Eve Vincent and Timothy Neale (editors), Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia (UWAP Scholarly 2016)
Murrawah Johnson, a Wirdi woman, was speaking last November to a mainly non-Indigenous audience in Sydney about the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council’s campaign against the proposed Adani coal mine. ‘You have to learn how to be led by Indigenous people,’ she said, not hiding her frustration at the colonialist attitudes of some (many? most?) conservationists.
In some ways this rich, accessible and multi-layered collection of essays is a response to such expressions of frustration, including widely broadcast ones such as Noel Pearson’s criticism of conservationists during the Wild Rivers Act controversy in Queensland between 2005 and 2014, or Marcia Langton’s 2012 Boyer Lectures, in which she accused the white conservation movement of having for 40 years made deals with state governments ‘to deny Aboriginal people their rights as landowners and citizens of Australia’. The writers, being academics, don’t stoop to reminding us that Langton’s research for those lectures was funded largely by mining companies: they meet evidence with evidence, argument with argument. I find it hard to convey the intense pleasure of reading this kind of sustained, thoughtful, evidence-based writing in the Twitter–Trump Abbott-slogan era.
Not so long ago, the general assumption among white Australians was that there was, in the words of Neale and Vincent’s introductory chapter, ‘an essential affinity between Indigenous interests in and relations to land and water, on the one hand, and environmental objectives on the other’. That has changed. The underlying assumption in this book, however, is not that there is an essential antagonism but that relations between environmentalists and Indigenous people in Australia have ‘long been “unstable”‘, and take on ever more diverse forms. The book seeks ‘to learn more about the current status of environmental–Indigenous relations through the use of specific, empirically grounded case studies’.
Contributors include activists, historians, geographers, anthropologists and one or two people who aren’t easily classified. Though there are plenty of notes and bibliographies, the book is very readable, the kind of academic writing that addresses a readership outside the academy. Though as far as I can tell all but one of the writers are non-Indigenous, or ‘settler-Australian’, many Aboriginal voices are quoted, and most of the writers are explicit in their commitment to the ‘green–black alliance’.
The book embraces complexity. It kicks off with a look behind the headlines of Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act controversy of 2005–2014 by Timothy Neale, and then a fascinating exploration by Jon Altman of the complexities of Kuninjku people’s responses to the huge and environmentally damaging growth in buffalo populations in their part of Arnhem Land.
Richard J Martin and David Trigger travel to the Pungalina on the Gulf of Carpentaria, and describe the kinds of intercultural negotiations that are needed there between Garawa people, cattle station owners, the tourism industry, government agencies and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (an organisation that has established a wildlife ‘sanctuary’ there).
Jessica Weir tells the story of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations’ (MLDRIN) success in bringing an Indigenous perspective to struggles around water in the Murray–Darling system.
Robert Leviticus discusses ‘wilderness’, a problematic term that is too often understood as erasing Indigenous people. He goes on to discuss the views of David Lindner, ‘a practical conservationist who has never been a member of any organisation, but who has worked on the wetlands of the South Alligator River in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory since 1972, and lived near or next to them since 1979, shortly after they were included in the newly declared first stage of Kakadu’, a kind of Crocodile Dundee but with less bullshit, and a better articulated respect for Yolngu relationship to the land.
Eve Vincent turns her ethnographic eye on the ‘greenies’ who follow the lead of a Kokatha woman whom she calls Aunty Joan, and manages to be both very funny (often enough at her own expense, as one of the group she is describing) and enlightening about crosscultural issues.
Stephen Muecke discusses Indigenous-Green knowledge collaborations at the James Price Point Dispute 2008–2012. The earlier settler colonialism, he argues, has been superseded by extraction colonialism, which is even more disengaged from the region. He quotes Nyikina leader Anne Poelina as saying that ‘we are all being colonised: it is not a black or white question any longer’.
Michaela Spencer looks at two cases of Indigenous people and environmentalists trying to work collaboratively within a neoliberal framework.
In the next three essays, activists speak.
Monica Morgan, Yorta Yorta activist, talks about the campaign to have national parks declared in the Barmah and Millewa river red gum forests on the Victoria–New South Wales border, in which she was a key leader. She articulates a key challenge in alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on conservation issues:
One of the things we learnt was that it doesn’t matter how much – and I don’t want to be confronting to you – but however much non-Indigenous people say they are committed, in the long run they are committed to their society. I think it’s ingrained within the education: it’s ingrained with their thought patterns that they concede and they’ll work within a status quo. And I think our rights are seen in that way as well. […]
Always our people were forever saying, ‘ Well we don’t recognise your system but we acknowledge it’s there.’ we tried to push the boundaries and lay down, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think, based on our traditional knowledge.’
Whether in the end you are going to agree with it or not, it’s entirely up to you. And of course they never did.
Dave Sweeney, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner, and Anthony Esposito, who has worked on many environmental organisations and traditional owner organisations, both describe decades of struggle to rise to that challenge in their activism. Sweeney finds ‘profound and convincing sense’ in something Bruce Pascoe wrote in his book Convincing Ground:
The blacks didn’t die, and the whites aren’t going away.
Tony Birch, novelist, has the final word in the book, arguing that ‘new conversations, framed through humility, are required to shake Western discourses from a sense of arrogance and apathy’. I’ll give the final word in this blog post to Dave Sweeney:
We’re the beneficiaries of crime. SO that brings with it the responsibility to actively address that. It also brings with it the requirement to suck up stuff even when it’s unfair, because there’s a bigger picture. At the same time, I don’t reckon it does an individual or a nation or a movement any good to just say ‘sorry’ all the time. Those environmental activists, those who are locking on at Jabiluka, those who are doing stuff to try and actively make a difference, did not poison waterholes. hey are the inheritors, they are the beneficiaries, but they didn’t do that stuff. And they are actively, in their life, trying to undo that stuff.
Environmental activists shouldn’t make the mistake of getting burnt, saying sorry, or, the opposite, saying ‘get lost, that’s unfair’ and withdrawing. And on the other side, Aboriginal people are generally are amazingly generous of spirit and continue to slap us around a little bit, continue to jerk the chain, remind us of the power imbalance. But don’t have it set in concrete that you cannot ever be other than a colonial thief. Otherwise we’re in a frozen, no-good zone.