The Barmah-Millewa Collective has decided its time for a new name: the 'River Country Campaign'. This is an exciting evolution in our campaign, which points to a broadening effort to protect the ecosystems of the Murray-Darling Basin and to support land and water justice for Indigenous peoples.
My name is Morgana Russell and I would like to introduce myself as the new Coordinator of the River Country Campaign of Friends of the Earth Melbourne.
I grew up in Swan Hill on the Murray River and was involved in the campaign to protect the River Red Gum forests from an early age, as my family was part of establishing the local Friends of Nyah Vinifera Forest group. I grew up camping in forests along the Murray River and its tributaries, enjoying swimming, canoeing, fishing and walking in these unique ecosystems.
The Nyah−Vinifera Park is an important ecological, cultural and social asset for the community of the Swan Hill−Nyah region. The park includes significant Riverine ecological vegetation classes providing habitat for a range of threatened fauna and flora species. The park is also an extremely significant cultural landscape for the Wadi Wadi Indigenous Nation, with numerous cultural heritage sites.
I was there through the almost 15 year struggle to protect the River Red Gum forests from logging, hunting and grazing. I learnt a lot as a young person in this struggle, to work alongside Traditional Owners, to fight for justice and to never give up protecting a precious place. Amazingly, through the dedication of local Aboriginal people, local environment groups and groups like Friends of the Earth, over 100,000 hectares of forest were protected in 2010. The Nyah Vinifera state forest became a regional park and was promised co-management with the Wadi Wadi people.
My deep connection to these forests and rivers was reignited last year when I was working at the Swan Hill Council as an Environment Officer. It was hard not to see the Nyah−Vinifera Park was suffering from weed infestations; once grassy clearings were now packed with metre-high thorns. I was getting reports from locals that trailer loads of illegally cut wood were coming out of the Park regularly. I investigated with Parks Victoria and began to see the truth, that despite the Park being 'protected' in legislation, in practice it was in great danger. Danger from illegal logging, from massive weed and pest animal infestations, from lack of secure water allocations to keep the Red Gums alive, from damage to cultural sites and loss of biodiversity.
(Photo Credit - Richard Hughes - Environmental water in Vinifera Forest 28/06/15)
I also reached out to Wadi Wadi people and realised there had been little to no progress made since 2010 on establishing the co-management of the Park that was promised to them five years ago. We are still fighting for Indigenous management and land rights for River Red Gum forests.
Parks Victoria told me that they had no capacity to manage the Nyah−Vinifera Regional Park, other than maintaining access roads and completing some rabbit reduction works. The River Country Campaign sees this as a totally inadequate management practice which highlights the huge problem with underfunding and undervaluing of our precious forests.
The Nyah−Vinifera Park has been severely neglected for the past five years. Under the previous Coalition state government, several plans put in place to protect and manage the parks under the 2009 Victorian Environmental Assessment Council recommendations were not carried out. The fight to protect River Red Gum forests was fought by hundreds of people, who celebrated when they were 'protected' through the creation of new national and regional parks. Once the campaign was over, people believed the forests were safe into the future, but the forests have continued to be neglected.
We are extremely concerned that the values of this important Park are at risk if action is not taken. We are calling on the Victorian Labor government to uptake our recommendations to provide funds urgently needed for adequate park management including:
- New signage explaining that wood cutting and tree felling is prohibited in the Park
- Community engagement around the new regulations for the Park
- Monitor and prosecute illegal wood cutting in the Park
- Monitor and manage noxious weeds and pest species
- Build and maintain adequate fencing around Indigenous cultural heritage sites
- Provide at least one dedicated park ranger to manage and monitor the Park
- Conduct studies on the health and biodiversity of the Park and works to protect endangered animal habitat.
We are also calling on the Victorian government to:
- Secure and deliver allocations of environmental water to sustain the ecological and cultural values of the Park
- Consult Wadi Wadi Traditional Owners on all planned works in the Park and create a park management plan with Wadi Wadi
- Reinstate negotiations for co-management of the park with the Wadi Wadi Traditional Owners
Nyah-Vinifera Park is just one example of many forests along the Murray River that are still struggling. Our campaign will continue until all River Red Gum forests are protected from logging, hunting and grazing. Until they have secure water allocations and are well funded and managed with involvement from Traditional Owners.
Since taking on my new role in March I have been busy building a renewed campaign for environmental protection and social justice. I have:
- Met with new environment Minister Lisa Neville and key departmental staff to highlight issues the parks are still facing, to outline our plan for improved park management, Traditional Owner involvement and asked that she re-open co-management negotiations
- Kick-started a new campaign to support Indigenous Protected Areas by producing an infographic, distributed to over 10,000 people via social media
- Coordinated a transition to a new name and logo for the campaign and brought in some stellar volunteer recruits to be involved in our work
Last weekend, the 28th of June, the River Country Campaign and Wadi Wadi community members hosted an event to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the creation of the Nyah-Vinifera Park. We brought together Wadi Wadi people, locals, Friends of Nyah-Vinifera Forest members, past campaigners, Parks Vic representatives and the Mallee CMA. We toured the Park to look at problems in the Park and recent watering, had lunch asked questions and discussed our priorities for the Park going forward.
(Photo Credit - Richard Hughes - group photo from Nyah-Vinifera Celebration 28/06/15)
I see our role at Friends of the Earth as supporting Indigenous people and local groups to stand up for their forests and rivers and demand they are funded and managed to thrive, not just survive. We know healthy forests can be achieved through joint management with Indigenous groups. We will work alongside local people to campaign successfully and get outcomes.