Garawa: Traditional Owners and area of operation

Traditional Owners and area of operation

The Garawa are the traditional owners of country in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria: their country covers approximately 30,000 sq km. Garawa estates also include sea country in the southwest Gulf. The Garawa own some of their country under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA) and some Garawa families own Northern Territory pastoral leases for Greenbank, Pungalina and Seven Emu.

The main area of land management activity for the Garawa rangers is currently focused on the Garawa Aboriginal Land Trust (ALT) (also known as Robinson River). The Garawa ALT, which is approximately 8,000 sq km, is located in the southwest of Gulf of Carpentaria region of the Northern Territory. The nearest service town is Borroloola, which is about a 1.5 hour drive from the Garawa ALT in a westerly direction along a formed gravel road. The community is cut off in the Wet season with the only access being by aircraft.

On the Garawa ALT there is the community of Robinson River, with approximately 150 people resident, and six outstations-five occupied permanently and one seasonally.

Landscape description

Garawa country falls within two bioregions, the Gulf Fall and Uplands, and Gulf Coastal. The Gulf Fall and Uplands bioregion is the second largest in the Northern Territory stretching from the Arnhem Land Plateau into western Queensland. It covers some 111,783 sq km of land, with some 36 per cent of the bioregion owned by Aboriginal people (NRETA 2005:88).

Burning country.The most extensive vegetation in the Gulf Fall and Uplands bioregion is woodland dominated by Darwin Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and Variable-barked Bloodwood (Corymbia dichromophloia) with Spinifex understorey and woodland dominated by Northern Box (Eucalyptus tectifica) with tussock grass understorey (NRETA 2005:88). There are substantial stands of the fire sensitive Cypress Pine (Callitris intratropica) especially on the Garawa ALT (NRETA 2005: 88).

The Gulf Coastal Bioregion comprises gently undulating coastal plans along the southern Gulf of Carpentaria from near the Roper River to near the Queensland border, with scattered rugged areas of Proterozoic sandstones. Soils are predominantly red earths with shallow gravely sands. The annual rainfall in this bioregion is between 800 and 1200 mm per annum, falling mostly between December and March; cyclones are seasonally frequent. Eucalyptus woodland and tussock or hummock grass understorey dominates the bioregion, with significant areas of tidal flats, mangroves and littoral grassland. (NRETA 2005:82). Wetlands of national importance in the bioregion include part of the Port McArthur tidal wetlands system. Significant seabird breeding, feeding and roosting sites and significant shorebird feeding and roosting sites are located in the bioregion's coastal margins.

The main rivers in the Robinson River basin are the Robinson, Wearyn and Foelsche. These rivers flow from the escarpment country (Bukalara Range) into the Gulf of Carpentaria. The basin has relatively large areas of samphire flats (samphire are plants, adapted to saline environments) and Vetivera elongata grasslands at its coastal margins.

Significant numbers of feral animals, particularly feral horses, are present throughout Garawa country. There are also low to medium densities of feral pigs. Feral pig numbers are slowly increasing through natural increase and migration from areas to the south east. There have been reports of predation by feral pigs on marine turtle nests on the coast. It has also been reported that a number of goats escaped from the Robinson River community some years ago, their current status is unknown. Buffaloes are also reported in this region (NLC 2004).

Milibuthurra OutstationFeral animals pose a significant threat to the wetlands in the region, riparian margins and water quality. The feral animals, pigs, horses and buffaloes, trample the earth around the wetlands killing turtles that hibernate in the mud. Senior Garawa women have also reported feral animals damaging important sites used for gathering dyes for weaving. These wetlands contain important sources of bush food for Garawa people, such as barramundi, black bream, cherubim, turtle, mussels, seeds, bulbs and rhizomes. Feral animals impact not only on the biodiversity of the region but also Garawa culture and economy. For example, as wetlands become more degraded with less and less biodiversity there are fewer food resources for people to hunt and gather. When people stop using resources Indigenous ecological knowledge is slowly eroded.

Feral animals and the diseases they may carry pose a threat to pastoral enterprises within the region as well as agriculture across Australia. Management of feral animals on Aboriginal lands is not only important for Aboriginal people but wider Australia. Significant resources are required to assist Aboriginal people with this introduced, swiftly growing problem.

Cane toads have been resident in the Gulf country for a decade and the impact of this is evident with the absence of goanna, which traditional owners report as far less abundant then they once were. This is another food resource that traditional owners have lost.

There has been little comprehensive fauna survey work undertaken in this area. Threatened species recorded include: Bustard (Ardeotis australis) and Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus).

There are a number of weeds found on the Garawa ALT that threaten biodiversity. Many of these are weeds associated with past pastoral activities. They include Khaki weed (Alternanthera pungens), Goat's head burr (Tribulus terrestris), Snakeweed (Stachytarpheta spp.), Spiny Head (Sida acuta), Paddy Lucerne (Sida rhombifolia), Flannel Weed (Abutilon oxycarpum); Mossman River Grass (Cenchrus echinatus), Coffee Bush (Breynia oblongifolia), Noogoora burr (Xanthium pungens), Hyptis (Hyptis suaveolens), and Parkinsonia (Parkinsonia aculeate).

Parkinsonia is a Weed of National Significance (see and is regarded as one of the worst weeds in Australia because of its invasiveness, potential for spread, and economic and environmental impacts. Parkinsonia threatens the tropical savanna and wetlands in Northern Australia if left unmanaged, it displaces native vegetation and reduces access to land and waterways.

Economic, social and cultural costs to traditional owners stem from an increased difficulty in mustering stock, a reduction in access to waterways for hunting and gathering and a decrease in native grasses and their biodiversity that are replaced by parkinsonia. Additionally, Parkinsonia infestations provide refuges for feral animals, especially pigs, making their management even more difficult.


Updated:  4 December 2017/Responsible Officer:  Centre Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications