Traditional owners to close Kakadu site over ‘lack of respect’ for sacred areas by Parks Australia

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The top of Gunlom Falls was closed in 2019 after concerns were raised, now the whole area will be shut. (ABC Open Contributor Heath Whiley)

The Kadadu National Park area of Gunlom will be closed to the public just as the peak tourism season kicks off after traditional owners agreed that Parks Australia had “a lack of respect” for their sacred sites.

Gunlom Land Trust chairperson Mick Markham advised authorities on Monday morning that the decision was “a result of Parks breach of our lease agreement and lack of respect for our sacred sites”.

Mr Markham said he expected the gate at the South Alligator River would be locked within the week.

“We have to protect the sites, it’s our religion. That site has been there for over 10,000 years, when the salt water was eroding the cliff face,” he said.

Mr Markham said nearby sites would all remain open.

“It’s just the affected area for this court case,” he said.

“The traditional owners apologise to the tourists but for us to get our point across, we feel this is the only way.”

The closure comes in the midst of a court battle between the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) and the federally-run Parks Australia over alleged sacred site offences and unauthorised  near the popular Gunlom Falls infinity pool.

AAPA alleges the track was illegally constructed close to a restricted sacred site without an Authority Certificate.

The court has heard the site in question is a men’s site which under Aboriginal law and custom was not allowed to be viewed by women and children.

In court Parks Australia has raised “constitutional issues” of Commonwealth immunity in relation to the Sacred Sites Act in Kakadu National Park.

The High Court may be asked to decide whether sacred site protections apply in Kakadu National Park.

Members of the Gunlom Land Trust met on Thursday last week and agreed to close all public access until the ongoing court case was settled.

Mr Markham said they wanted Parks Australia to admit their guilt and pay the resulting fine so the site could reopen.

“In that area there are certain elements and remains of people that have gone by thousands of years ago. We don’t want people going there,” he said.

“We’d redirect the track, to where it was supposed to be in the first place, and then let’s move on to getting the place back as a place to go.”

Mr Markham said Parks Australia’s current argument against native title claims goes directly against past actions.

Traditional owners were a part of successfully stopping the proposed mining site on Coronation Hill in Kakadu in the 80s and 90s — a site where they believe an ancient spirit called Bula resides and, if woken, would cause environmental catastrophes.

“If they can do that at the land claim at Coronation Hill and stop BHP back then, then now in 2021 they’re saying we’ve got no rights,” he said.

“If we let them get away with this one, they might do it again five years from now. And then where are we?”

Mr Markham said, if this situation continued to be handled poorly it would be the beginning of more closures in Kakadu.

“What we are doing by closing this is showing that we have got a bit of strength and we do care about the land and our sacred sites.

“And we want to continue, our culture is not going to go away.”

Northern Land Council chief executive Marion Scrymgour said they supported the calls of Jawoyn traditional owners to protect the Gunlom region.

“We are continuing discussions with Jawoyn Traditional Owners on taking appropriate measures, including site closure and other legal options,” she said.

“The NLC supports the call from Jawoyn Traditional Owners for Parks Australia to accept responsibility and make good the damage that has been caused.”

Parks Australia and AAPA have been contacted for comment. 

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