Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Chrisanthi Giotis
The Gully Aboriginal Place in Katoomba was declared on 18 May 2002. From the time it was nominated until its declaration as an Aboriginal Place (‘AP’), took only nine months. This is ironic considering what has (not) happened since.
Under section 84 of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NSW) (‘the Act’), an AP declaration recognises the cultural attachment Aboriginal people have to land. Section 85 provides a mechanism for the New South Wales (‘NSW’) Government to provide appropriate protection to ensure the area is neither damaged nor destroyed. In this case, the legislation requires the landholder (the Blue Mountains City Council (‘BMCC’) together with the NSW Department of Lands) acting with the Gully Traditional Owners, to protect the Indigenous heritage of the area.
Under section 90 of the Act, permission from the Aboriginal people of knowledge of the area is required before the landholder can disturb or destroy the cultural significance of the AP. What this has meant in practice is that local councils that are landholders have set up mechanisms of consultation with the Aboriginal people of knowledge of the area. The Gully Traditional Owners do not see this system as fulfilling the requirements of the Act. They have asked BMCC for a system of co-management.
The Gully is a beautiful piece of land situated in the town of Katoomba and is also known as the Katoomba Falls Creek Valley. The Gully forms the headwaters of the Katoomba Falls Creek and is therefore part of the Warragamba Catchment area that provides Sydney’s water. It is an ecologically and culturally sensitive place.
Before white settlement the Traditional Owners of the Gully – the Gundungurra and Darug peoples – would use the Gully as a summer camp. Settlement at the foot of the mountains forced many Gundungurra and Darug people to resettle permanently in the Gully well before 1950. The flooding of the Burragorang Valley in the 1950s made this process irreversible.
In 1957, their relatively peaceful co-existence was shattered. The traditional owners were forcibly removed from the Gully to make way for a racetrack organised by a group of 83 local businessmen (the Blue Mountains Sporting Drivers Club Limited) who were supported by the then Blue Mountains Shire Council. The trauma caused to the land and to the community of people who were living in and around the Gully was profound – and still reverberates.
In May 2002, the Gully in Katoomba became the largest AP in NSW. The AP declaration was warmly welcomed by the Gundungurra and Darug Traditional Owners and was marked by Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike with an official celebration in November 2002.
The mechanisms for involving the Traditional Owners in real participation in decision-making around the care, protection and management of the Gully have so far not been developed or put into place, notwithstanding the clear requirement for this under the Act. Although the BMCC managers and staff now regularly meet with the Gully Traditional Owners, there are no formal arrangements ensuring that the Traditional Owners are heard or their decisions acted upon.
The Gully Traditional Owners are seeking a collaborative agreement with the Department of the Environment and Conservation (‘DEC’) and the BMCC that embraces the principles of co-management and equal partnership. Given the extreme ecological and cultural significance of the Gully, Traditional Owners see the setting up of a co-management process as crucial in its management, care and protection.
The five-year impasse on the issue of co-management means no work has taken place on the land itself. Section 90 of the Act requires that permission of the Aboriginal people of knowledge of the area be sought if an activity will have an effect on the cultural significance of the AP, but because there are no formal processes in place to seek the advice of the Traditional Owners, no restoration work can proceed. Nothing has gone forward in the Gully, including signage, fencing or access. There is still not one noticeboard throughout the Gully that signals the cultural significance of this special place.
Traditional owners have been unable to pay for legal advice to encourage the other stakeholders, namely BMCC and DEC, to implement the AP legislation. The BMCC, despite good intentions (and hampered by high staff turnover and lack of corporate memory), has yet to propose mechanisms for compliance with the Act. Ever patient, the Traditional Owners hope an agreement will eventuate soon.
In the event that a co-management agreement can be negotiated, it will be a first between a municipal council and a group of Aboriginal Traditional Owners.
Although there is nothing yet in the annals of BMCC legislation and no signage on the ground to act as proof, the fact is that since 2002, a significant amount of goodwill has slowly built up in Katoomba. Several small victories have taken place in the symbolic field. Amongst the most significant of these is the documentation of the history of the Gundungurra and Darug peoples in a new book whose publication was supported by both the Sydney Catchment Authority and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (‘ACIJ’) at the University of Technology, Sydney. Sacred Waters: The Story of the Blue Mountains Gully Traditional Owners has been written in close collaboration with the Gully people by Blue Mountains resident for 20 years anthropologist Dr Dianne Johnson.
Sacred Waters: The Story of the Blue Mountains Gully Traditional Owners is available in bookstores or can be purchased from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, see <http://www.acij.uts.edu.au> .
Chrisanthi Giotis is the Assistant Manager of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.
 Dianne Johnson, Sacred Waters: The Story of the Blue Mountains Gully Traditional Owners (2007) 17-60.
 Ibid 158-69.
 National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NSW) s 90.
 On 27 April 2007, this Department became known as the Department of Environment and Climate Change.
 Johnson, above n 1.