The Maralinga Tjarutja people and Defence have entered into a formal agreement, known as the ‘Cooperation Agreement’, marking a significant day in South Australian history and for the management of the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA).

A ceremony involving the traditional owners and Defence was held on June 25 at Maralinga, a former nuclear test site located 400km north-west of Ceduna, on Maralinga Tjarutja Traditional Lands.

Air Commodore Phil Gordon, Senior Australian Defence Force Officer South Australia and Commander Air Warfare Centre, signed the instrument of agreement on behalf of the Defence Minister.

“After years of fostering a relationship built on mutual understanding, respect and trust, I am very pleased to see this agreement in place,” Air Commodore Gordon said.

“It sets out a framework for cooperation and, importantly, outlines mutual rights and responsibilities.

“It also articulates how Defence and Maralinga Tjarutja representatives will engage on a regular basis to manage safety and security within the WPA while working together to protect Aboriginal heritage and culture.

“Defence has a number of long-standing relationships within the WPA. We value these important relations with community groups and key stakeholders to enable the safe and successful conduct of trials and training activities.”

Air Commodore Gordon said the agreement demonstrated Defence’s commitment to collaborate with Indigenous partners and respect the cultural heritage in the region.

“The Maralinga Tjarutja people are part of the Western Desert culture and maintain strong spiritual connection with their traditional lands,” he said.

“There have been numerous cultural considerations embedded in the way Defence operates within the WPA, such as personnel participating in cultural awareness programs to ensure sensitivities are respected and observed, together with the establishment of an innovative Indigenous RAAF Reserve program.

“The Regional Compliance Officer [RCO] Reserve program comprises representatives of the Aboriginal groups whose traditional lands fall within the WPA and they play an important role in upholding safety and the security of tests and trials.”

“It sets out a framework for cooperation and, importantly, outlines mutual rights and responsibilities.”

A recent RCO graduate, Corporal Manisha LeBois, of the Maralinga Tjarutja people, attended the signing ceremony.

The successful program has eight members who support the Air Warfare Centre’s Air Force Test Ranges Squadron in providing compliance patrols and security of the WPA during range-testing activities.

“I feel honoured to be present in country today with my people and my new Air Force family members,” Corporal LeBois said.

“The RCO program has brought many opportunities for my family. Both my brother and I get to share our history and culture while proudly representing Air Force.

“I’m excited to start working with Air Force Test Ranges Squadron in collaboration with the Maralinga Tjarutja people.

“This positive and productive relationship will enable each Indigenous community to reconnect with their traditional lifestyles within the WPA.”

The Oak Valley Rangers conducted a Welcome to Country ceremony, with Corporal LeBois translating in English for the ceremony attendees. 

To mark the occasion, Oak Valley artist Cindy Watson produced an Aboriginal artwork called Tali Tjuta my Munda 7 Sisters, meaning the sand hills in her country. This artwork now adorns the bonnet of an Air Force Test Ranges Squadron compliance patrol vehicle deployed across the broader WPA.

Five other Aboriginal groups also have interests within the WPA and Defence looks forward to exchanging similar agreements with them.