The ideal equilibrium

Opinion Article

2007 June, 9

It has come to pass that the aspirations of indigenous people in remote Australia to re-establish a real economy underpinning the sustainability of their society are at odds with the vision of urban-based conservation organisations such as The Wilderness Society. The confrontation which has emerged between the advocates of land rights in Cape York Peninsula and those who advocate for so called wilderness may be just the start of a sharpening clash of values.

Traditional landowners and communities in northern Australia are caught on the horns of a dilemma: the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage is foremost in their concerns about the future of their land and culture, whilst they also understand that economic development is essential for the future of their people. Without economic development, indigenous people are dying on welfare dependency. The only other solution to a real economy is whole-scale migration to urban areas and to abandon their culture: to die in a miserable urban underclass.

So which is to be: no development and continue the downward spiral of social breakdown? Or seek development that can sustain people on their traditional lands?

In the wider society, attitudes towards the environment and development range between two extremes. The extreme of one side argues that environmental and development policy must serve the needs of the human species and nature must yield. Few tears are shed when another species becomes extinct.

The extremity of the other side argues that policy must serve the needs of preserving and enhancing ecological diversity and humans must yield. Few tears are shed when thousands die, and billions suffer in poverty. It may be that the underlying psychology of extreme Western environmentalism is that mass depopulation from disease and starvation would be an ecological benefit.

The rest of us positioned somewhere between these two extremes want something called sustainable development. The achievement of sustainable development depends upon the working out of this conflict between the two camps, which seem only interested in their own side of the argument. Somehow, compromises are fashioned out of this conflict, because if either side had their way, development would either stop completely, or it would be completely unrestrained.

But does the vast middle determine the terms of the policy debate, or is the concept of sustainable development just a veneer for what is really a crude struggle between two extreme (white-fella) ideologies?

When indigenous groups that I know of are confronted by the opportunities and challenges of economic development, and they are faced by a wider society that is generally divided into two opposing camps, they find themselves having to come to terms with both sides of the argument. They hear the precaution and prudence of those who advocate for the environment, and this precaution and prudence resonates for them, because it is part of their tradition. But they also can see that the world beyond their own is underpinned by development and they too need development. So they seek to balance the need for development with the imperatives of environment and culture. They seek sustainability.

The problem facing indigenous people in Cape York Peninsula is that in recent years land-use policy has been most influenced by the extreme end of the green spectrum. Single-issue environmental organisations, which see conservation in a particular way, are in a unique position to determine policy affecting remote parts of Australia because of the value they provide to political parties in delivering green votes in marginal seats in urban centres. They are able to trade environmental lock-up in remote and regional areas for organised green electoral support.

But the capacity to deliver 2-3 per cent of the vote in marginal seats hardly represents a basis for a mandate to determine crucial environmental and social sustainability questions – surely?

This week Queensland Premier Peter Beattie tabled the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Bill which represents our best opportunity to strike a balance between conservation and development for the future of this region. This law has the potential to ease Cape York people’s struggle to reconcile conservation and development.

The tabling of this Bill represents the culmination of decades of conflict between pastoralist, mining, Aboriginal and conservation interests. In 1996, at the height of the controversy over native title in pastoral leases, the late Rick Farley succeeded in bringing together the conflicting parties who signed up to the Cape York Heads of Agreement on Land Use. The former head of the National Farmers Federation and member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was a conservationist (he was a founder of Landcare), a cattleman and a supporter of Aboriginal people. It was he who guided the parties to the view that we needed to find a balanced solution.

Farley succeeded in bringing the parties together because the conservation lobby was led by the late Greg Sargent, a campaigner from The Wilderness Society who understood that conservation needed to respect the land rights of indigenous people and needed to respect the economic development needs of the pastoralists and people who lived in the region.

The third person responsible for bringing these parties together, was the late Goombra Jacko, an elder from the Junjuwarra clan. It was Goombra who urged the conservationists to respect the needs of traditional owners.

Peter Beattie has finally delivered on the hopes of these men.

The new law provides for joint management of Cape York Peninsula’s national parks between the State Government and the traditional owners. The original Wild Rivers legislation that threatened to frustrate indigenous economic development will be amended to protect native title rights and interests and to provide for mandatory water allocations for indigenous communities in each of the catchments affected by a wild river declaration. Indigenous communities will be able to make applications for vegetation clearing on Aboriginal land for the purposes of undertaking sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and animal husbandry activities.

This new legislative framework is a step in the right direction. It provides indigenous communities with the key to the door when it comes to finding real jobs and pursuing enterprise.

The new legislation needs to allow indigenous communities to take advantage of development opportunities that are supported by science and economics.

Australia, and indeed the world, has now entered a phase where the environment looms large on domestic and international agendas. The environment has never been as pressing an electoral issue since the 1990 election won by Bob Hawke.

In circumstances of crisis it is important for nations to make rational decisions. The recessionary effects of wild decision-making based on electoral impulses is a risk which the Australian people face in the lead-up to this year’s poll. The consignment of indigenous people in remote Australia to perpetual welfare dependency on the grounds of environmental lock-up is another risk. The problem with the latter is that the potential indigenous victims of these policies do not have electoral power and their needs are likely to be overrun.

The search for sustainable development will continue as the real and legitimate concerns for the future of the environment grow. Will western environmentalism turn out to have a fundamentally misanthropic (nature before humans) and genocidal (just keep the indigenes on welfare) ethical foundation?

The ideal equilibrium