This year South Australia celebrates 30 years of the Coorong and Lower Lakes being recognised as a Ramsar site, an internationally significant wetland. The area is one of Australia’s iconic wetlands supporting critically endangered, endangered, threatened and vulnerable species and ecological communities.Phillips and Muller (2006) outline that the Coorong and Lower Lakes support extensive and diverse waterbird, fish and plant assemblages which are reliant on its complex mosaic of wetland types and the Ramsar convention is an acknowledgement of its significance not only in Australia but internationally.
In geographic language, the Coorong is defined as a long, shallow brackish to hypersaline lagoon 140 km in length that is separated from the Southern Ocean by a narrow sand dune peninsula and there is much information, brochures and books that describe and illustrate its unique landscape and diversity as well as Lakes Albert and Alexandrina.
However, moving away from the geographic, there is also much descriptive language that tries to capture the beauty of the Coorong and the Lower Lakes. Stories detail the low lying dunes framing the horizon, the big open sky, the long expanses of lagoon with water swirling in and out of the old fish traps and the wind-swept ti trees with their plucky white flowers. They try to capture the experiences of scents along the winding tracks that make their way through the coastal wattles, all the way to the ocean and the visions of pelicans flying in formation overhead. These experiences cause us all to do a second take on what really matters and the Friends of the Coorong are one community group that are well acquainted with such experiences.
However, it is the words used by the indigenous peoples of the Coorong and Lower Lakes, the Ngarrindjeri, and the culture and understandings that they have in relation to the area that help us reflect on the meaning and importance of the Ramsar recognition.
The Ngarrindjeri culture teaches about the interconnectedness between all living things and according to these principles the ‘environment’ cannot be compartmentalised, all things are connected and interconnected. For the Ngarrindjeri people, the land and people themselves are one. According to my understanding, their philosophy is based on maintaining the integrity of the relationship between place and person and it stresses the responsibility of the living to maintain this continuity.
The Ramsar recognition resonates with these principles – it asks us to become aware of and value the ecology of the region and the interconnections between water health, the land it nurtures and the fauna and flora that it supports, as well as to take appropriate national action. The Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
Although the situation is not as dire as it was in the drought, issues relating to the flow of water down the Murray continue and the struggle for a balance between cultural, ecological and economic needs continues. Local communities around the Coorong and Lower Lakes can provide heartfelt testimony to these struggles. The Ramsar convention mentions international cooperation which is not relevant to us as an island but we do have a great need of both regional and interstate cooperation to maximise the water flow into the Coorong and the Lower Lakes to maintain the health of the wetland.
As the traditional custodians of this area, the Ngarrindjeri people have recognised the uniqueness and richness of the Coorong for many, many more than 30 years. This commemoration is not only an ideal point in time to reinvigorate our understandings of the interconnections of the ecology of the area but also to reify a systematic approach and in doing so, to pool collective wisdoms and develop shared goals to promote this wonderful wetland that so many of us love.
... words contributed by Jane Fitzgerald, Friend of the Coorong
picture is lower portion of a photo by Debbie Jeisman