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Byron Shire
December 4, 2022

Our precious coastline deserves collective care

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The western/Aboriginal co-management efforts of Byron's national parks are first on the new IUCN Green List as models of a ‘just world that values and conserves nature’.  Photo Mary Gardner
The western/Aboriginal co-management efforts of Byron’s national parks are first on the new IUCN Green List as models of a ‘just world that values and conserves nature’. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

Day after day, I watch the sun rise. Light glitters on the clear crystal surf as well as the smoky quartz Tallow lagoon. These different water jewels crown two parks, Arakwal and Cape Byron. The western/Aboriginal co-management efforts are first on the new IUCN Green List as models of a ‘just world that values and conserves nature’. Yes, in Byron Bay’s own ‘backyard’. I wonder how far we can go with this model across our town and rural zones.

For starters, we could name the nature and its special qualities that matter here. Rehabilitated beach vegetation extends from Broken Head to Tyagarah. From Clarkes to the Main Beach, the old mining sites were stabilised, replacement dunes planted and a wildlife corridor is maturing. That’s volunteer work over the last fifteen years by the Green and Clean Awareness Team (GCAT).

Voluntary collectives are powerful. In Pacific Northwest USA, rescuing salmon rivers often leads to civic and legal battles between farmers, fishers and urbanites. But residents in one catchment voluntarily formed the Deer Creek Conservancy and set in place rehabilitation to a standard better than the minimum set by legislation.

The beachfront towards the Belongil is missing out on that kind of collective care. The history is a mix of sand mining, real estate and hard coastal engineering dating from the 1950s. The legacy is accelerated erosion and alarm. The future?

Cooperative voluntary action may still hold the key. Perhaps groups such as Byron Preservation Association and Positive Change For Marine Life could meet with GCAT, staff of Cape Byron Marine Park and Byron Council and concerned residents.

Up-to-date ‘soft’ coastal engineering works from inside fifty-year community-based pIans. Sometimes, such plans rely on rehabilitating vegetation, actually sprouting out of sandbags. If sand is forever blocking the Belongil, maybe there still are clever ways to encourage it to linger in niches.

But maybe not. Wise plans include rescue measures for human communities to recycle changed coastal places.

Creating such a plan calls for innovative voluntary action. The changing beachfront is connected to another smoky quartz waterway. Naming it is important because the Belongil is not an estuary or river but an intermittently open and closed lagoon or lake (ICOLL).

In all the world, SE Queensland and New South Wales coast is unique for having so many of these temperamental places. They support wetlands and floodplains far inland. For over a century, local drain trusts have coaxed swamps to be western farmlands. This hasn’t always worked well. Sometimes real estate development becomes the next option. Built infrastructure designed for dry flatlands doesn’t quite work either.

Perhaps the Union Drain Trust can join the collective, along with the Arakwal Corporation and other residents groups in and around town. Parts of wetlands and floodplains supported by Belongil and Tallow ICOLLs already double as our uneasy homes and livelihoods. Expansion is a dream but these waterways are limits, forcing major re-evaluation.

But people have lived in these ICOLL spaces since the coast stabilised about 10,000 years ago. They worked from the template of a much older culture.

Bruce Pascoe summarises many references from early European accounts of Aboriginal coastal living. The intricate fish traps, weirs and dams. The carefully developed mosaics of edible bulrush, rice, yam and other food and grain crops. Land management supporting koalas, wallabies and other game.

He adds, ‘Australians remain strangely impervious to that knowledge.’

The ICOLL systems were the infrastructure of what ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan calls ‘place-based food traditions’. Changing shores and water levels drove cycles of different plant and animal harvests. Globally, coastal examples range from rice/fish ponds of old China to taro/fish ponds of indigenous Hawaii. Everywhere, people are redeveloping these as food security in face of changing sea levels and climate.

By accurately naming the nature around us, we reveal not so much problems but opportunities. Conserving nature here calls for a collective using Aboriginal and western skills.

Inspired by co-management and voluntary action, maybe we could design a way to value erosion and flooding. Could we incorporate these into larger cycles featuring place-based foods? This could be a new day on the Bundjalung coast of Australia.

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