Aaron Bunch Journalist with Australian Associated Press | Collection of published work | + 61 484 008 119 | abunch@aap.com.au

Aaron Bunch
Kakadu site closure amid racism claims

Jawoyn traditional owners have voted to symbolically close a popular site at Kakadu National Park amid allegations of racism by Parks Australia management.

May 6, 2021

A popular site at World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park will be symbolically closed by traditional owners amid allegations of racism by federally funded Parks Australia.

Gunlom – a cascading waterfall that appeared in the movie Crocodile Dundee – was set to be reopened to tourists after the wet season.

But Gunlom Land Trust chairperson Mick Markham says Jawoyn traditional owners voted against that at a meeting called by the Northern Land Council.

“It was carried forward that we’d close Gunlom in protest at the way we’ve been treated,” he told AAP on Thursday.

“There’s been no respect for our sacred sites, culture and spirituality.

“They just treat us like my old blackfellas and it’s got to stop.”

Mr Markham said the gate to the site would be padlocked despite Parks Australia staff preparing the area for tourists.

“If they open it against our wishes then that’s cheating us with no respect at all,” he said.

“Even if they cut it off it doesn’t matter, it’s the principle and we’ve made a statement and if they let tourists in then that’s another fight.”

The decision has been sparked by an ongoing court battle between Parks Australia and the Northern Territory government over an allegedly illegally disturbed Aboriginal sacred site at Gunlom.

Parks Australia – which is part of the federal government’s environment department – is accused of building a walking track at the site without permission from traditional owners, which is a criminal act in the NT.

It’s since sought and obtained permission to carry out further work at Gunlom and says the offending section of the track will be moved.

It’s also publicly apologised to traditional owners for the distress the works caused and urged the NT Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority to drop the matter but it has refused.

Acting Director of National Parks Jody Swirepik has previously warned that constitutional issues are likely to arise “due to the generally understood principles of Crown immunity”.

“It appears we have no rights over our sacred sites and that’s bulls**t,” Mr Markham said referring to Ms Swirepik’s immunity claim.

AAP understands traditional owners can’t legally close the Kakadu site without consulting with the NLC, which then negotiates with Parks Australia.

In a statement, Parks Australia said it was committed to working closely with the traditional owners to protect and preserve Kakadu’s cultural heritage.

It also acknowledged the importance of sacred sites and the shortcomings in the process adopted for the Gunlom works with a promise it won’t be repeated.

The NLC says it supports traditional owners’ efforts to protect Gunlom and is discussing “appropriate” measures to achieve this, including site closure and other legal options.

It has not made a formal request to close Gunlom, according to the Director of National Parks.

The NT government said it supports the rights of traditional owners to protect their country and sacred sites.

However, it added Territorians and the tourism industry need certainty of access to appropriate Kakadu experiences.

“Gunlom is a valuable tourism asset and very popular with Territorians as a swimming and camping site,” NT Aboriginal Affairs Minister Selena Uibo said.

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