On September 21, the Victorian Parliament delivered a major step forward for Victoria’s traditional owners, by passing the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017.
Until now, the Wurundjeri people have had little recognition of their important role in river management and protection, but the new legislation, set to become law by December 1, will give them a voice.
The Act is remarkable because it combines traditional owner knowledge with modern river management expertise, and treats the Yarra as one integrated living natural entity to be protected.
The new law recognises the various connections between the river and its traditional owners. In a first for Victorian state laws, it includes Woi-wurrung language (the language of the Wurundjeri) in both the Act’s title and in its preamble. The phrase Wilip-gin Birrarung murron means “keep the Yarra alive”. Six Wurundjeri elders gave speeches in Parliament in both English and Woi-wurrung to explain the significance of the river and this Act to their people.
The Act also gives an independent voice to the river by way of the Birrarung Council, a statutory advisory body which must have at least two traditional owner representatives on it.
Giving legal powers to rivers has become fashionable recently. Aotearoa, New Zealand passed legislation in March to give legal personhood to the Whanganui River, the voice of that river being an independent guardian containing Māori representation.
Within a week of that decision, the Uttarakhand High Court in India ruled that the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers are living entities with legal status, and ordered government officers to assume legal guardianship of the two rivers (although that decision has since been stayed by the Indian Supreme Court).
All of these developments recognise that rivers are indivisible living entities that need protection. But the Victorian legislation differs in that it doesn’t give the Yarra River legal personhood or assign it a legal guardian. The Birrarung Council, although the “independent voice” of the Yarra, will have only advisory status.
So, although the new law will not give the Yarra River full legal personhood, it does enshrine a voice for traditional owners in the river’s management and protection – a voice that has been unheard for too long.