World Heritage-listed its remains at the centre of a three-decade dispute between its recognised traditional owners #AceNewsDesk report

#AceNewsReport – June.21: The Bungle Bungle Range in the park has been a sacred place for Indigenous people in the East Kimberley for tens of thousands of years:

WA: Dispute rumbles on and dispute between indigenous peoples ‘sacred place’ for tens of thousands of years has put a ‘handbrake’ on UNESCO-listed Purnululu park’s potential as a tourist attraction

Kindness & LoveX❤️ says its time for what belongs to God to be given back to God so the ‘ Meek Will Inherit The Earth’ Amen

helicopter flies above beehive-like  rock formations
Two First Nations are fighting for native title over Purnululu National Park, home of the spectacular Bungle Bungle Range. (Supplied: Helispirit)

But while visitors flock each dry season to marvel at striking beehive rock formations, the park’s future is under a cloud.

In October, the Federal Court tried to sort out the dispute and found two opposing Indigenous groups both have native title rights to Purnululu, which is a step on the way to a native title determination.

Because the decision did not clearly favour one of the claimants, both groups have been left feeling “white man’s laws” are not equipped to deal with “blackfella” disputes.

Who claims ownership to 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’s no agreement on a boundary.

Bonnie Edwards is part of the Gajangana Jaru claim, or as she says, “northern-speaking Jaru”.

For three decades she has argued Purnululu is in Gajangana Jaru country.

“We’re the sovereign owners of that national park,” she said.

“Our people are royalty from that area and these people are claiming ownership because some white people want to be on good terms with this mob.”

Purnululu national park
Stakeholders say the standoff is stopping Purnululu becoming the next Kakadu or Uluru-Kata Tjuta.(Matt Brann)

Traditional owner Ben Cross is part of the opposing Purnululu claim, a group the Federal Court heard primarily identify as Gija.

He said his claim was made up of the rightful traditional owners, irrespective of them being Gija or Jaru.

“We call ourselves Gija, and that’s through my mum’s lineage. However we also speak Jaru,” he said.

“So it’s a Gija-Jaru dialect in that part of the world, because it’s right on the boundary of two language groups.”

He disagrees with Ms Edwards’s view that the Gija tribal boundary does not include Purnululu.

“Over time, with fluctuating climates, people would move back and forward, so it’s not a hard boundary,” he said.

Bonnie Edwards wears a red, yellow and black headband and smiles slightly, standing in front of a palm tree.
Bonnie Edwards says Purnululu is Gajangana Jaru land.(ABC News)

Who is right under Australian law?

In her Federal Court decision summary, Justice Debra Mortimer said several different Aboriginal groups all had country in Purnululu.

“It was not 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 were running out of patience and prepared to “declare war against the other tribe”. 

“We told the Federal Court if you can’t sort it out we’ll have to sort it out Aboriginal way,” she said.

“It will be all blackfellas and we’ll fight it out and see who wins, because that’s what they did a long time ago.”

A handful of people were named in both claims, a situation that angers Ms Edwards, but Mr Cross said it reflected the complex family trees involved.

He wants both sides to put aside their differences.

“These people (Gajangana Jaru claimants) weren’t shut out in the first place. They were part of the original group,” he said.

“All the old people have told me the door is always open for them to come back in, but for whatever reason personalities have got in the way.”

A pathway leads into the Purnululu National Park
The dispute among traditional owners has prevented joint management of Purnululu National Park, unlike other Australian UNESCO locations. (Supplied: Unsplash Ben Carless)

What does it mean for park management?

Unlike two other high-profile UNESCO World Heritage drawcards, Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta, the dispute has prevented Purnululu from being jointly managed with traditional owners.

Rangers from both cultural groups are employed for day-to-day operations.

A Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions spokesman said in a statement to the ABC that it hoped to set up joint management once native title holders had established a prescribed body corporate.

“DBCA looks forward to an agreement between the groups and the opportunity to work with them in presenting the cultural heritage and natural values of the park to visitors from around the world,” the spokesman said.

But Ms Edwards said she would not participate in joint management with the Gija 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.”

Purnululu National Park in the Kimberley
The park’s “beehive” cones are an international drawcard.(ABC News: Eliza Borrello)

‘Handbrake’ on Purnululu’s potential

Members on both sides of the argument and the government agree the conflict has stopped Purnululu from reaching its full potential.

“More cultural interpretation in the park is welcomed,”  the DBCA spokesman said.

“At a practical level, immersive cultural interpretation and tourism experiences have been constrained by contesting claims between Jaru and Gija people.”

Mr Cross said the dreams he had for his country had not been realised.

“It’s (the dispute) pretty much put the handbrake on it (the park) … it’s cultural value and just the level of value that it has,” he said.

Ms Edwards has a vision of her own, a wilderness lodge that provides cultural tours and products.

But she has been unable to find government backing while the dispute is unresolved.

“We were going to get young people — instead of them being on drugs and alcohol — all out there,” she said.

“So that they can show off their country to visitors to the park.”

‘Should be a truth-telling process’

The region’s peak native title body, the Kimberley Land Council, says the situation highlights weaknesses in native title laws.

Wayne Bergmann
Wayne Bergmann.(ABC: Ben Collins)

Acting CEO Wayne Bergmann says the adversarial nature of the court process could pit Aboriginal families against one another.

“The judge has heard both sides of their stories and made a decision and that decision (was) neither the applicants nor the respondents will control (the park),” he said.

“It’s not a framework that creates a future of harmony.”

He said it was clear more resourcing was needed to address cases as complex as this and there was a strong argument to shift the model to an inquisitorial system, as used in the Northern Territory.

“There should be a truth-telling process and that is an inquisitorial model, where a commissioner is there to leave no stone unturned to find out the truth and settle those issues,” Mr Bergmann said.

#AceNewsDesk report ………Published: Jun.21: 2021:

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