Innovative GIS project model for the natural and cultural mapping of wetlands



Posted on 01 June 2001  | 

In 1999, WWF funded the Kowanyama Land and Natural Resources Management Office in conjunction with James Cook University in Queensland, in order to undertake a GIS mapping and assessment of wetlands around Kowanyama, Western Cape York, Australia. The project represents a unique marriage between Aboriginal traditional ecological and cultural knowledge and the latest in western technology. It also provides a potential model for linking thirteen communities across west Cape York Peninsula to develop a regional wetlands strategy.

Kowanyama is a community of approximately 1200 people situated on the lower Mitchell and Alice River deltas. The Mitchell River, having its source in the higher rainfall areas of eastern Cape York Peninsula, is one of the larger river systems in Northern Australia. It is a landscape of extensive delta mangroves, wetlands and marine plains and provides some of the Gulf of Carpentaria's most biologically productive marine areas. Traditional land owners and their families continue to rely on the Mitchell River, its tributaries and rich natural resources of the lower delta system for their subsistence needs. The landscape is also heavily invested with Aboriginal meaning and significance

To gain a thorough understanding of the wetlands surrounding Kowanyama a GIS database containing a series of satellite images of the area was developed. Data from the field was entered in to the database. It included: photos of lagoons/waterholes/swamps, hydrological data such as rainfall, dry and wet season water levels, photos of families on their outstations, photos of important cultural site, photos of flora and fauna found at specific sites and populations of endangered species.

A key problem in the management of wetlands in this area is one of access, it is very difficult to get out into the wetlands for most of the year. Old and infirm Aboriginal people also find it difficult to travel to the remoter areas. The GIS system helps solve this problem. Traditional Owners or Rangers are able to 'travel' through their country on the computer, points that are clicked on call up a range of data and images. An ecologist can talk about the hydrology, flora or fauna of an area with a senior Aboriginal Traditional Owner or Ranger, drawing on their traditional ecological and local knowledge while still in the office. The information can be 'ground truthed' through survey work during the dry season. The system can be used for cultural and ecological mapping, land management and planning, education or land claim purposes.

Big things to come

In 1998 The National Heritage Trust (NHT) set aside 40 million dollars for land management on Cape York. Part of this money is to establish up to 13 Land and Sea Management Centres equipped with similar GIS programs. The opportunity exists for WWF to work in partnership with the centres and the NHT, to magnify the potential for a regional wetland management strategy through the development of an interactive communications and mapping technology, linking communities. WWF can act as 'the glue' to help the regional plan draw together. From the small beginnings of a community based project, strategically WWF is now well placed to achieve 'big things' working in partnership at both a ground and regional level, with Aboriginal organisations and government to manage wetlands in western Cape York through this exciting and innovative project.

Donna Luckman
Program & Communications Officer
WWF Tropical Wetlands of Oceania Program
GPO Box 1268, Darwin NT 0801
Ph. +61 (0)8 8941 7554 Fax. +61 (0)8 8941 6494
email. dluckman@wwf.org.au
website: www.wwf.org.au

 

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