Mungalla and Aboriginal History

By Taylor and Ben

Prior to European colonialism, the Indigenous people inhabited Australia and the Torres Sea Islands for forty thousand years, sustainably living off the land. The population at its peak was around three hundred and fifty thousand, and there were over one hundred tribes throughout the continent. The indigenous people believed that the earth was flat, dark, and devoid of life, but spirits descended from the heavens, created the hills, streams, mountains, oceans, and all other land forms and continued to inhabit the places they created. As a result, the land is deeply sacred to them, and they summarize this by “sick land, sick people”. European colonists arrived in the mid eighteenth century, most notably James Cook, and they declared the entire continent as their own. Upon encountering the indigenous people, they thought they were equivalent to kangaroos, dingoes, and emus and thought it was their purpose to dominate and eradicate them, stemming from Social Darwinism. Newspaper clippings that we saw in the Mungalla Station museum declared that they were savage cannibals and had no language except grunts and screams. The indigenous people sought to distance themselves from the Europeans, because they knew they could not fight against guns, but the Europeans hunted them whenever they encountered them. The colonial governments formed police groups that aimed at systematically destroying aboriginal people and used the indigenous as slaves. In addition, the children were taken away from their parents, forbidden to speak their native language. Indigenous land was taken by the government, and the aboriginals were forced onto reservations that were similar to concentration camps.

Cunningham, an associate of Barnum and Bailey, an international circus, convinced nine aboriginals to accompany him to the United States and Europe as part of a human circus that also had Zulu, Nubian, and Sioux people. They were shown as the lowest form of humanity closest to apes, and millions of people saw them as the circus traveled through countries. While this is horrendously morbid in modern times, this was seen as appropriate and exciting entertainment for the lower and middle class. They were even showcased at the World Fair. As they traveled throughout the Northern Hemisphere, they contracted many diseases like tuberculosis and left to suffer lonely deaths in hotel rooms. Tambo was among the first to die, and upon his death, he was mummified and put in a museum in Ohio. It was only in 1994, one hundred years later, that his body was returned to Greater Palm Island and given a proper and traditional burial he deserved.

The Nywaigi people originally inhabited the lands between Paluma Range and the coast, but the colonial government took their land and leased it to cattle ranchers. Jacob Cassidy was an early owner of cattle lands, but he proactively protected the Nywaigi and other indigenous, arguing for their protection and respect. The land passed to his son, but upon his son’s death, a cattle rancher bought the property. In 2000, the land was auctioned off to the Nywaigi Land Corporation and they began and are currently in the process of returning the land to the ecosystems they remember through their oral history. They still manage cattle, but also have a museum and interactive tour showcasing their culture and way of life.


Degradation of the Wetlands

By Caleigh and Despina

The early European immigrants settled in the Mangalla area (Northeastern Australia) primarily to raise cattle and farm the lands. Unfortunately, the area the Europeans originally settled in had an abundance of mosquitoes and other pests that influenced them to move their homestead elsewhere. Their goal was to move westward across the wetlands, to a drier area with fewer pests. In order to do so, the Europeans constructed a bund (or earth) wall through the wetlands, sturdy enough so they could easily transport their supplies. The wall was never deconstructed after the

Figure 1. Map of Hymenachne intrusion in the Mungalla Station property. Reprinted with permission from Mike Nicholas.

Europeans moved their homestead. The wetlands themselves were an area where the tides of the ocean naturally flowed into freshwater sources, which created a mixture of salt and fresh water, known as brackish water. The bund wall therefore impeded the saline flow into these waters, creating a stark division of salt water and freshwater. The area the Europeans finally resided in continued to be used as a cattle farm and remains one to this day. In the 1990s, farmers introduced an invasive weed called Hymenachne amplexicaulis, or olive weed, that they intended to use as cattle food. Thriving in fresh water one to one and a half meters deep, the wetlands served as the perfect habitat for Hymenachne to flourish. Additionally, the seeds have a 98% germination rate and reproduce asexually, which contributed to their uncontrollable growth in the wetlands. Figure 1 shows the abundance of Hymenachne invading the natural waterbodies of the Mangalla Station property. According to the map, approximately 80% of the waterbodies have been taken over by the invasive Hymenachne. A photographic representation of this invasion can be seen in Figure 2. The Hymenachne plant is the bright green vegetation making

Figure 2. Image of Hymenachne weeds in the wetlands of Mungalla Station. Reprinted with permission from Mike Nicholas.

up most of the photograph. Without the presence of Hymenachne, the bright green areas would have been primarily water. Not only did the weeds dry up the wetlands, but the water that remained contained less than 0.5% dissolved oxygen. Levels of dissolved oxygen this low are unable to support life in the wetlands, destroying the habitats of native plants and animals, and causing the wetlands to resemble swamp-like areas. The construction of the bund wall and the introduction of the Hymenachne led to the degradation of the wetlands, drastically changing its ecosystem.

As evident across the world, the sentiment that money is the root of all evil rings true in Mungalla station, a corner of Australia where an aboriginal family struggles to maintain their identity and culture in the midst of a rapidly changing landscape. Farmers originally ripped out native trees like the sandpaper fig and the native peanut to make room for farming cattle without consideration for the impacts this may have on other animals’ habitats and the ecosystem as a whole. After this, farmers only wanted more and planted the hymenachne amplexicaulis weed to fatten the cattle because it was a substantial grass that grew well even in difficult conditions. However, this presented a slew of ecological implications that farmers did not anticipate including changes to hydrology, compromised wetland functioning, and differing nutrient content.  The weed sucked all the oxygen out of the water, especially in the wetlands which it covered. Like a cancer, it grew uncontrollably to the point that other wildlife lost resources they depended on. As species lower on the food chain died off, their predators equally suffered. This not only impacted local animals like wallabies and magpie geese, but as the water flowed to the ocean, the altered water quality impacted marine animals, coral, and other underwater life. Other invasive species hindering the wetland’s health include the water hyacinth, salvinia, and aleman grass. Figure 3 shows a visual representation of the effects of degradation in the wetlands. The man working there, Buddy, described the interconnectedness of the water systems much like one might describe the human body. The Great Barrier Reef in the ocean was like the heart, pumping water to other systems, the wetlands were like the kidneys, filtering out harmful substances, and the connecting waterways were like the veins. Any blockage or disturbance upsets the entire system. On top of the ecological disruptions, the Nywaigi Traditional Owners were deeply affected on a personal and cultural level due to their strong connection with Mother Earth. They feel the effects much more deeply than we might because they are out interacting with their environment every single day. Buddy explained how magpie geese used to fly in enormous droves that were so thick they blocked out the sunlight and today, their populations are much thinner. The weeds now cover lands that were once made up of purely water and cattle often thwart efforts to plant trees that once lived there, requiring fencing to protect the land. When developing restoration efforts it is important to consider the habits of animals in addition to the cultural significance that the landscape holds for those who live there. We must also remember the harmful motivations that began the positive feedback loop of degradation in the first place and hopefully learn from those mistakes to build a brighter future for all life forms.

Figure 3. These images depict the wetlands before (left) and after (right) degradation. More information can be found at:

How Nywaigi and CSIRO Cooperated through Mutual Respect to Accomplish a Shared Goal

By CJ, Kunal, Sophia, and Peggy

The Nywaigi Aboriginal people, who have inhabited this part of Australia for over 65,000 years, have a saying regarding their intrinsic relationship with the wetland: “Sick country, sick people.” Aboriginal people have a deep cultural and spiritual connection to the land they inhabit. They see the wetlands of Australia as a resource to be nurtured, not used up. As the land suffers, so too do the Indigenous people. Stories passed down to the current generation through Nywaigi elders speak of a time when the land was abundant in wildlife and diverse in nature. Both indigenous and non-indigenous people seek to rejuvenate the landscape to this former state.

Founded in 1916, the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) took over major agricultural and ecological projects in Australia. Taking on the role as a sort of “middle man”, CSIRO is funded by the federal government and international sources but focuses strongly on integrating aboriginal culture and traditions in their projects. The company highly values the input of aboriginal knowledge, especially when it concerns ecological rehabilitation or restoration projects. In Mungalla, the wetland restoration project was initiated at Mungulla Station, after four of the most dangerous and invasive weeds in Australia had overgrown the wetland. Mungulla Station had originally belonged to the Nywaigi Traditional Owners and the project was conducted by consulting indigenous elders on how they wanted their land to look.

While the Nywaigi people have seen the land for its cultural importance due to stories from their ancestors, non-indigenous people have looked at the land and approached it with the goal of using the resources for economic objective. During the pioneer era Australian settlers planted Hymenachne plexicorus, a foreign and invasive plant, in the hopes of allowing it to dot the landscape and create “ponded pastures” for cattle grazing. This plant colonized the wetlands at an alarming rate, overtaking the native plants and completely altering the ecology of the wetlands. Through aiming to utilize the resources of the land for their own gain, non-indigenous settlers unintentionally jeopardized the culturally important landscape of the Nywaigi people. Along with taking their land and dramatically changing the way it was used, settlers forced the Nywaigi families apart and dismantled their culture in the process. In order to begin to solve the issue at hand and return the land to the way the Nywaigi once knew it, there had to be a major collaboration between the non-indigenous and the original owners of the land.

While both CSIRO and the Nywaigi people had the common goal of restoring the wetlands and managing the (rising invasion) of invasive species, they approached the issue from inherently different places – CSIRO from the field of science and ecological reconstruction, the Nywaigi people from preservation of culture, tradition, and a deep emotional connection to their land. Despite differing catalysts for their actions, the two groups each brought vital contributions to the project and worked cohesively to remediate the damage done to the wetlands through mutual respect and cooperation. The Nywaigi people of Mungalla Station continue the legacy of this project, encoura

ging people from all walks of earth to participate in the restoration of their land. For example, we as American science students worked with the people of Mungalla Station to plant trees along the wetlands to help shade out invasive species and help restore the ecosystem.


Science and Tools for Restoration of the Mungalla Wetlands

By Lin, Danny, and Haley

The CSIRO and Nywaigi people adopted a three-pronged approach to the eradication of Hymenachne: remediation, regeneration, and restoration. Remediation focused on eliminating the weeds, while revegetation aimed to reintroduce normal vegetation. These two approaches facilitated the final goal of restoration, the rejuvenation of the entire wetlands ecosystem as a whole, expanding beyond the presence or absence of Hymenachne.

The team first attempted to remove the Hymenachne through chemical means. Glyphosate, a mild herbicide, was methodically applied across the affected wetlands area, both by hand and through large-scale helicopter drops. While glyphosate did successfully kill some of the existing weeds, it was largely ineffective.  Timing was a major issue. Hymenachne flowers annually from January through March, so to break the fertilization cycle the team had to apply the herbicide during January. However, the rainy season in North Queensland runs from December through May, and much of the glyphosate was washed away, rendering it ineffective. The herbicide would also kill natural vegetation as it was applied and as it was washed away into other areas, actually exacerbating the problem as it removed Hymenachne’s competition. After chemical methods failed to produce desired results, the team supplemented herbicides with mechanical methods. Volunteers went in and manually pulled out weeds and seeds. However, Hymenachne is 98% germinable, and any leftover seeds or weed residue readily grew. Heavy machinery was recruited to harvest pieces of weeds off the wetlands and place them on the banks. While this improved the weed removal rates, it required a large time investment and l

Figure 1. Application of chemical herbicide across the degraded wetlands using a helicopter (left). Mechanical removal of a section of the bund wall to restore regular inundations of the wetlands (right).

abor. Some machines, such as bulldozers, also struggled to traverse the wetland terrain. Both chemical and mechanical removal processes also proved quite expensive. Chemical treatments required the purchase of large quantities of herbicide, as well as the periodic rental of helicopters. Meanwhile, mechanical removal methods required the rental of machinery.

Finally, the team tried saline control. Hymenachne thrives in fresh water but will die out at approximately 30% salinity. The bund wall, originally built by settlers to block the tides, had greatly reduced the salinity of the estuarine waters. CSIRO and the Nywaigi people worked together to remove a portion of the wall, hopefully allowing the tides to naturally increase the salinity of the waters. Modeling software was used to map the extent of the salinity changes before the wall was removed. Conductivity sensors were placed across the wetlands to measure salinity changes following the removal of the wall. It was found that the water did indeed increase in salinity after about two inundations, and the plan was incredibly effective. Figure 1 represents use of chemical herbicides using helicopter and also the removal of the bund wall. Hymenachne populations decreased rapidly, and native plants that had been lying dormant began to germinate. With the regrowth of native plants, several native animal species also made their way home to the wetlands. Figure 2 shows the partial restoration of the wetlands after several inundations.

Figure 2. After the removal of the bund wall, salinity levels increased and visibly reduced Hymenachne levels.

Along with saline control methods, revegetation has also been key to the restoration of the wetlands. Native tree species were planted along the riparian regions of the wetlands, and they competed with the weeds for nutrients and sunlight. The revegetation process continues today, with help from Mungalla Station volunteers. A partial restoration of the wetlands has been completed, and the eventual goal is the complete restoration of these wetlands.


Future Prospects

By Sophie, Chloe, and Rebekah

Following the research project of removing the hymenachne, the Nywaigi people are now looking towards what projects can be done for the future. Once the salt water was reintroduced, there was a new problem of salt tolerant weeds including Aleman grass (Echinochloa polystachya). Aleman grass is native to North and South America and forms thick patches in areas that experience flooding and seasonable changes. The current weeds block off the waterways from the coast to the wetland which prevents the flow of water and out competes native species by using up resources such as oxygen in the water. The solution that the Nywaigi and scientists are now using to combat these weeds is to line the edges of their wetlands with native trees. I joined in with the other student from Chapel Hill to plant several trees. Everyone got to plant at least one tree and help with other steps in the planting process. Some of the members dug out the areas while my group allocated the mulch and another group prepared the trees. Since the current weeds require direct sunlight, the trees will provide shade that prevent the plants from growing. The trees also lower the water temperature which increases the quality of the water. The problems that this project is facing is preventing the cows from eating the young trees. Once the trees start to grow the cows will generally leave the area alone in order to find grassier areas. Until then, the Nywaigi people are sectioning off the land where the saplings are growing by using fences to block the cattle from getting to them. Towards the future, the Nywaigi people hope to see more of the native species return and to have the opportunity to live in partnership with the land as their ancestors once did.

Mungalla Station is home not only to an active cattle farm and historical exhibit, but also to wetlands in the process of restoration. However, the UNC students were informed that the wetlands project funding would be ending on June 30, leaving many to question the sustainability of the project. How would this enterprise continue? After some quick digging, it appears the future of Mungalla Station is stable.

We were able to purchase products at the gift shop at the end of our tour, but the store was in the process of being stocked and displayed, leaving items in disarray. The different art pieces and styles of jewelry were beautiful, however, and we almost cleared the store of all their products. Online, the Mungalla Station website did not have an online shop page, but they did list all the prices of their tours and catering. The Hinchinbrook shire website also included details of Mungalla Station tour prices, informing a larger audience of the Mungalla Station story. Through the sale of guided tours and catering, it appears that the continued private restoration of the wetlands by the Nywaigi people will be sustainable and hopefully better the entire natural system of the station.

Mungalla Station also has social visions for the future. Mungalla station aims to support the equal treatment and opportunity of the Nywagi people.  They want to focus on the education and advancement of Nywagi descendants while maintaining their culture. The Nywagi people are behind those of European descendants in education, unemployment, and average pay, but have much higher rates of incarceration. However, it is said there is no difference in performance between a Nywagi descendant with the same education and opportunity as anyone else. Mungalla station aims to support the advancement of Nywagi people by providing jobs and intern opportunities. They also want to continue to educate others on the history of the Nywagi people to acknowledge the past, but move forward to reparation.