Earlier this month, the Budj Bim aquaculture system was added to the Unesco World Heritage List – a list of naturally and culturally significant sites deemed worthy of protection by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). Australia has several sites on the list – including the Sydney Opera House – but Budj Bim is the first Indigenous site to be added exclusively for its cultural significance.

Budj Bim is home to one of the world’s oldest aquaculture systems – a 6,600-year-old network of channels, dams and weirs developed by the Gunditjmara people to manipulate flood plains and water flows to trap and harvest kooyang (eels). It spans one hundred square kilometres on the site of the old Budj Bim lava flow in south-west Victoria, just north of the Great Ocean Road, about an hour’s drive from Warrnambool.

Securing the Unesco listing has been a long journey. Over the last four decades, the traditional Gunditjmara owners have recovered ownership of various properties spanning the coastal aquaculture system, slowly discovering the complexity of the network’s traps.

“I knew as a young fella some of the things around there, but never the extent of it,” says Denis Rose, a Gunditjmara person and the project manager for the Budj Bim Sustainable Development Partnership. “I think [the Unesco listing] made me realise exactly how important Budj Bim is on the world stage. It’s one of the few Indigenous [Australian]-led world heritage nominations. We’ve driven it from the start.”

Unlike Kakadu and Uluru, which are also listed as World Heritage sites, Budj Bim is not recognised for its natural beauty or biodiversity. Instead it was nominated as a Cultural Landscape – a category of the World Heritage Convention that recognises combined works of nature and man.

Today, Budj Bim Cultural Landscape spans 9935 hectares and includes nine Gunditjmara-owned properties and a large section of Budj Bim National Park, which is cooperatively managed by Gunditjmara traditional owners and Parks Victoria.

The aquaculture systems are maintained by a team of Budj Bim rangers, who work in revegetation, feral animal control, weed control, and give tours to visitors.

“We welcome people to country, and we show them around. I work on the basis that if I’m giving a tour, I’ll just point to things and tell stories. Actually, the country tells the story,” says Rose.

To deal with increasing tourism, the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation has developed a master plan for sustainable tourism, which includes building culturally appropriate boardwalks and viewing platforms to ensure increasing visitors do not destroy the area. The Victorian Government has committed $13 million to implement the master plan. The plan is to increase visitor numbers to the site to more than 150,000 people annually in 10 to 25 years.

“We want to make sure that our tourism is sustainable and that we don’t have a detrimental impact on the cultural and natural values of country. We want to improve country – make it better,” says Rose. “We’re talking about looking after country. At least maintaining, and hopefully restoring the cultural and environmental value.”

The site is not only home to one of the world’s oldest and most complex aquaculture systems – it’s also the site of over 100 permanent stone dwellings. For thousands of years, dwellings such as these were home to a settled community of Gunditjmara people – a rarity in Aboriginal culture, which is mostly known to have been nomadic.

The reason Budj Bim’s aquaculture network – far more extensive than similar cultural sites in western Victoria and South Australia – was able to support a settled community was because of its once reliable water supply. But these days the demands placed on Australia’s waterways mean the site is unable to run at its full capacity.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of drainage of wetlands for agricultural purposes. We restored the water systems out in Lake Condah, but weren’t able to restore it to the traditional height. We had to build a weir that was just on two meters lower than the traditional height because of the impact on upstream farmers. A lot of the systems are working, but not necessarily all of them,” says Rose. “Climate change is going to put even more pressure on Australian waterways … we’re including some of those considerations into our management of country.”

Aside from the economic benefits and the environmental and cultural protection that comes with a Unesco listing, Gunditjmara traditional owners are relieved to be acknowledged.

“[It’s about] recognition that this is a place where Gunditjmara people achieved a major engineering feat more than 6000 years ago,” says Rose, who grew up catching and eating eels in Portland, Victoria. Although now he says it’s the next generation’s turn to get the day’s catch.

“I’d probably get the young fellas to go out and catch me an eel now rather than doing it myself.”

To learn more about the sustainable development of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, head to gunditjmirring.com/budjbimsdp.