We’ve been working through a new proposal for organising and managing the SE Coastal Lakes. The main thrust of it is to place substantial parts of them under conservation protection. Nominally the proposal is under the state Department of Environment and Water, who commissioned a consultant to carry out an engagement process designed to open up predominantly local feedback on the proposal. We at RCA were one of the respondents to the survey that was circulated, broadly supporting attempts to protect the ecological integrity of the lakes. The report on the engagement just came back.

The report notes that 75% of the respondents identified themselves with the hunting and fishing organisations, and that therefore the results of the engagement don’t represent a broad community view. Anecdotally I’d say that is right; people down here value the lakes and most want to see them protected. At the same time they want access, for walking and sitting and recreational fishing.

From an environmental point of view, there’s no doubt about the value of the lakes. In their publication ‘Landscapes of the South East’ the Department notes their foundational role in preserving ecological communities and in storing carbon.

More importantly, First Nations people have repeatedly pointed to the deep cultural values of the Lakes. These are connected, they have explained, not only to particular sites but across the lakes landscapes. Because of their connection to native food sources, middens are plentiful.

So there is reason to be concerned about the process that has given rise to this proposal. The failure to engage with First Nations people first and fully is not new down here; it’s shameful and inexcusable. And behind that is a particularly ineffective and confusing process of engagement, or consultation. It’s one thing to ask for opinions, through a survey. It’s quite another for people who have a stake in this, including hunters and fishers and environmentalists, to come together, share all the important information, and work through the issues together. As communities gain experience with this kind of process they become better at it. Stewardship of the commons requires it. It’s the only way, we believe, to achieve equitable, well-informed, effective, and agreed ways of going forward.