On 3 November 2016, the Fitzroy River Declaration was drafted between Martuwarra Nations—a meeting that would later give rise to the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council. The declaration states “The Fitzroy River is a living ancestral being and has a right to life. It must be protected for current and future generations, and managed jointly by the Traditional Owners of the river” (1). The declaration identifies eight steps to protect and manage the Fitzroy River, including the need to develop a Fitzroy River management plan that is complemented by an Indigenous Protected Area, and an Indigenous management body for the river.
The landmark declaration is an expression of First Law. First Law is the traditional Aboriginal system of law and governance that has been developed over tens of thousands of years by Indigenous Australians (Poelina 2019, cited in Martuwarra Management Plan 2020). Two First Laws—Warloongarriy (for the River) and Wunan (for the entire Kimberley region)— “are ancient laws for a holistic approach to regional governance that continues to be shared and respected by the Indigenous nations”(Martuwarra Management Plan 2020, 37). Under First Law, the Martuwarra-Fitzroy river is a sacred living ancestral being with an inalienable right to live and flow (Poelina 2018, cited in Martuwarra Management Plan 2020). The Martuwarra Management Plan that would be drafted in 2020 by the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, explains that “traditional Aboriginal law focuses on maintaining the balance of the earth so that all things can prosper”, and it is this sustainable model of “Earth-centred Law” that serves as the basis for the Fitzroy River Declaration (Martuwarra Management Plan 2020, 37).
In 2018, the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council was formed as a “collective governance model to maintain the spiritual, cultural and environmental health of the Fitzroy River catchment” (Poelina 2019). The Council is an Aboriginal body of Senior Elders from Traditional Owner Groups of the King Sound, Fitzroy River, and the Martuwarra (the Fitzroy Catchment) that represents an alliance of six Indigenous Nations of the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Their Council’s work is founded in First Law and a guardianship system (rights, responsibility, and obligations). The Council is to be the first point of contact for governments, it “asserts its rights under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People”, and it’s vision is that the Western Australian (WA) government will enact legislation that formally recognizes First Law and guardianship by Traditional Owner Groups.
Following the drafting of the Declaration and the Council’s formal establishment, the Council (acting in the role of guardians, as the voice, of the Martuwarra-Fitzroy) instituted an (ongoing) campaign to have First Law recognized and implemented by the WA government. In 2018, the Council formally met with Western Australia government officials in Perth, urging them to support the council as the representative group responsible for management of the Fitzroy River, and for the implementation of the Fitzroy River Declaration.
**Importantly, First Law differs from its western legal counterpart. Anne Poelina, Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, explains that First Law principles are not applied through rules, policies, and procedures where punitive measures influence individual and societal behavior. Instead, “First Law is applied through stories that impart values and ethics” which constitute “a comprehensive ethical framework that defines the codes of conduct necessary for maintaining a peaceful, thriving, and co-operative society grounded in love and reciprocity (4). As such, “ancestral being” is different from “legal personhood”. “As the River is already an entity, it should not have to depend on the specific actions of settler law to achieve this status” (Redvers et al. 2020, 3).