Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge and values combine to support management of Nywaigi lands in the Queensland coastal tropics



The Nywaigi Aboriginal people suffered disconnection from their ancestral lands in the coastal wet tropics of Queensland, Australia, during the regime of agricultural and urban settlement in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their acquisition of the Mungalla property in 1999 has allowed them to pursue customary and non-customary aspirations, combining scientific and Indigenous knowledge to address significant challenges and build the capacity of Nywaigi people in natural resource management.

If we did not have Mungalla, we would live in square houses, watch TV, and die.

John Anderson, Nywaigi Traditional Owner of Mungalla (June 18, 2011).


The lands of the Nywaigi Aboriginal people are in a part of north-east Queensland that has been highly modified by agriculture and associated developments. Moreover, the Nywaigi clan has been heavily impacted by this development and suffered disconnection from their lands. The purchase of Mungalla Station has provided an opportunity for Nywaigi people to re-establish links with their country. This paper describes the contribution that collaboration between Nywaigi people and biophysical scientists has made to this process.

Nywaigi Lands and Mungalla Station

The ancestral lands of the Nywaigi people stretch along approximately 100 km of the north-east Queensland coast from Rollingstone (18o59′9″S, 146o22′39″E) in the south to Cardwell (18o15′0″S, 146o02′00″E) in the north and inland to the coastal ranges. Mungalla (18o42′21″S, 146o15′34″E) is an 830-ha property that constitutes a small proportion of the ancestral lands of the Nywaigi people in the lower reaches of the Herbert River valley between Ingham and Forrest Beach (Fig. 1). It was acquired by purchase on behalf of the Nywaigi Aboriginal Land Corporation (NALC) in early 1999.

Figure 1.

 Location of Mungalla and Nywaigi ancestral lands on the north Queensland coast.

Mungalla consists of a mix of cleared grazing lands, freshwater wetlands and uncleared and regrowth forest on coastal sand ridges, with mangrove and other saline wetlands along the seaward boundary. Palm Creek, a distributary of the Herbert River, runs along much of the western boundary of the property and enters the sea independently of the main channel of Herbert River which discharges further north. Mungalla abuts the 772 ha Halifax Bay Wetlands National Park which is located to the south and east. Species of particular conservation significance found on or in the vicinity of Mungalla include Mahogany Glider (Petaurus gracilis) (Parsons & Latch 2007), gubaji (Estuarine Crocodile, Crocodylus porosus) (Sullivan et al. 2010), gandil (Black-necked Stork, Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) and the ‘Vulnerable’ palm Livistona drudei F. Muell. (Arecaceae) (Calvert et al. 2005).

The average annual rainfall at nearby Ingham (18o39′00″S, 146o09′15″E), based on 44 years of records, is 2143 mm (Bureau of Meteorology 2011). The rainfall is strongly seasonal with, on average, 70% of the rain falling between December and April. Each of the months June-October receives, on average, <55 mm of rain. These rainfall characteristics determine the patterns of wetting and drying in the wetlands: when they fill, when they empty and for how long they hold water.

Like most of the lower Herbert valley, Mungalla has a 150-year history of non-Aboriginal settlement. During this time, the predominant land use on Mungalla has been cattle grazing, though the main enterprise in the region as a whole, including on some adjacent properties, is now sugar cane production.

Since 2001, Mungalla has been managed by the Mungalla Aboriginal Corporation for Business (MACB) on behalf of the NALC. The MACB operates a cattle grazing enterprise with an evolving combination of agisted stock and cattle owned by the property. In addition, a small tourism enterprise is based on Mungalla, emphasising cultural heritage and local wildlife, particularly that of the extensive wetlands. Mungalla has also played an important role in training Nywaigi and other Aboriginal people in natural resource management.

Nywaigi People

Some Nywaigi people lived on Mungalla until around 1940. In the mid-1940s, Nywaigi people, along with other Aboriginal people, were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, including from towns such as Ingham, under government-sponsored programmes. Many were moved to Great Palm Island which, while located only about 23 km off the coast east of Forrest Beach, is not part of Nywaigi country. Today, some Nywaigi people are scattered across Queensland and New South Wales but many live in towns in their ancestral lands, though under a policy established by the NALC, none actually reside on Mungalla. Nywaigi people seek to restore links to their country that were disrupted by agricultural, pastoral and urban settlement and the Government policies that were associated with it, and they perceive that this will enhance their socio-economic and physical well-being (Larsen et al. 2006). Mungalla is playing an important role in this restoration process.

Natural Resource Issues

Prior to European settlement, the Mungalla wetlands were an important source of plant and animal foods and other resources for the Nywaigi people and of considerable cultural significance. The natural landscapes of the Herbert River valley have been greatly altered by agricultural development. There has been extensive clearing of native vegetation with little of the lowland forest remaining. Much of the cleared land that is not under sugar cane is used for cattle grazing. It is likely that nutrient regimes of the valley, including Mungalla and Palm Creek, have been altered as a consequence of agricultural and urban development (Mitchell et al. 2009). There have also been significant modifications to the region’s hydrology. A weir was constructed on Palm Creek in connection with the Victoria sugar mill upstream of Mungalla. Further, also in historical times, bunds were constructed in the lower reaches of Palm Creek and the associated wetlands and presumably these influence tidal and freshwater flows, as well as the movements of fish and other aquatic organisms along Palm Creek and through the wetland systems.

Agricultural development in the region has involved a large number of plant introductions, mostly deliberate and including both forage plants and ornamental species. At least 227 non-native plants have been reported in the vicinity of Mungalla including many species that are declared as pests in State legislation (Queensland Herbarium 2011) as well as several Weeds of National Significance (WoNS) (Thorp & Lynch 2000) (Table 1).

Table 1.   Some important invasive plants of the Herbert River valley
Common nameScientific nameNotes
  1. Declarations relate to the plant’s status under the Queensland Land Protection (Pest and Stock Route Management) Act 2002. WONS = Weed of National Significance (Thorp & Lynch 2000). *Present on Mungalla (ACG, pers. obs).

Para grass*Urochloa mutica (Forssk.) T.O. NguyenWetland forage grass
Olive Hymenachne*Hymenachne amplexicaulis (Rudge) NeesWetland grass; declared plant in Qld; WONS
Salvinia*Salvinia molesta D.S. Mitch.Floating aquatic; declared plant; WONS
Pond appleAnnona glabra Forrsk.Tree; wet environments; declared plant; WONS
Giant rat’s tail grass*Sporobolus pyramidalis Beauv.Perennial grass; declared plant
Water hyacinth*Eichhornia crassipes (Mart.) SolmsFloating aquatic; declared plant
Lantana*Lantana camara L.Widespread shrub in eastern Australia; declared plant; WONS
Sicklepod*Senna obtusifolia (L.) H.S. Irwin & BarnebyShort-lived perennial shrub; declared plant

On Mungalla itself, aquatic weeds are a major issue. The high biomass of aquatic plants degrades the habitats of wetland fauna species and severely diminishes water quality through oxygen depletion (e.g. Wearne et al. 2010). Olive Hymenachne (Hymenachne amplexicaulis (Rudge) Nees) is of particular concern (Fig. 2). Current infestations stem from introductions to Australia in the 1970s and 1980s for use as a forage plant in natural or artificial wetlands (ponded pastures) (Wearne et al. 2010). It was widely planted and soon naturalised and became widespread and abundant, especially in the coastal Wet Tropics region of north Queensland (Wearne et al. 2010). It had become dominant in Palm Creek and the Mungalla freshwater wetlands by around 2000 (J. Cassady, personal observation).

Figure 2.

 Nywaigi people and scientists examining infestations of Olive Hymenachne during a workshop to develop the Mungalla Wetland Management Strategy. (Photo, D. M. Nicholas).

Collaboration on NRM Issues on Nywaigi Lands

The MACB has worked to develop effective and productive working relationships with relevant organisations. These include local government, primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions, Natural Resource Management bodies such as Terrain (Wet Tropics NRM region) and North Queensland Dry Tropics (Burdekin NRM region), state agencies and Girringun Aboriginal Corporation, an umbrella organisation representing the interests of Traditional Owners from nine Aboriginal tribal groups in north Queensland. The MACB has also partnered with the Burdekin Agricultural College to enhance training opportunities for Nywaigi people. Many interactions with these organisations have centred on natural resource management issues and building the capacity of Nywaigi and other Aboriginal people.

In 2006, staff from CSIRO Townsville approached the NALC with a proposal to establish sites on Mungalla as part of a national research programme to address the issue of Olive Hymenachne. This triggered collaboration that combined Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge and interests (Fig. 2).

An important practical element of this collaboration was the development of a management strategy for the Mungalla wetlands. The MACB had procured funding for this development and sought the involvement of CSIRO scientists. The basis of the strategy was a series of three workshops involving Nywaigi people, wetland scientists and other interested parties. The first workshop was structured to gather the recollections, values and aspirations of the Nywaigi people of Mungalla. Subsequently, this information was used to set the goals of the strategy. The Nywaigi people indicated their desire to:

1 become reacquainted with the Mungalla environment and their history with it;

2 pass on their customary knowledge and values to younger generations;

3 restore features and functions of the Mungalla wetlands that have been degraded; and

4 manage the Mungalla property and its wetlands in a sustainable way for the economic and cultural benefit of the Nywaigi people.

These desires encompassed a range of values. The Nywaigi people shared their knowledge of the Mungalla wetlands, especially of the natural resources, and the abundance of wurrijala (Barramundi, Lates calcarifer), guya (Freshwater Eel, Anguilla spp.), perch (e.g. Kulilia ruprestris) and Bony Bream (Nematalosa erebi), Yabby (e.g. Cherax spp.), garruy (Freshwater mussels, Mollusca: Unionoida: family Mutelidae) and bungaru (Freshwater Turtle, e.g. Chelodina spp., Elseya spp., Emydura spp.). They also recalled the presence of gurruman (wallabies, Macropus spp.), gajarra (possums, e.g. Trichosurus vulpecula) and Estuarine Crocodiles as well as many wetland bird species. They observed that many of these species, particularly fish and freshwater turtles, had become scarce if not altogether absent as a result of degradation of the wetland.

The second workshop brought together representative Nywaigi people, wetland scientists and managers and relevant individuals from local government and NRM bodies to explore practical management options for the Mungalla wetlands in line with the values and aspirations of the Nywaigi people (Fig. 2). The outcomes of these discussions were used to prepare a draft Wetland Management Strategy that was reviewed at a third workshop with Nywaigi people.

The final version of the Wetland Management Strategy was endorsed by the Nywaigi people of Mungalla in late 2008. Its objectives are to

1 contribute to the cultural needs and values of the Nywaigi people;

2 provide for the sustainable economic well-being of the Nywaigi people; and

3 build and maintain environmental assets that are valued by the Nywaigi people.

A key feature of the strategy is that different goals are allocated to different land units. Grazing of cattle and horses are to be the main land uses on the cleared pasture lands (described as ‘plains’). Riparian zones are to be targeted for restoration efforts focused on weed control, restoration of water flows and revegetation, with a focus on cultural and environmental assets. Similar goals were established for the freshwater wetlands but with their importance to the tourism enterprise also being noted. Restoration of water flows (through removal of bunds) and their maintenance for cultural and environmental values, including fish habitat, are emphasised for saline wetlands. The strategy was devised with a 10-year time-frame.

Once the strategy was in place, the Nywaigi people of Mungalla worked on its implementation. To date, this has mainly involved weed management, focused on Olive Hymenachne, the invasive species that is seen as posing the greatest threat to the wetland (Fig. 2). This has been through aerial and ground-based application of herbicides and the use of fire, efforts being funded partly by the MALC directly and partly through grants from the Commonwealth Caring for Our Country program (Project OG081882). Currently, the NALC is collaborating in a national research project that is examining Indigenous perspectives on non-native plant species and how Indigenous capacity in weed management might be enhanced.

Opportunities and Challenges

The Nywaigi people’s desire to reconnect with their lands has been an important factor driving the interaction between them and non-Indigenous scientists and managers over natural resource management on Mungalla. Nywaigi people see Mungalla as an opportunity to re-establish the links with their country and pass values on to the younger generations (Larsen et al. 2006). However, it also presents an opportunity to explore opportunities for non-customary uses, especially pastoral and tourism enterprises for economic development. Although a number of surviving Elders were living on or near Mungalla at the time Nywaigi people were forcibly moved to Palm Island, much customary knowledge has been lost. For example, very few living Nywaigi are fluent in their own language (though they retain some vocabulary), reflecting a general loss of customary knowledge as to how the land was managed.

The Nywaigi people of Mungalla, through the MACB, have been motivated to work with scientists in part by a desire to be able to understand more about the ecological function of their wetlands, the natural resources issues that affect them and the steps that might be taken to restore those natural resources where they have been degraded. Discussions over natural resource issues between Nywaigi people of Mungalla and scientists have been in the same terms as might be used by non-Aboriginal stakeholders; though, the values attributed to the resources that are discussed are strongly influenced by Nywaigi tradition. For example, the proliferation of Olive Hymenachne in the Mungalla wetlands is viewed as deleterious even though it is valued by some ‘Western’ pastoralists as a forage species for cattle. This is because customary values attributed to natural resources such fish or freshwater turtles are more highly prized than the economic value that might accrue from using Olive Hymenachne as a forage species.

Many of the natural resource issues confronting the Nywaigi people of Mungalla are novel, in the sense that they are in some way connected with the impacts of ‘Western’ settlement. Resolution of these issues may not be within the scope of customary land management techniques of the Nywaigi people. Moreover, customary practices that might have been useful could have been lost with the extreme disruption of their connection with the land. Mungalla does provide some opportunity to re-establish these connections, but it seems likely that ‘Western’ land management methods will play an important part in the restoration of Nywaigi values. For example, Nywaigi people have not retained knowledge of how fire was used in the management of their ancestral lands and the extraction of resources. If fire is to play a role in restoring Nywaigi values, it will depend to a large degree on ‘Western’ knowledge, non-Nywaigi customary knowledge of how fire affects various elements of analogous systems and how this knowledge might be used to achieve particular goals. The Indigenous people of Mungalla would need to rebuild a capacity to use fire and then apply it within a modern legislative and regulatory operating environment.

Capacity building has been an important motive in the interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems on Mungalla. This has involved training in non-customary areas such as the use of herbicides, prescribed burning and the formal monitoring of the consequences of management actions. Increased natural resource management capacity could be applied to Mungalla, to other Nywaigi lands that are under non-customary ownership, or even further afield. It could also be used to develop an additional income stream by encouraging appropriately trained Nywaigi clan members to pursue contract employment in natural resource management away from Mungalla.

The continued management of Mungalla will present various challenges to the Nywaigi people. The eradication from Mungalla of weeds such as Olive Hymenachne is highly improbable, and even if it was achieved, it is almost inevitable that there would be frequent and repeated reinvasion (Wearne et al. 2010). This means resources will always be required to reduce the impacts of these species to tolerable levels. It might be hoped that a sustained programme would see a decline in the annual cost of weed management and a decreasing reliance on external sources of funding.


At Mungalla, Indigenous and non-Indigenous experiences are being combined to devise and apply natural resource management strategies. Scientific knowledge of wetland systems, in particular, has been applied by Nywaigi people to facilitate restoration of valued wetlands, reconnection with their country and building land management capacity.


The authors would like to thank the many Nywaigi people and others who participated in workshops convened during the development of the Mungalla Wetland Management Strategy, a major focus of this paper. Lynise Wearne undertook research on Olive Hymenachne on Mungalla and contributed to the wetland strategy. ACG and DMN thank the Nywaigi people of Mungalla for welcoming us to their country and for their enthusiastic sharing of insights. Ally Lankester, Eric Vanderduys and two anonymous referees provided helpful comments on a draft of this paper.