Taking the plunge: Phillips Range, upper catchment, Martuwarra. Photo Jackson Gallagher


The environmental movement in Australia has its seminal creation stories: the Franklin Blockade, the various forest wars, the fights to make Ningaloo and the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage areas.


But one that is often overlooked is the ongoing quest to keep Martuwarra – the Kimberley’s Fitzroy River catchment – running healthy and free.


Roaring Journals has brought you tales of the intertwined ecological and cultural significance of the watershed, and of the of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council’s expedition down Martuwarra in February following some of the largest floods ever recorded in Australia.

One of many springs in the side gorges of Martuwarra. Photo Donny Imberlong

This deluge brought Martuwarra very much into Australia’s public consciousness; but the work to officially recognise just how important this area is has been in place for a long time. Across decades, Indigenous Nations and partners have lobbied government and industry to protect this remarkable, remote and very special place. To understand how we have got here, we need, like the flow itself, to follow the water.

Martuwarra is one of the last free-flowing rivers of such magnitude on earth; but on the world’s driest inhabited continent, its life-giving waters have long been viewed with covetous eyes. For over 60 years, developers have tried again and again to exploit them.

Biology abounds. Freshwater crocodile in the upper catchment. Photo Donny Imberlong

In the 1950s, agriculturalists tried to start a project at Camballin, near the town of Derby, to grow grain. Their crops, along with their optimism, were washed away by floods and within a decade the project was abandoned. Shortly after, pastoralists sowing stock feed decided to have a crack. In the 1960s, a ten-mile-long levee bank was built to prevent waters inundating their crops. The cowboys were forced to admit defeat after flooding breached the levee in 1983.

Then came the big one. In the 1990s, agriculturists arrived in the catchment and proposed damming the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River as well as two major tributaries, the Durack and Margaret Rivers, for that most thirsty of crops: cotton.

For this development to proceed, the extraordinarily significant gorges of Dimond and Bunjay/Sir John would have had to be altered irreversibly – Dimond dammed and, consequently, Sir John, further upstream, drowned beneath millions of litres. The plan was to divert the impounded water into desert area in the south where it would have forever altered the fabric of life as it had existed within the region. And this is what put the Kimberley, from an environmentalist standpoint, on the map.

*Opposition to the prospective development, which had been smouldering for years, now exploded; with the battle cry of “Keep your cotton-pickin’ hands off the Kimberley!”, the campaign soon attracted international attention.

Protests, government actions and countless petitions ensured. Key among these awareness-raising strategies was a trip down the length of the catchment, one that the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (MFRC) mirrored a quarter of a century later.

Termanalia trees – a constant presence in the Martuwarra catchment. Photo Donny Imberlong

Much like the 2023 trip, the expedition in 1998 had young leaders from the Indigenous Nations of the catchment leading the charge. One of those was Joe Ross, Bunuba Elder and a leading advocate for protection of the watershed. Joining him on the trip was then-Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens in the Federal Parliament and no stranger to River trips of significance.

The photos and recollections of Joe, Bob and their fellow expeditioners were published in media across Australia and revealed to the nation the River’s irreplaceable beauty and intertwined cultural and ecological uniqueness. After eight years of fighting, the dam project was abandoned; the legacy of this time, however, lives on.

Joe Ross now spearheads the Yajilarra Festival, a celebration of Bunuba culture which is intrinsically linked to the River. Similarly, the fight against the dams was the catalyst in forming what is now the chief environmental organisation in the region, Environs Kimberley (EK).

“Environs Kimberley was born in the fight to protect the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River,” Martin Pritchard, EK’s Director of Campaigns said. “We are committed to helping Traditional Owners finish the job in protecting this unique place once and for all.”

And the MFRC, many of whose members were involved in the activism of the 1990s, was formed in 2018. A collective of both Elders and young representatives from Indigenous Nations, the MFRC was established to maintain the customary law, spiritual, cultural and environmental integrity of the catchment.

Martuwarra: flowing as it always has. Photo Donny Imberlong

Earlier this year, a coalition of Kimberley based organisations – the MFRC and EK alongside the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and Pew Charitable Trusts – delivered a petition with almost 30,000 signatures urging the state government to stop all plans for large-scale water extraction in the catchment.

The KLC is the peak Indigenous body in the Kimberley region. It works with Aboriginal people to secure native title recognition, conduct land management activities, and develop cultural business enterprises. Its Chief Executive, Tyrone Garstone, said there needed to be changes in legislation to give rights to Traditional Owners over their Country.

“Traditional Owners have not consented to water being taken from the River for large-scale development and despite native title being determined along the entire length of the Martuwarra, there is currently no legislation to give Traditional Owners the right to protect their River,” he said. “For tens of thousands of years Aboriginal people have lived along the Martuwarra Fitzroy River and share a deep and profound connection to the living waters. Traditional Owners are best placed to protect and manage this Country and should be consulted in decisions made on the future of their River.”

MFRC Chair, Professor Anne Poelina, said the devastating floods highlighted the risks that would come with large-scale development on the floodplains and highlighted the need for locally led solutions. “The recovery from January’s devastating floods is an opportunity to rebuild for a sustainable future. The growing impacts of climate change are being felt in the Kimberley, including extreme flooding events that put communities at risk and cause damage to culture, livelihoods and Country,” she said.

This concerted response started with Traditional Owners questioning the status quo, almost three decades ago. Without their actions, there would not have been national recognition of the catchment; nor would there have been worldwide interest in the River and the consequent, consistent calls for its World Heritage listing.

But the fight goes on. Along with the push for water extraction, there are more and more proposals being raised to open the region to fracking and mining.

The only thing challenging the value of such proposals, as it has always been, are the people of the River and their partners – those who understand the risks posed by a changing climate and who believe the catchment is too unique, too precious, to risk for short term gain.

Taking the plunge: Phillips Range, upper catchment, Martuwarra. Photo Jackson Gallagher


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