Aboriginal Ownership of National Parks and Tourism

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In 1996, the parliament of New South Wales (NSW), based in Sydney, Australia, passed legislation to enable the return of ownership of several national parks to their traditional Aboriginal owners. Like earlier federal Australian legislation governing the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal owners are to lease the lands back to the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) and co-manage the land using a board which has a majority of traditional owners in a style known as "joint management." The legislation provides for an annual rental fee paid by the NSW government, which will provide extra funding to ensure the lands are managed to meet Aboriginal community interests.

On September 5, 1998, the 76,000 hectare Mutawintji National Park in the far west of NSW became the first park returned to its traditional Aboriginal owners and then leased back to the NSW NPWS. Following the handback ceremony in which the title deeds were presented to the Chairman of Mutawintji LALC, the park's name was changed from Mootwingee to Mutawintji to better reflect the Aboriginal spelling and pronunciation.

Non-Aboriginal people have been visiting Mutawintji since their first arrival in this area of far-western NSW in the 1880's. Mutawintji quickly became a favorite destination of those wishing to hold picnics in its River Red Gum lined gorges, swim in its rock pools and view its magnificent display of Aboriginal rock art. The area contains the largest collection of rock engravings in southeastern Australia, as well as painted and stencilled art in rock overhangs. Early conservationists, led by the Barrier Field Naturalists, a local group of primarily elderly citizens with an interest in the environment, lobbied for formal protection of Mutawintji and in 1927 a 486 hectare area was formally declared a "Reserve for the Preservation of Native Flora and Fauna, Caves and Aboriginal Carvings and Drawings"; making it one of the earliest conservation areas in western NSW. This reserve was managed by a Trust until the formation of the NPWS in 1967, when the 486 hectare area was declared the "Mootwingee Historic Site."

The NPWS established a campground, designed walking tracks and built a Rangers residence with an accompanying Visitor Centre which was opened in 1970. Aboriginal people, long denied a say in the management of their traditional lands, began organizing a claim to have the lands handed back to Aboriginal ownership under the NSW Land Rights Act. In NSW Aboriginal people can only claim vacant Crown land which "is not deemed to be required for an essential public purpose." The land claim was unsuccessful as the national park was considered essential. A new act of Parliament was required to return ownership of national parks. In 1983, the local Paakantji, Malyangapa, Wilyakali, Pantjikali and Wanyaparlku tribes heard that the NPWS had purchased the two sheep stations (ranches) surrounding the historic site and intended to have a large area gazetted as a national park. In September of that year, a large contingent of local Aboriginal people arrived at the park to "blockade" the entrance to the historic site. Within days of their arrival, the Premier of NSW sent a representative out to discuss the concerns of the people.

Aboriginal demands were related to control over their own heritage, and respect for Aboriginal culture. The very first demand was that Snakes Cave (a traditional men's initiation site) and Mushroom Rock (a traditional women's birthing site) be immediately closed to the public for an indefinite period of time. The second was that the existing campground be relocated outside of the historic site due to its close proximity to Snakes Cave. The community then requested that the walking trails be realigned to prevent disturbance of archaeological sites and that all future activities such as guided tours be undertaken with an accredited guide only. Finally a request was made to turn the Visitor Center into the Mutawintji Culture Centre to interpret the Aboriginal history of the area.

The historic site was effectively closed from 1983-1989 while the changes were implemented. As local tour operators had been taking visitors to Mutawintji for a long time and had invested in its promotion it was considered only fair that they be allowed to continue to take their paying customers to the rock art sites. As it was considered very important that all presenters of information disseminated factual, consistent information, the need for a Tour Guide School for Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal tour operators was identified as a major priority. The first school session was held in 1991. Participants were taught Aboriginal and European history from both Aboriginal owners and NPWS staff. All participants were particularly taught the traditional Aboriginal usage of the area. Following a written assessment, operators and their individual employees were then issued with a Certificate of Accreditation, valid until at least June 30, 2000. At that date a new tourism policy, which will dictate the future operations of tourism, is expected to be adopted by the Mutawintji Board of Management.

Changes are being negotiated in the management and control of the site as local Aboriginal leaders are demonstrating their significant skills in guiding and interpretation. Up until the author's appointment in mid- 1993, it was traditionally the role of the resident ranger to conduct guided tours to the general public every Wednesday and Saturday in the cooler months of April to November. Mutawintji Local Aboriginal Land Council (MLALC) negotiated for MLALC members to be contracted to conduct the public tours. The likelihood of increased employment and the creation of a successful community enterprise were the driving forces behind the establishment of Mutawintji Heritage Tours. The author and the chairperson, William Bates, of MLALC negotiated for MLALC members to be contracted to conduct the public tours. This arrangement proved very successful and thus allowed permanent NPWS staff to concentrate on the task of conserving heritage. In the past, the NPWS contracted newly graduated university students to conduct its guided tours for school holiday "Discovery" programs. Not unexpectedly, the MLALC further negotiated to have this contract given to it as well, with the promise of further training to MLALC members by NPWS staff. The subsequent school holiday programs proved to be a runaway success with park visitor numbers increasing by an average of 10 percent every school holiday period after MLALC members took over (school holidays are normally of two weeks duration in April, June/July, and September). No activities are conducted during the seven week Christmas period due to the heat of inland Australian summers.

In 1996, a distinct uniform was created for the MLALC guides and a four wheel drive vehicle was obtained through federal funding to transport the guides between their home towns of Wilcannia and Broken Hill and the park. MLALC was formally licensed as a tour operator by the NPWS and Mutawintji Heritage Tours was born. The Aboriginal community enterprise received federal funding and an Aboriginal Tourism Liaison Officer was appointed to carry out the dual functions of coordinating the enterprise and liasing with local tour operators on behalf of the NPWS. The first successful appointee resigned after only six months due to personal reasons and a decision was made to conduct a review of the way the funds were to be expended. In the end, it was decided that not enough resources were being focused on the training of the guides. An application was made to redirect the remaining funds into the three categories of training, wages and capital. An approach was made to the local campus of the Department of Technical and Further Education to run a formal course in training for the Aboriginal guides. The course was a success and has given the guides involved more skills and confidence. Like most new small businesses Mutawintji Heritage Tours still struggles to make profits and relies on the enthusiasm of the guides and support from the Land Council, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Mutawintji Board of Management. Mutawintji Heritage Tours is steadily aiming for self sufficiency and it is hoped that it will not require any further funding in the next couple of years.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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