Traditional owners in NSW call for heritage reform to continue cultural practices: Guardian

Sun 2 Jul 2023

Read the original story here

Kamilaroi elder Michael Cain used to collect wood for didgeridoos from Eura forest but was banned once it became Breelong national park.

Twice a year, Kamilaroi elder Michael Cain, known as Uncle Mick, makes the eight-hour drive north from his home in Gilgandra to the Tabulam correctional facility to teach detainees how to make didgeridoos from scratch.

Until recently, he collected the wood himself from Eura forest, just outside Gilgandra in western New South Wales. But a few years ago he saw signs saying there were no chainsaws allowed.

The forest, previously managed as a state forest, was gazetted as Breelong national park in 2005 and is now managed by the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). And unless Cain can receive a special exemption, he will have to drive 160km to Nyngan, to the nearest forest that has the trees he needs.

About 30% of national parks in NSW fall under Aboriginal joint management agreements, under which traditional owners can, depending on the terms of their agreement, use the land to maintain cultural practices.

For areas like Breelong national park, which have no such agreement in place, traditional owners must seek specific consent.

In Cain’s case, that would involve consent to fell 50 trees or branches a year. A spokesperson for the NPWS said when determining an application for specific consent the service must take into account “the environmental impact and scale of the activity, noting that the felling of trees is generally prohibited in national parks for a number of reasons”.

Kamilaroi elder Uncle Michael Cain in the Eura forest with didgeridoos he made before it became a national park. Photograph: Emily Middleton – The Guardian

In April 2022, after years of correspondence, Cain was told he would need to have approved an environmental assessment before collecting wood each year. It’s an administrative burden he can’t meet.

“I’d love to show the younger ones in town where the didgeridoos come from, from start to finish,” he said. “But I have to travel so far just to get them, it’s just not viable any more.”

It’s a story repeated throughout the state, said the NSW Aboriginal Land Council chairman, Danny Chapman. “We are the only state without modernised Aboriginal cultural heritage laws.

“We have mob like Mick practising Aboriginal customs and passing these on to future generations, yet our cultural practices are made difficult, while we have people destroying sites with impunity. The current laws in NSW are causing us great concern, because they stop Aboriginal elders passing on their culture and cultural practices with the threat of prosecutions.”

June marked the 40th anniversary of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act, but Chapman said traditional owners are still waiting on the cultural heritage laws promised at the same time.

“Yet here we are, decades later, still frustrated by the lack of action,” he said.

“Reforms are urgently needed. In NSW, Aboriginal people must contend with outdated and flawed laws, primarily contained in the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NSW).’’

Last week, the NSW Department of Primary Industries withdrew illegal fishing charges against Walbunja man Troy Potts, who was charged with the joint possession of 155 abalone at Bournda national park near Tathra on the NSW south coast.

Potts, now 42, has been ordered to pay more than $20,000 in fines for abalone fishing in his cultural waters over the past two decades, with the first fines recorded when he was a teenager. He pleaded not guilty in the most recent case, asserting his rights as a native title holder, and won.

Chapman says both cases – the prosecution of Aboriginal people exercising cultural fishing rights, and gathering wood for the making of didgeridoos – “come back to respect for First Nations people”.

“We are the oldest living culture in the world, yet NSW is not protecting culture,’’ he said.

In a statement to Guardian Australia, NPWS said it is “happy to discuss the proposal further with Mr Cain and help to identify potential alternatives”.

Cain said under the old system he would pay for a permit to collect firewood and go in to collect the wood for didgeridoos. The trees he looks for – mainly Mallee trees – are still standing, but only just.

“The white ants eat it out from the bottom up and the inside is all hollow,” he said. “So they’re going to fall over anyway but they’re no good after they’ve fallen over.

“It’s upsetting because when I cut my didgeridoos I make sure I cut them in a way that rejuvenates the forest. In 10-15 years’ time, there will be another didgeridoo there for the next person.”