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Wilcannia protests

Saturday, 14th March, 2020

A ceremony was held in the park beside the bridge before the blockade. PICTURE: Craig Brealey A ceremony was held in the park beside the bridge before the blockade. PICTURE: Craig Brealey

By Craig Brealey

In Wilcannia yesterday people camped on the bridge or stood in the shade of the trees beside while at either end traffic was stopped on the Barrier Highway.

Below, the water flowed for the first time in three years but it should have been in flood, they heard.

The vast majority of the flow was siphoned off in Queensland and northern NSW before it even reached the Darling/Baaka.

But people were urged to keep up the fight because the force plundering the rivers was set upon rotten foundations that could crumble at any time.

The bridge had been occupied before in protest at the way the river has been managed but the traffic was let through.

Yesterday none passed for six hours.

Police vehicles barred the way to protect the occupiers, and the Officer in Charge of Wilcannia Police, Tony Moodie, said the blockade had his personal support.

“I stand here today and see what water in the river can do,” he said. 

“I’ve been here for nearly two years and could barely visualise it. The river looked like a ditch that had always been there.

“This last week, I can feel the difference it has made to the community.”

Locals and people from as far away as Canberra, Sydney, country Victoria and elsewhere were welcomed in a ceremony held in the park next to the bridge.

Speeches were made and a minute’s silence observed for the river before they went onto the bridge to sit beneath a tent in the middle.

The main message was that the river had to be saved for our children and all future generations.

Ian Sutton, who helped organise the protest, told the gathering that everyone was awake to what was being done to the rivers because all were suffering.

“I’ve gone from the top of the catchment all the way down and people are in absolute distress,” Mr Sutton told the gathering.

“They are on the verge of rebellion. There’s talk of blowing up weirs and taking up arms but as a community we needs to do this peacefully - forcefully but peacefully.

“The water is controlled by market forces that always lead to the rich and leaves nothing for us. Black or white, we’re all in the same boat and we will take this no more.”

A man who had driven from Canberra for the blockade said he had just heard from protestors in Parramatta that they had marched down the main street and onto the bridge, while a woman from Western Australia said people in Fitzroy Crossing held a protest yesterday against cotton farming, in sympathy with Wilcannia.

Bridge protests were also held in Sydney, Lismore, Walgett, Brewarrina and Bourke, among other places.

Mark Merritt, who runs a website called ‘The Vanishing River’ from his home near Kempsey, told the protestors in Wilcannia that what was being done to the Darling/Baaka amounted to “ecocide”

“Everyone in Australia, everyone in parliament, all the irrigators - they know what’s happening to the Darling/Baaka is wrong.

“Last year the biggest buyer of our water, our most productive water, was a foreign company,” he said.

“The Murray-Darling Basin Authority says evaporation from the Menindee Lakes is one million tons every day. That evaporation goes across the western desert and settles in the earth, stabilising the land and keeping it alive.”

Mr Merritt described the Menindee Lakes Water Saving Project that is intended to reduce the lakes to a few holding ponds as “an absolute abomination”.

“It’s taken only 16 years of water trading to get us to this. Another 10 years and the rivers will be dead. This is what is called ecocide.”

Rob McBride from Tolarno Station on the lower Darling was applauded during his address.

“Today we’re standing on a river that should be in flood,” he said. “This is only a small amount of the water that is coming down a massive river system.

“Ninety per cent of that water should be passing us on the floodplain, the lungs of the river.

“This is the first time in history that a flood has disappeared.

“It is all about corruption; it’s as simple as that.

“Cotton is a small industry worth $1.5 billion a year. Recreational fishing is worth $3.5 billion, and wool growing $8 billion.

“But what it has is a small group of very noisy and powerful people.”

The cotton industry had backers in the major political parties and each had done “very well” from their association, Mr McBride said.

“There are seven tributaries for the Darling River. They took two and cut them off. How?”

He said a large cotton company in Queensland that received a $25 million “grant” from the Commonwealth was later charged with 120 counts of water theft, and taxpayers gave another $30 million to build three dams on the Hay Plains. 

“The Barkindji people have been here for 60,000 years and they have no water rights and no representation on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.” 

Last year the MDBA said it would appoint a Barkindji representative but it has not happened, said Mr McBride.

Mr McBride urged the Aboriginal nations on the Darling/Baaka to unite in its defence because division just played into the hands of the “bad guys”.

He urged everyone to keep the faith and battle on because cracks were appearing in a corrupted system that could not last.

“We keep chipping away and one day it will shatter.”

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