Gaps remain in legal recognition of Indigenous relationships with water

ANU Law lecturer Lauren Butterly. Photo: Tim Grainger, ANU.

The significant legal and governance challenges Indigenous peoples face in having their relationships with fresh and marine waters recognised, was the focus of a recent joint ANU College of Law and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies international workshop.

Despite the long-standing cultural and economic importance of fresh and marine waters to Indigenous peoples, their relationships to the water and their right to use, control and access waters is not always recognised.

“Water – whether it be a small creek, groundwater or the ocean – plays an absolutely critical part in the lives of Indigenous communities throughout the world,” said workshop co-convenor and ANU College of Law lecturer Lauren Butterly.

“The relationships Indigenous people have with waters are both cultural and economic and are essential to the continuing wellbeing and sustainability of Indigenous communities.

“What we have seen and heard from workshop participants – including those from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada and the United States – is that there are still considerable legal challenges in recognising and affirming the interests of Indigenous peoples to use, access or control fresh and marine waters,” Ms Butterly said.

The workshop, Indigenous Peoples and Saltwater/Freshwater Governance for a Sustainable Future, was held in Hobart in mid-February.

It brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, academics, lawyers, policy advisers, scientists and natural resource managers from around Australia and overseas.

“Exciting new initiatives were presented, including from Professor Jacinta Ruru of the University of Otago, a world leading researcher in this area, who talked about giving legal personality to rivers,” Ms Butterly said.

“In addition, the workshop highlighted that issues to do with governance of waters have to be considered in a broader context – beyond the ‘law’.

“The law itself doesn’t have all the answers and this workshop was productive because it brought together a diverse range of perspectives, which included both theoretical and practical ‘on-the-ground’ knowledge.

“The workshop heard that waters need to be considered as part of a bigger picture relationship to Country, rather than being separated in the way that the law might impose,” she said.


Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team