The Gunditjmara Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia hold a deep and enduring relationship with Budj Bim, a landscape of lava flows, wetlands, and constructed aquaculture systems.
The latest chapter of this journey is the successful World Heritage listing of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape. It has become Australia’s first site World Heritage-listed solely for Indigenous cultural values, and the 20th Australian property to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Budj Bim is a long dormant volcano located in south-eastern Victoria. For Gunditjmara, the volcanic eruption around 30,000 years ago revealed the ancestral creation-being Budj Bim; Mount Eccles (now called Budj Bim) and scoria cones represent this creation being in today’s landscape.
The three serial components of the World Heritage property contain one of the world’s most extensive and oldest aquaculture systems. Here, Gunditjmara used the abundant local volcanic rock to construct fish traps, weirs and ponds, harnessing the productive potential of a network of wetlands into an extensive aquaculture system to exploit kooyang – short finned eels (Anguilla australis) – and other fish as a food source.
The highly productive system provided a six millennia-long economic and social base for Gunditjmara society.
This deep time interrelationship of Gunditjmara cultural and environmental systems is documented through present-day Gunditjmara cultural knowledge, practices, material culture, scientific research and historical documents. It is evidenced in the aquaculture system itself and in the interrelated geological, hydrological and ecological systems.
Elder Eileen Alberts continues the tradition of making baskets, harvesting the puunyaart grass and weaving gnarraban (kooyang baskets). The tradition was passed down to her, and she now teaches younger Gunditjmara women. Eileen sees a strong connection between her weaving and the deep past:
In the Dreaming, the Ancestral Creators gave the Gunditjmara people the resources to live a settled lifestyle. They diverted the waterways, and gave us the stones and rocks to help us build the aquaculture system. They gave us the wetlands where the reeds grew so that we could make the eel baskets, and they gave us the food-enriched landscape for us to survive.
Context has been privileged to have worked closely with Gunditjmara people and their representative organisations for nearly 30 years. Back in 1990, Chris Johnston worked with the Elders to develop a heritage management plan for Lake Condah (Tae Rak), the Lake Condah Mission and the surrounding lava flow country.
Chris recalls the powerful connections to Country expressed by the Elders:
The Mission where so many had grown up was important, but really it was the whole place – that rugged lava landscape, the eel trapping systems and the stories passed down. It was back then that the Elders said to me that they wanted World Heritage listing. With so many challenges to face, that path looked long and difficult. But now, here we are!
The Australian Government, in partnership with Aboriginal Victoria (AV) and the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation (GMTOAC) engaged Context to develop a full World Heritage nomination dossier to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre for the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape.
The nomination built on earlier Desktop Comparative Analysis carried out by Context in 2013, which presented a strong argument for the potential Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of Budj Bim and the inclusion of Budj Bim on Australia’s Tentative List.
Upon the approval by Federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, the dossier was lodged with the World Heritage Centre in February 2018.
Much of the ground-work for the nomination came from studies and management plans undertaken on by Context, and other consultants and researchers over many decades. A key step was the listing of Budj Bim Heritage Landscape on the National Heritage List in July 2004, the first Indigenous place to be added to this newly created list. In 2010, the return of water to Tae Rak through the construction of small weir, carefully designed to overcome more than a century of drainage schemes, enabled the aquaculture system to function effectively and plants and animals to thrive.
Archaeological investigations, reported in 2015 by Professor Ian McNiven (Monash University), demonstrated that the large-scale manipulation of the local water regimes for kooyang capture began at least 6,6000 years ago.
Tenacity, precision and expertise of the highest order are required to develop a World Heritage nomination dossier.
The World Heritage nomination dossier, stretching over 220 pages builds on a wealth of prior research along with extensive contributions from Gunditjmara. Creating a World Heritage nomination dossier is a complex task, requiring careful selection of the appropriate criterion, analysis of a vast compendium of research, and close engagement with the partner organisations: Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, and the Victorian and Australian Governments. The content of the dossier is closely prescribed by the World Heritage Committee and must follow their strict guidelines.
Once submitted to UNESCO the dossier is subject to intensive review over an 18 month period: one or more experts are appointed to conduct a site-based mission; there are technical reviews, and requests for further information. Finally, a draft Statement of Outstanding Universal Value is prepared and a recommendation made to the World Heritage Committee.
Responsible for managing the team that developed the nomination dossier, Context’s Chris Johnston worked closely with GMTOAC and Special Adviser Dr Steve Brown, heritage specialists Professor Ian McNiven, Dr Anita Smith and Kristal Buckley.
We are honoured to work with the Traditional Owners to document the special values associated with this extraordinary Aboriginal cultural landscape.
Image: Harry Webber, Denis Rose, Chris Johnston, Simon Crocker (left to right) after the decision – Harry and Simon representing the Victorian Government (Aboriginal Victoria)
Images courtesy Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and Context