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‘Working on Country’ and economic development opportunities for Aboriginal communities

by on May 27, 2013

CCS academics will soon begin researching the potential of ‘working on country’ programs as alternate ‘hybrid’ economic development opportunities for Aboriginal communities in NSW.

Researchers, Jeremy Walker, James Goodman and Heidi Norman will conduct field research at three locations to gain an understanding of how land conservation and management concerns are articulated by Aboriginal people and to learn something of the local social, economic and environmental situations. The pilot study will not only see specific identified research outcomes but will also lead to the consolidation of community research collaborations for future competitive research funding opportunities.

The project sits within the CCS research streams: ‘Environment and society’ & ‘Indigeneity and power.’

Title: Towards the Indigenous Bio-economy: the ‘Real economy’ and the Reconstitution of the Aboriginal Estate.

The proposed project seems to make a contribution to scholarship, policy development and the engagement of Aboriginal landowners with biodiversity conservation activities and organisations, by studying the interface between the indigenous estate and the conservation estate in NSW. This will be performed through case studies of three distinct areas under different land and resource management regimes (ie. NPWS Act 1974, ALRA NSW 1983, Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA), NTA 1994). These include the longstanding arrangements for the joint management of Mutawintji National Park in the arid regions of Western NSW, the newly declared Indigenous Protected Area in the coastal estuary at Gumma, Nambucca Heads, and a third site near Gunnedah in north western NSW where communities face the opportunities and threats associated with the mining of coal and coalbed methane gas. Here we will study Red Chief Local Aboriginal Land Council’s (LALC) engagement with the coal mining and ‘biodiversity offset banking’ activities of Whitehaven Coal at Maules Creek.

Since the mid-1970s, the Aboriginal land rights movement has seen some 20% of the Australian continent restored to its original owners through federal and state legislation, and native title claims in the wake of decisions of the high court (Mabo). The majority of what we will call ‘the indigenous estate’ is located in regions that have been of marginal economic interest to the mainstream population in the remote northern, central and western regions. Home to some of the most important centres of megadiversity of indigenous species and ecosystems, these lands have often not been returned in the good condition that they were once kept, and face serious threats from invasive species, biodiversity erosion, mining, overstocking and the suppression of the indigenous fire management regime practiced for millenia. The ‘working on country’ movement, originated in the concern of traditional owners about major observed changes in fire regimes and the perceived declining condition of country (Cooke 2012) and a need for viable forms of employment and economic development, has developed a national policy dimension in the form of Indigenous Protected Areas, joint management and handback of national parks, and numerous ‘working on country’ programs funded by the Commonwealth, but also by corporations offsetting environmental damage, and global conservation NGO’s such as the Nature Conservancy who tend to work on private land. While there is much diversity in the geographical range and scope of such projects, and also of the legal frameworks and forms of tenure, what unites them is hope for an alternative model of economic advancement and autonomy through the skilled labour of indigenous rangers acting to conserve and restore the Indigenous estate. Numerous projects in this ‘hybrid’ development model – an alternative to the often destructive mining sector thus far ignored in national debate – have been outlined in (Altman and Keiris 2012) however these are mostly confined to the Northern Territory and other remote regions of Australia.

This study seeks to investigate the extent to which the success and promise of the indigenous rangers movement can be extended in NSW, where a very low percentage of land has been returned, by comparison, under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, 1983 and Commonwealth Native Title.

Land rights in NSW heralded the policy of self-determination and the promise of economic autonomy. The movements for land rights that culminated in the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NSW)1983, as Heidi Norman (2012) argues, was invested with enormous expectations and high hopes by Aboriginal citizens of NSW, who sought political autonomy from the history of authoritarian welfare regimes, and economic emancipation through the recovery of land. As a ‘capital base’, land title offers the hope of full economic citizenship, and of the reconstitution of culture, community and identity on country. Much of this hope met with disillusion as chronic disadvantage continued and the desire for autonomous community control clashed with state expectations for accountability. The nationally endorsed policies of self-determination since the 1970s has been critically reappraised, largely from conservative quarters, insofar as land rights and the interaction of welfare and social policy has not lead to improvements in the well being of many communities who continue to live in impoverished conditions. The Northern Territory Emergency Intervention (NTEI), for example, encodes conservative critique of the politics of this new era in so far as land rights legislation is attacked as a cause of continuing economic exclusion and social dysfunction. The controversial and extreme forms of behaviour management of the NTEI have been justified in terms of a discourse on ‘the real economy’. The economic anthropologist Jon Altman offers a persuasive challenge to the neo-liberal Aboriginal public policy preoccupation with the ‘real economy’ in saying:

[i]n recent discursive wars and owing to biases in Australia’s urban dominated political processes, the development potential of the Indigenous estate has focused too much on extraction of minerals and development of national interests and too little on the maintenance of land scapes of high conservation value. How might the current ideology of economic growth irrespective of cost be challenged so that different regional logics and alternate “hybrid” development on Indigenous territories can occur? (Altman, 2012: 36)

Altman’s ground-breaking study of the Indigenous ranger movement and large land holdings is focused on native title holdings in remote central Australia. Our study takes up Altman’s challenge with reference to NSW. As one of us has argued elsewhere (Walker 2013, 5), the discipline of anthropology was constituted in no small part with reference to Spencer & Gillens ethnographic work on Arrente ceremony:
Insofar as the apparent importance of Intichiuma-like ceremonies to the social organization of Aboriginal totemism (Spencer and Gillen 1899a: 167) served to indicate the ‘pre-scientific’ nature of the indigenous experiences of causality and human-environment interaction, it contributed to the definition of anthropology ‘as the science of non-science’ (Vivieros de Castro 2003) and to ‘the idea, which was long prevalent, that most native people live in a kind of idyllic “pre-economic” state’ (Thomson 1949: 1).

Anthropological analysis has tended to render Aboriginal social being in terms of ‘culture’, ‘mythology’ and ‘religion’, in contrast with Western society, for which is reserved the rational categories of ‘science’, ‘technology’ and ‘political economy’. This has tended to obscure Indigenous knowledge of nature (zoological, ethological, botanical, ecological, meteorological) which may be thought of as a radically non-Cartesian ‘science’. Similarly, the recent comprehensive historical recovery of the forms of transcontinental political organisation and labour involved in ‘fire stick farming’ (Russel-Smith et al 2009, Gammage 2011) demonstrates the philosophical intentionality of locative, place-based Aboriginal thought (Swain 1993).

We hope to investigate how the partial restoration of Aboriginal land management – what we call the indigenous bioeconomy – can on the one hand be integrated into ‘the real economy’, while on the other hand, how the recognition of the deep history of the Aboriginal economy might challenge narrow neoliberal conceptions of what counts as the ‘real’ economy’ in recent policy debates. Marcia Langton’s (2012) recent Boyer lectures, for example, portrays the environmental conservation movement as antithetical to Indigenous aspirations, and the only hope for development in alliance with the ever more powerful mining sector. Contemporary capitalism’s tendency to maintain the Utopian (ie, ‘no place’) privileging of rapid expansion of industrial output regardless of climate change and mass extinction surely renders it vulnerable to alternative claims to what counts as a rational and ‘real ‘economic philosophy.

We seek to examine how the ecological labour and natural resource management of joint management, Indigenous Protected Areas, and the ‘working on country’ movement fulfils the objectives of the land rights movement. We will report on ways that discourse of ‘the real economy’ can be reinterpreted in the context of social and economic ‘development’ of the indigenous estate, beyond its current almost exclusive identification with mining: in particular energy extraction: nuclear, coal, and coal bed methane gas.

We seek to detail the current extent and future potential of Aboriginal people’s involvement in bio-banking schemes, conservation management extending beyond national parks or ALRA land boundaries and Indigenous taxonomic and ecological knowledge as it comes into contact with the sciences of ecological conservation, conciliation and restoration. Specifically, we ask: can market-based schemes be harnessed to achieve Aboriginal land and resource management aspirations, as well as an autonomous opportunity for compensated labour? What is at stake in Aboriginal ‘incorporation’ into regimes of financialised capitalist care? Is this an opportunity for the reconstitution and conservation of indigenous language, knowledge, and taxonomy, and indeed for a ‘fusion of horizons’ (Gadamer 1989) between native and settler sciences of care for threatened vital landscapes (Altman & Keris 2012)?

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