Wild Presents and Emergent Futures
Wild Presents and Emergent Futures
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the three federal parliamentary inquiries into the Act in 2010-2011, prompted by the attempts of federal Opposition leader (and later Prime Minister) Tony Abbott to ‘overturn’ the legislation. In this context, specific evidence of forestalled development was scarce and it soon emerged that much resistance stemmed either from misinformation or poor consultation. Drawing on interviews with stakeholders, I argue that the Act’s most powerful effect was to bring different understandings of the Northern Australia’s future into contact. Offering a novel venue for stakeholders to elucidate and interrogate ‘sustainable’ economic futures, the inquiries elicited responses of two kinds: ‘hybrid futures’ of incremental changes and ‘bright futures’ of radical transformation. But if, as this chapter shows, any immediate expansion of the region’s different commercial sectors is unlikely, how should we address the present breach between expectations and experiences of commercial development? In a country where ‘Indigenous development’ has become synonymous with wage labour in the mainstream economy, the contemporary fixations of government policy continue to undermine considerations of such region’s as, in Arturo Escobar’s terms, a ‘territory of difference’ where market activity will never be dominant.
It stops the people going hunting on that country.
It does not say that in the legislation.
I did not say in the legislation. People perceive now that what has been taken away from them is the right to their own land.
—Cairns hearing of the Standing Committee on Economics (SCE 2001b)
On 9 March 2011, I attended the seventh public hearing of the second of three federal inquiries into the Wild Rivers Act issue.1 In an upstairs room of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, off a hallway lined with portraits of august former premiers, stakeholders sat in a conference room waiting for their turn to speak. Three journalists and I populated the sparse middle rows of the public gallery and, as at the previous day’s hearing in Cairns, which was dominated by those ostensibly set against the Act, I was the only member of the uninvolved “public” present; the secretary again noted my name and purpose (“research”). In Brisbane, the bulk of evidence would come from representatives of Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) and Brisbane-based conservationist organizations who, at the previous day’s hearing in Cairns, had been disparaged by Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups alike. By the late afternoon, only a bare quorum remained, and during a coffee break, while others took the opportunity to check their messages, a Committee member approached me. What was I doing following the Committee, he asked, and what was my research about? I made for a cagey conversationalist by sticking to my position that the issue was “very complex.” Finishing his coffee, he told me his own interpretation of the evidence had altered during the inquiry’s journey from the national capital Canberra to the tropical metropolis Cairns, the mining town Weipa, the remote community (p.175) Bamaga, the outstation Chuulangun, the state capital Brisbane, and back again. “I didn’t really realise until today,” he said, “how much this was about power. It’s not about the legislation.”2
This was not an unprecedented appraisal. The Act itself was equally “about power” in the view of Northern Peninsula Area mayor Joseph Elu because it reaffirmed that Indigenous lives were “being governed from Brisbane and Canberra” as they had been “from day dot” (SCE 2010c, 9). Many others regarded the inquiries themselves as a delaying strategy used by the federal Labor government to prevent the conservative Opposition from scoring a win against its Queensland colleagues. The inquiries, in turn, put Opposition leader Tony Abbott in the position of lambasting Labor’s avowedly progressive Indigenous policies as words without action. The right to consent to declarations prospectively provided by his Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill (“the Bill”) would, Abbott (2011) stated, “provide some muscle and sinew to the words that they are so good at uttering.” Whether fearful of Abbott’s “muscle” or not, the government blocked a vote in late February 2010 by sending the Bill to the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee (L&C). The Bill was then sent to the House’s Standing Committee on Economics (SCE) in November 2010 before being returned again to the Senate’s L&C in March 2011. The issue as a whole could be seen as a “political football” between two sides of Parliament, as Gulf of Carpentaria leader Murrandoo Yanner stated. Others accounted for the inquiries as an effect of the powerful influence of Indigenous public intellectual Noel Pearson; it was Pearson’s maneuvers that brought the issue to national attention in mid-2009, and it was his endorsement of the policies and person of the alternate (and future) prime minister, Tony Abbott, that sustained it through the following election year. As such, one TWS campaigner suggested to me that Pearson had potentially “made some sort of political agreement to go after Labor and the Greens and sure-up the Liberals.” As in the alleged “preference deal” between TWS and the Queensland government (see Chapter 2), the Act could thereby be read as a secondary or tertiary effect of submerged dealings between prominent players. Phrased in this way, the inquiries were strategies, the Act was a cypher, and the controversy itself was an epiphenomenon of partisan allegiances.
Rather than seek to sort these reductive explanations, this chapter uses the parliamentary inquiries to approach the Act as being “about power” in two other senses. First, it occurred to me while sitting through these hearings that part of the power or force of the Act was that it put (p.176) politicians in the same room as stakeholders; it produced a swathe of new documents and reports analyzing the issue; it brought people together at different events to defend or contest their accounts of northern Australia’s future; and, more prosaically, it brought me across the country to listen and sketch notes. If it was not altogether clear at the inquiries what the legal reality was, it was clear that years of attention from media and politicians had created a space for the discussion of much more than river regulation. This expanded ambit was signaled by the inquiries’ terms of reference tasked, in the case of the second inquiry, with considering Abbott’s bill as well as examining “the scope for increasing sustainable Indigenous economic development … having regard to the aspirations of Indigenous people and the social and cultural context surrounding their participation in the economy” (SCE 2011d, ix).3 The third inquiry began in late March 2011, just as the second closed, this time to investigate only those provisions “not already considered.” For those in favor of scrapping the regulation, such as CYLC chairman Richie Ah Mat, Abbott’s proposal had to be “the most scrutinised Bill in parliamentary history” (L&C 2011, 1). But within the hearings themselves, what the Act “did” was less important than what people thought it did; it was the latter that mobilized people to hold rallies, post signs, seek allies, and contact journalists. Prompted to speak about the effects of “Wild Rivers” on their lives, most spoke about better compositions of life in general.
As such, second, the Act was “about power” in the sense that the inquiries revealed a set of understandings not only about who could speak about the north’s future, and how, but also the dominant discourses that shape those futures. The former aspect was demonstrated in Abbott’s own intervention, as the first incarnation of his bill stipulated that a declaration required only the consent of native titleholders, while its third incarnation required the consent of up to eight types of Indigenous “owners” in relation to seven types of land titles. Opening the parliamentary debates on this third attempt, one politician summarized that the legislation would “give freedom back to landowners in Cape York,” neatly doubling Abbott’s equivocation by stating that it was “about giving economic destiny back into the hands of the traditional owners, the Indigenous people” (Commonwealth of Australia 2011, 19). But “Indigenous people” and traditional owners are not homogenous or coextensive groups, and neither exhausts the category of “landowners in Cape York.” The fact that multiple traditional owners explicitly rejected Abbott’s legislation indicates that “consent,” like “consultation,” is not without partiality. There are no neutral formations within which outside parties, whoever they are, can seek to simply hear the voice of “Indigenous (p.177) people” or “Cape York Peninsula” without constructing that voice according to proprietary, ethnological, or democratic procedures.
The confusion regarding who the Bill was supposed to protect was paralleled in the widespread confusion regarding the effects of the Act itself. Many stakeholders had received widely conflicting messages regarding what was and was not allowed, leading Angkamuthi traditional owner Tracey Ludwick (in SCE 2010b, 27) to conclude: “Who the hell knows? We do not know. Who the hell is going to tell us?” At another hearing, her brother claimed that the Act stopped hunting because “people perceive” that their rights have been taken away even if this was not an effect of the law. But whatever the origins of the “misinformation” or “wild rivers bogey,” as one witness dubbed it, the Act had created a context for people to ask an array of questions about how life and country were being regulated. Further, arguments in the media about the region’s economic prospects pushed witnesses towards considering what hopes each held for the future. What, to use the terms of the second inquiry, would amount to “sustainable Indigenous economic development”? Would stakeholders measure sustainability economically, ethically, environmentally, or in regard to the features of “the social and cultural context”? What were “the aspirations of Indigenous people,” and did they align with the inquiries’ expectations?
This chapter shows that, as in northern Australia more generally, two forms of imagined futures tended to dominate these inquiries. The first were hybrid futures, to borrow a term from anthropologist Jon Alt-man (2004), involving a blend of customary, market, and state or public sector activities that seek to enhance an existing form of life. The second imagined futures, and the more dominant type, held that “a substantial piece in life,” in the words of one committee member (L&C 2010a, 6), could only be secured by massively expanding productivist land uses such as agriculture and mining. What was “real” or substantial was prospective engagement in the “real economy” and the anticipated alchemical transformation of the whole region through private market activity. These mythic futures accorded with both the tenor of Noel Pearson’s “agenda” and the bipartisan preoccupation of policy debates and academic research in Australia, Canada, and other settler nations that discretely equate market development and integration with improvement in Indigenous lives (see Escobar 2008; Engle 2010; Ferguson 2010).4
But how achievable are these anticipated futures? In his submission to the second inquiry, geographer John Holmes (2011c, 5) stated simply that there were “two certainties”: “the indomitable survival of overoptimistic appraisals of potentials and immediate prospects” for development, (p.178) and “that these [appraisals] will be wrong.” In line with Holmes’ prediction, this chapter shows that at the inquiries, as elsewhere, many spoke of development as archetypical moderns. To use historian Reinhart Koselleck’s (1985, 255–276) terms, they spoke from a “given present” in which the relationship between the understood past and the anticipated future was radically discontinuous. In such modern imaginaries, Koselleck suggests, utopic belief in the supreme powers of technological inventions allow expectations to divorce themselves from experience, every environmental limitation is suddenly mutable, and every economic or social obstacle has a solution. What is unusual in the case of the Cape York Peninsula is that such a belief appears in relation to a recirculating understanding of the past—in which the region is regarded as unviable and underdeveloped—and a recalcitrant given future that has remained a distant horizon for over a century. Such a disposition remains oblivious to the history of settler failure that has produced the “wild” region that exists today and, ironically, resembles a settler imaginary in which Indigenous land appears as another kind of wilderness: a zone of economic potentiality, a site awaiting capital’s alchemy.
However, if the future of such regions across Australia is that they are likely to remain economically hybrid “territories of difference”—sites, as described by Arturo Escobar (2008), that do not conform easily to the logics of market and liberal governmentality—then it is perhaps time to consider whether the manner in which “economic development” is discussed in settler colonial nations today is foolish or amounts to what has been called “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2006). Are the prevailing ways in which the future of indigenous territories is imagined actually creating and sustaining “cruel” attachments that have become obstacles to flourishing?
“They’re Only Going by Numbers”: Consulting Cape York Peninsula
Captain Cook sailed past here and stuck in the flag and declared it, without consultation, the property of King George III, who we did not even know about.
—Joseph Elu, Bamaga hearing of Standing Committee on Economics (SCE 2010c)
In situations where indigenous groups do not have a formal representative role within the political system, such as Australia’s, attempts (p.179) to access either opinions or authorization involve problematic constructive work; the indigenous “voice,” as noted previously, involves processes of selection according to criteria. Outside of land rights processes, which produce corporations to engage with, one primary way in which governments register the voices of Indigenous people in northern Australia is through “consultation” (see Lea 2008; Kowal 2015). What consultation means, practically, varies widely, though it typically relates to a series of briefings and opinion-gathering meetings. In the case of the Wild Rivers Act, the Queensland government avowed there had been “extensive” consultation before each declaration, “far beyond the statutory requirement” of twenty business days according to the CEO of DERM. For the first three Cape York Peninsula declarations, nine months elapsed between the public proposals and the declarations, during which time DERM officers conducted 100 “face-to-face meetings” and “engagement” with 300 stakeholders, disseminating information kits to all affected landholders, making phone calls to those unable to make meetings, getting airtime on Indigenous television, and releasing public notices (L&C 2010a, 31–33). These efforts were shaped by the initial pushback that had been experienced previously in the neighboring Gulf of Carpentaria, but the robust figures touted by the government officials disguised difficulties faced on the ground. DERM’s Wild Rivers head, Scott Buchanan, informed me that “most of our meetings would be four or five people … and that would be despite pre-organising meetings to have a lot of people there.” Some have suggested that absence was a way of showing disapproval, though it may also have been influenced by the government’s decision to secure the services of Balkanu—the development arm of the CYLC and a vocal critic of the legislation since 2007—to facilitate consultation (see Chapter 2).5 Neither a statutory body nor a strict private contractor, the government was at once Balkanu’s primary funding source, its employer, and its political enemy. For environmentalists such as TWS’s Glenn Walker, it was frustrating to have a state-funded organization “in a position to totally scuttle negotiations, which [in his view] is what they deliberately did.”
Whether consultations were extensive or not, Indigenous residents regarded them as inadequate. In some cases, concerns that “we had no consultation” were in relation to country outside any gazetted or declared area. For individuals such as Angkamuthi traditional owner Larry Woosup, the existence of the enabling Act alone was an imposition, “a top-down approach” that “happened in the middle of the night” without (p.180) notice (SCE 2010b, 8). In many situations, it seems that traditional owners attended one meeting with government representatives, meaning in effect that, as Umpila traditional owner Peter Kyle stated (in L&C 2010a, 81), “there was no proper consultation at all”: “Every time we had meetings up in Coen, a representative from Wild Rivers turned up all right, but . … A thief comes to your house and has a chat with your granddad: do you call that consultation, taking ideas?” Not only did this dispiriting lack of influence align with many peoples’ prior experiences with public servants “coming up there and making decisions for us,” they compared poorly with the hundreds of well-resourced meetings that mining companies regularly hold during agreement-making processes in Australia (L&C 2010a, 81). The state’s efforts also paled in comparison with the ideas of consent and references to the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) raised by Abbott; patently, there had been no “free, prior and informed consent” as stipulated in Articles 19, 23, and 26. But as serious as this criticism was, it could also be made of almost all Australian laws and provided no insight into the issue of who did and did not belong within the consenting community. Neither the Bill nor the Act’s critics had a definitive answer regarding who “the indigenous peoples concerned” stipulated in the DRIP would be in this case.
Premier Bligh’s reactive response was to announce the government’s own “consent process” in March 2011, sidestepping mediating organizations such as land councils by convening groups of traditional owners itself. Designed by a Wik organization, this was an optional rather than a statutory process and restricted itself to the bounds of recognized “traditional” authority. A similar approach was demonstrated in September 2011 when Tony Burke, the federal environment minister, revived the prospect of a World Heritage listing of select sites in Cape York Peninsula, pledging $3 million towards the process and $20 million towards buybacks of high conservation land. While some sources stated that the Commonwealth would only support a listing provided it had “community support” and “Indigenous consent,” Burke specified that the necessary condition was “traditional owner consent” (Elks 2011a; Schwarten 2011). Over the following year, Indigenous and non-Indigenous mayors in the far north raised objections that they and their constituents were being ignored. Despite these councils being integrated into many levels of governance, the impression remained for some that, as one white Cook Shire councilor stated, “We’re sort of used to minority numbers having all the say” (McKillop 2012).
(p.181) This uncertainty regarding the relative authority of traditional owners was shown at the inquiries. Aside from Indigenous stakeholders, the majority of those presenting evidence were lobbyists, such as the Minerals Council of Australia, AgForce, TWS, and Cairns-based Cape York Sustainable Futures (CYSF), rather than landholding groups. CYSF was an unusual creature among this cohort, presenting itself as both an open membership-based organization and a contractor “facilitating regional development.” Possessing over one hundred members drawn from a variety of organizations, CYSF has long lobbied for agricultural expansion in the name of advocating for, as CEO Trish Butler put it to me, “the aspirations of the people of Cape York.” While its submissions were fashioned in the flat language of development NGOs—committed to “foster a cohesive viable community”—its evidence called more explicitly for “full and adequate consultation” with “the locals,” a regime that “acknowledges and resources the role and responsibility of all residents and land managers” (CYSF 2010; 2012; SCE 2010a, 30–35).6 Conspicuously, its submissions made no mention of the issue of Indigenous consent, just as its corporate documents lacked any reference to Indigenous land titles. While CYSF was careful to show that it was not exclusively a “whitefella” group, its invocations of a generalized “community” implicitly granted a native status to white residents and their “culture of family connection and country connection.” When it began a social media campaign in late 2011, it announced: “This is our home! And we’re not leaving!” Its attempts to construct “all residents” as a native population were, at the same time, conditioned by its seeming unwillingness to explicitly equate their status with Indigeneity.
Environmentalist groups such as TWS faced a different set of obstacles when attempting to justify their presence. Criticism of “greenies” was rife in media coverage of the Act, and committee members and stakeholders alike openly questioned TWS’s involvement. They resembled, as Balkanu’s Gerhardt Pearson said, a “powerful, narrowly focused interest group … [overriding] the rights of poorly resourced and disadvantaged Indigenous people,” comparable to those bygone mining companies that had once directed government policy (SCE 2010a, 3; L&C 2010a, 82). This focus on TWS was not only because the organization was the principal public defender of the Act but also because unlike other groups, such as Australia Zoo, its representatives did not live in the area. As such, Ah Mat asserted, “they do not have any cultural or spiritual attachment to Cape York” (L&C 2011, 2). Portrayed as an interloper, TWS’s attachment to the region was through its largely urban 45,000 members (p.182)
and their esteem for, in this case, the unique “natural values” of certain rivers. But on what basis were the waterways in question, as TWS brochures claimed, “our wild rivers” (see fig. 5.1)? When I asked them about their involvement in the issue, TWS representatives maintained that they played “a critical role in a functioning democracy, particularly a large representative democracy.” These were “our wild rivers” by right of their placement within the state’s jurisdiction, within which the organization’s membership was politically influential. TWS’s Anthony Esposito explained to me that they “do policy and politics. We know that, we’re advocates, that’s the very nature of our business … the only thing that keeps us in play is the support of our members.” To counteract this apparent advantage, TWS had earlier committed itself to “detailed consultation and discussion” with Indigenous titleholders before seeking conservation outcomes, identifying a history of alliances and conservation outcomes (TWS 2007). As Esposito informed me, “We will sit at the table, and have done for years, with these guys through good and bad times whether we agree or disagree.” But their position “at the table” depended on the electoral influence of their constituency, a factor that could be advantageous in many situations but a liability when pitted against a “regressive” or exclusive sense of place. Without widespread local support, any lobbyist group could be cast as urbanized allies just as easily as they could be cast as outsiders hampering titleholders’ “freedom.”
The inquiries provided no answers as to which collectivities should be considered able to speak for rivers. Communities of concern were (p.183) nonetheless routinely conflated in revealing ways, as illustrated by Ah Mat’s suggestion that perhaps “80 percent of Cape York” or “85 percent of Aboriginal people on Cape York” opposed the Act, unsourced figures that magically transformed into “the proportion of traditional owners” opposed (L&C 2010a, 16; 2011, 10). To present such figures in this way not only ignored their provenance but also collapsed three separate groups. Further, it treated traditional owner authority as something quantifiable in terms of aggregated majorities or regions, ignoring the circumscribed nature of speaking for country. Visiting Claudie at Chuulangun, I repeated exactly this misstep by asking him what other Northern Kaanju people thought of the Act. His answer was that, “I can’t speak for them. … These are the questions that white men ask Indigenous people. ‘What do you reckon about that other mob there?’ They’re only going by numbers. And we don’t play the number game here.”
Claudie’s substantive point was that Cape York Peninsula did not have a democratic structure. What such an account leaves out, in turn, is that traditional owner authority nonetheless functions to other audiences in representative ways, whether those audiences are inquiry committees, news media, or mining companies. Discussing his decision to advocate for the Act, De Busch explained to me that, “The whole Wild Rivers debate and issue was a real opportunity to negotiate strongly with government. Those rangers and management systems, we took advantage of the opportunity to strongly negotiate those … it strengthened our position to negotiate for the benefit of our people.” Similarly, “we were strong Wild Rivers supporters,” Claudie told me, because “the state government then—like Anna Bligh and all them—came straight directly to us.” For these traditional owners, this was an opportunity to achieve a wide array of aims, though part of what was exchanged to the state government was a social license to legislate; a social license to say, as they did in advertisements, that “Traditional Owners Support Wild Rivers.”
To consult a region such as Cape York Peninsula, let alone elicit its consent, necessitates certain decisions about the relative legitimacies of attachment. Asked during the second inquiry what “consultation” meant to her, Wik traditional owner Phyllis Yunkaporta replied, “ Wik thaythayanam thawamp” or being able to “talk up strongly for the land” (SCE 2010b, 31). But who was able to speak for these rivers? There were differences here about whether, ideally, the state would make decisions according to proprietary, ethnological, or democratic procedures. The assumed account of who was validly “affected” by the declarations did not align, for instance, with others’ beliefs that “all locals” counted. Nonetheless, it is (p.184) not clear that Abbott’s consent process would be more conclusive, as it borrowed its mechanism from native title processes and thereby required the CYLC to act as mediator, an arrangement rejected by Claudie and De Busch, among others. “The thing with consent is it depends,” Claudie explained to me, as “for Indigenous people, [the Bill] was not getting the prior and informed consent directly from the people themselves, where they put their representatives up to the table to talk, to make that decision.” Indeed, compared to the Bill, the “consent vehicle” proposed by the Queensland government was legally weaker but singularly focused and politically consistent. That is, it made explicit the distinction implicitly made by governments throughout Australia and elsewhere that the basis and quality of Indigenous authority is tradition and that thereby traditional owner authority is different in kind from the “native status” of white pastoralists, the sympathies of Queensland voters, or the “natural values” of biodiversity. Given the lack of understanding regarding the immanent differences between stakeholders’ rights, some stake-holders in areas with recognized land rights will likely continue to feel that the law changes “in the middle of the night.”
“A Substantial Piece in Life”: Discourses of Regulation and Development
I reckon you should just leave black people alone, let them go back to their homeland and do what they like.
—Rodney Accoom, Cairns hearing of Standing Committee on Economics (SCE 2011b)
In theory, the inquiries were an ideal opportunity for critics to demonstrate how the law’s prohibitions were “suffocating” Indigenous economic development. But, despite the vitriol, opponents were largely unable to show specific harm. A CYSF representative suggested toilet blocks were proscribed within a declaration area but could not say how (SCE 2010a, 29). Balkanu claimed one fence had required nine approvals, though it emerged that this was regulated under other legislation (State of Queensland 2011b, 88). A cattle property near Napranum was said to have been “annulled” by the Wenlock declaration, though its developer stated that in fact it was “not expected to significantly disadvantage” the project (SCE 2010b, 35; 2011d, 31). A planned biodiesel plantation of Pongamia pinnata was said to have been “knocked back,” though the project was exempt from regulation because it was a preexisting development (p.185) (SCE 2011b, 65; L&C 2010a, 90). Further, Lockhart River’s mayor said that a small quarry had been closed “because of the Wild Rivers” only to then acknowledge that the prohibition had occurred before the declaration; the quarry lacked planning approval (L&C 2010a, 89–96). After all the vitriol, these were bathetic answers, further undermined by the Queensland government’s various rebuttals, the assurances from Claudie and Castelain that there was no impairment, and the ambivalent responses from others. In the final hearings, the CEO of the Indigenous Land Corporation, the proponent behind several cattle developments, stated that they did not think the Act had “a huge impact” on development one way or the other (SCE 2011c, 81). Rio Tinto, the region’s largest miner, was equally unconcerned about the effects of the Act. In each of these cases, neither the Act nor a given declaration was the responsible legal villain, though each example demonstrated the wide-spread sense in which “Wild Rivers” was an apt metonym for all development regulation, the sense in which, as Tracey Ludwick said, “Wild Rivers triggers every conservation act here on the Cape, as well as every environmental law, and that is where the hardship is for Aboriginal people” (SCE 2010b, 34).
As Slater (2013, 771) has argued, despite the state government’s insistence that the Act was a banal “planning tool,” it was a “highly political move … in which a whole government apparatus and Western imaginary of intervention and control [were] deployed but hidden.” The language of technical regulation is a depoliticizing strategy used, in this case, to disguise the government’s presumed jurisdiction over Indigenous land. But the inquiries showed that this was not an altogether successful strategy, as the Act became both the name and substitute for all development regulation. For many living in the north, DERM’s Scott Buchanan stated to me, “Wild Rivers was actually the genesis of their … learning about some of the rules that they already operated under,” with the result that some “[assumed] that Wild Rivers was the genesis of all this regulation.” Frustrated traditional owners and councilors alike told the inquiries repeatedly about the difficult “hoops,” prohibitive “red tape,” and “hurdles” they faced when seeking permission for any new land use (e.g., L&C 2010b, 23; SCE 2011a, 8). As such, the Queensland government was experienced as being uniquely vindictive for adding “another layer” to the existing prohibitively complex application system. As the Queensland government stated, the fact that a declaration added no additional burden within the planning process did not alleviate Indigenous stakeholders’ sense that present regulation, as Ludwick averred, “stifles (p.186) us.” It was unreasonable to expect that Indigenous people “can sit down and fill out a 20-page application to do something on their own country,” Lamalama traditional owner Peter Kyle suggested (in L&C 2010a, 86), let alone invest in professional advice.
In March 2011, the Bligh government promised to provide more financial and technical support to Indigenous people navigating through planning laws, though this initiative missed the sense in which all government was entirely displaced in these arguments about regulation. The rivers, traditional owners argued, were already regulated and protected and had been for millennia. “We are the custodians, and have been for the last 40,000 years or more,” Ludwick stated (in SCE 2010b, 16), “Why do we need Wild Rivers legislation?” Indigenous people had kept the country alive only for the government to usurp it. More emphatically, Woosup said (in SCE 2010b, 5–6), “We should have the right to build in high-preservation areas or low-preservation areas. Who is to tell us that we cannot be there? We cannot impact on the environment. We know how to look after it because we were the custodians for 80,000 years [sic]. We were the stewards of country. … We are not there to destroy that country; we are there to manage it. It is about giving us the opportunity.” “We had a Conservation Act 400,000 years ago [sic] and we still maintain that knowledge and tradition,” Aurukun’s mayor, Tahpitch Pootchemunka, pointed out, adding that Indigenous people needed “assistance, support and resources from the government—not legislation” (SCE 2010a, 47).7 Utilizing the language of environmental stewardship, such statements made two differentiable claims, one asserting the existence of a long history of Indigenous stewardship and a second regarding its contemporaneity. Not only had country long been regulated according to their law—“a Conservation Act,” as Pootchemunka said—but its preeminence was being undermined by the state government’s planning regime. This was less a separatist argument, as it might appear, than one of self-determination, in which Indigenous people were understood to remain within the national polity while being immune from certain forms of regulation. In short, ideas that Indigenous people should be able to “do what they like,” as Accoom suggested, reorganized the order of governance without acquitting governments’ ultimate responsibility for the region’s well-being.
Another incisive critique of the state and federal governments by these representatives can be seen in relation to the sole development demonstrably impaired by a declaration, Pisolite Hills, Cape Alumina’s prospective bauxite mine. Following the gazetting of the Wenlock area, (p.187) the miner had lobbied the government for a significantly reduced setback on its tenements, announcing in June 2010 that the declared buffer of 500 meters around catchment waterways—half the standard size—required putting the mine “under review,” reinforcing earlier statements that the mine would be “killed” by the Act (L&C 2010a, 61). Though the actual final investment decision was several years away, the company continued to decry how losses of “tens of millions of dollars” and “many jobs” would be “felt most severely” by the small Indigenous community of Mapoon (Fraser 2010a). The miner had been negotiating a land use agreement since August 2008 that would include significant benefits, though these employment prospects were grossly exaggerated. Mean-while, at a hearing in Weipa, Mapoon trustee Sylvester Blanco and Pargan traditional owner Rhonda Parry presented the mine as the sole source of relief for their communities. Cape Alumina, Blanco contended, “is there to provide security for us, not to harm things”; without them there was “no chance of any economic development whatsoever” (SCE 2010b, 24–25). Later that day, Parry (SCE 2010b, 40) agreed that “what we wanted for ourselves, our kids, their kids and their kids” is “all gone now”: “We are struggling because now that has been taken away by Wild Rivers. My family and I do not know where we stand with this at the moment. … Are they going to provide job opportunities for our people? The mining company had all that. … That is what Wild Rivers did to me and my family. It took away our hope.” The purported death of the project, Woosup added, was “like taking toys off your little loved ones.” But what hopes did the mine represent? Typically the mine equated to an “opportunity” to stay on country through associated capital investment. Phyllis Yunkaporta said: “… the opportunities I see for the future of my people to really benefit from this, they want to work on country. We want to be resourced properly. If we were given buckets of money we would probably take good care of it in a way where we can look after our own people.” A “state-like” mining company took on the role of unambiguous benefactor, held to have “the big bucks” to fund residents’ aspirations (SCE 2010b, 31).
Contrarily, it was precisely the Act that others felt provided a “sustainable” life in the region. By mid-2011, Premier Beattie’s pledge five years earlier to employ a hundred rangers in land and water management had delivered forty full-time positions. The second inquiry showed that the three largest beneficiaries were programs based outside Cape York Peninsula, followed by initiatives at Pormpuraaw and Chuulangun. The latter stood out, a homeland of fifteen residents whose cumulative (p.188) government funding had risen fourfold between 2006 and 2009 under its CEO, David Claudie. As of February 2011, the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation (CAC) had three rangers through the Wild Rivers regime and three rangers through “Working on Country,” part of the federal “Caring for Our Country” initiative that also funded its management of the Kaanju Ngaachi Indigenous Protected Area (IPA). By engaging with these bureaucracies, their reporting requirements, and their regimented funding cycles, CAC had been able “to create the autonomy or economy ourselves on our homelands,” as Claudie stated. For him (L&C 2010a, 4), land management was a potential solution to the welfarism targeted by Pearson and others: “There are a lot of people that do not have a job in those centralised places. … They are so embedded in getting handouts from the government in terms of [welfare payments]. It was not giving them an opportunity to actually try and create jobs themselves, which is what I am saying here. Our only job is to be land managers and that is on our homelands.” Nonetheless, though Chuulangun and Wik Projects were only two organizations out of over a dozen to benefit from this funding, Claudie and Castelain were among the initiatives’ only public defenders. In contrast, Balkanu and others reproduced statements deriding funding schemes of this type as “green welfare.”8
Within the inquiries, the competing discourses of economic development were captured in miniature by an exchange between Senator Bill Heffernan and Claudie. After quizzing Claudie on his ties to green groups, the senator from Australia’s southeast finally asked (L&C 2010a, 5): “If you had a son or grandson who wanted to develop a substantial piece in life rather than for the rest of his life having the economic opportunity of getting your photo taken with a spear for a tourist, do you not think we ought to be able to develop land that you blokes live on for real economic development, which can be done in conjunction with protecting the environment?”
Heffernan’s phrasing revealed a set of binary assumptions common in discussions of northern Australia: a “substantial” future could be contrasted with an insubstantial present and future of trivial customary economies; a common community of developers (“we”) could be differentiated from traditional owners (“you blokes”), who might also “protect” environments. The white senator had adopted the same presumed paternal authority at a Canberra hearing: “My kids are so sick of sitting around shaping boomerangs and spears … and I say, ‘There’s a thousand acres of damn good land there in the first kilometre from that wild river, let’s grow a crop’ (L&C 2010b, 9). While the spear-holding (p.189) father was seemingly sentenced to “traditional” activities and abject poverty, the modern son favored “economic development,” anxious to “grow a crop” within a monsoonal floodplain. Heffernan’s motif fit with the contempt others also reserved for conservational ventures—associating such projects with a “view that all that Aboriginal people … should be entitled to is to stand on one leg in the sunset picking berries”—rendering a cut between an archaic unreal present and a substantial real future (ibid.). But Heffernan’s equivalence between a “substantial piece” and “real economic development” was awkward in light of Claudie’s evidence that he, too, was an entrepreneur. Like other traditional owners who supported the Act, Claudie was engaged in “getting ourselves into workforces, and getting ourselves into economic development,” though the scale of these efforts was frequently deemed insufficient or “unreal” by others because they were susceptible to the whims of government budgets.
Heffernan’s condescending statements utilized the dominant policy perspective regarding the development of Indigenous country. As Altman (2009, 4) argues, the “hegemonic view of development favoured by the Australian state narrowly construes development within the domain of the market.” Variously labelled as “mainstreaming” or “normalizing,” to favor the market economy as a metric in this way is to favor a metric in which remote Indigenous communities and regions perform relatively poorly, the consequence being that, as Scambary (2013, 15) notes, the current policy direction necessarily “defines Indigenous people as underdeveloped.” Following the postdevelopment activist Gustavo Esteva, Scambary suggests that this framework disvalues existing economies: informal skills become formal skill deficits; commons become potentially privatized resources; tradition becomes burden; autonomy becomes dependency; and so on. In reality, this moral economy is the opposite of the real world, as the market is often “a mere sliver” in comparison with the customary and the state sectors within these communities and remote Australia generally, places that are better described as “hybrid economies” (Altman 2004, 530). It is the hybrid economy, Altman argues, that is “the ‘real’ real economy” of Indigenous country, comprised of three sectors rather than opposed public (state) and private (market) sectors.
Altman’s empirically based formulation makes an implicit ethical claim about the role of each sector, revaluing the customary sector’s patterns of circulation alongside the hallowed private sector and the parochial state’s provision of funding and resources, whether in the form of (p.190) social services or Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES). Not only, he stresses, is the customary sector “modern,” in that it often involves the utilization of new technologies and techniques, but it is also the site of many Indigenous peoples’ competitive advantage. Were one to agree with both Altman’s account and its ethical claim, then the adoption of a hybrid imaginary by stakeholders and policymakers alike would seem both feasible and appropriate. At the inquiries, Claudie and Castelain in particular outlined such “hybrid futures,” each engaged in the founding of private tourism and government-funded PES ventures utilizing customary resources.
The alternative within the inquiries was to, like Heffernan, focus upon the region’s deficit of private markets as the principal barrier to creating “sustainable Indigenous economic development.” This accorded with the policy platform of Noel Pearson’s think tank—the Cape York Institute—and the normative promotion by different government agencies of market growth and market employment as the keys to social development. But when faced with multiple chances to name which specific forms of land and resource use might be possible, let alone desirable to Indigenous communities, Pearson replied that there was nothing specific “that we are desperately trying to get approval for” (L&C 2010b, 22). The true importance of the Act, he insisted, was “a question of whether my son can make an application in 20 years’ time.” Others repeated this need to “preserve opportunities,” a contention that required opponents to pretend that a declaration is not a planning code, open to repeal, but itself a form of permanent title. Opportunities were foregone “in perpetuity,” Gerhardt Pearson stated (SCE 2010a, 2). Thus, these executive advocates did not openly support any particular projects, such as Pisolite Hills, but rather tended to speak of nebulous “opportunity.” Just as Ah Mat had argued in 2005, this was about “how we can get people to come and invest,” others avowing that the legislation was “an impediment to the flow of capital into these communities” (McLeish 2005; SCE 2011b, 8). For these people, “sustainable development” seemed exogenous, something that emerged from the outside, whose ideal conditions required the preservation of a broad deregulated legal space in which unnamed clients, undefined “capital,” and unknown developments might land and take root. Regulation repossessed this legal space. Regulation imperiled investment. What was “real” was the as yet unrealized “real economy.”
The absence of projects prospectively harmed by the Act perplexed politicians, journalists, and many others. Why work so hard to “overturn” (p.191) a law that inhibited nothing nameable? This is a difficult question, and while the clientism of development in northern Australia is one factor, it is also important to note the neoliberal paradigms of “reform” and privatization that dominate Indigenous policy. In their universalizing terms, as David Martin (2011) argues, “development” and “jobs” are treated as possessing an alchemical or “quasi-magical quality” to wholly transform the persistent conditions of Indigenous life-worlds. The authors of this alchemy, Martin points out, prefer to elide the seismic personal and cultural transformations necessary to their imagined labor outcomes, capturing existing Indigenous socialities as nonessential rather than cultivated or valued. “Development” is thereby conceptualized as socially beneficent, while economists remind us not only about the dubious behavioral presumptions that underpin the neoclassical economic theories vended by these reformists but also that “the economy” is necessarily a system of social organization (Throsby 2001). In this sense, economic transformation amounts to social transformation. Further to Martin’s argument, the reformist discourse is most coherent when dislocated from any specific place. Within the inquiries, as within broader policy discussions, stakeholders of this ilk made little or no mention of the market failure that has marked Australia’s tropical savannah when, in fact, the present composition of regions with significant Indigenous landholdings, such as Cape York Peninsula, are partly owed to the disastrous attempts of settlers to reterritorialize them through commercialization. To speak of “opportunity” without mentioning these historically sedimented material limits is to risk reimagining the region as available empty space, a territory caught in modernity’s antechamber awaiting its turn to be redeemed through “development.”
Real Economies and Mythic Futures
So then you are talking about a full removal of development planning controls from the Cape?
—Dr. Andrew Leigh, Carins hearing of Standing Committee on Economics (SCE 2011b)
Senator Heffernan was an apt interlocutor for David Claudie. The former had long been part of a vocal rural chorus convinced that northern Australia is an agricultural frontier, a fertile “food bowl” for Asian markets just waiting for munificent exploitation. In January 2007, Heffernan was appointed chair of a national taskforce to assess the economic (p.192) and environmental feasibility of developing northern lands and waterways for agricultural use, an initiative that ultimately concluded in 2009 that the anticipated “ ‘food bowl’ is not supported by evidence” (NALWT 2009, iii).9 Heffernan, who had been deposed early in the inquiry, was apoplectic and continued to insist afterwards that the “north must be developed to offset [agricultural] losses in the south” (Maher 2010). Such pioneering visions of northern Australia are the contemporary iteration of a “northern myth” that has long haunted policymakers, at least since the Second World War (McGregor 2016). Legion committees and councils have considered how the comparatively sparse tropical savannah, which covers about a quarter of Australia’s landmass, might be submitted to greater productivist use, often driven by a Malthusian logic that growing populations in Asia demand it and that, complementarily, expanded land use would create a bulwark against foreign invasion from those same Asian populations. Needless to say, the sites these idealized “empty north” visions set upon are not “empty” but rather both populated and beset by environmental and economic obstacles that are both persistent and prodigious. This is not to say that expanded land use cannot occur (the taskforce report, for example, predicted that northern Australia’s gross value of production would double by 2030, much of the increase occurring in tourism, mining, and ecosystem services, while agricultural production would increase by 40 percent (NALWT 2009, v). Rather, it is to suggest that there are historical and material reasons to be skeptical of proposals promising copious growth or suggesting, as one inquiry submission did, that almost half of Cape York Peninsula would be “suitable” for broadscale irrigated agriculture. Appraisals of potential growth, as Holmes notes, are chronically over-optimistic.
It is therefore worth surveying some of the purported ongoing opportunities for creating greater “sustainable Indigenous economic development” within the current legislative regime. As I show, each faces particular obstacles to being established, let alone being integrated into Indigenous communities, labor markets, and lives. Specific challenges in these two regards apply particularly to the region’s endemic dearth in infrastructure, such as the lack of Internet and cellular phone coverage, all-weather roads, and centralized electricity supply. While such “isolation and remoteness” constitutes the basis of the region’s existing tourism industry (Tourism Queensland 2003), the area remains a niche destination. The whole of Cape York Peninsula attracts approximately 60,000–75,000 tourists a year, a fraction of the 4.65 million who venture to the (p.193) neighboring Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef areas every year or the 350,000 annually who visit the iconic Uluru in the Northern Territory (Prideaux and Falco-Mammone 2007). Like others, this sector remains heavily seasonal because of the indefatigable “wet season” between December and March and the “wild rivers” it brings into flood.
Indeed, to suggest as Heffernan did that “damn good” arable land sits alongside “wild” waterways is to ignore that such areas are broad floodplains within catchments with high discharge and intermittent flows. Nearly a quarter of Australia’s entire surface runoff water occurs in Cape York Peninsula, and approximately 80 percent of its annual rainfall occurs within the wet season, a seasonally dynamic and monsoonal flow that isolates the region for months. These torrents also make water resource development “impractical,” to quote one taskforce report, as the Australian tropical savannah “is generally not amenable to storing water and the climate is not conducive to keeping it” (Cresswell et al. 2009, 40). In short, water for agriculture is least available when it is actually needed in the dusty dry season between April and November. Climactic conditions were so constraining, Balkanu (2011, 6) itself admitted in one document, that the protections of the Act were in fact superfluous: “water supply is likely not sufficient to support irrigated crops,” western catchments are “unsuitable for dams,” and eastern catchments empty into the Great Barrier Reef, meaning any proposed disturbance of flows triggers federal regulation. Horticultural or touristic prospects exist but are not spectacular.
In Australia, no industry is so closely associated with Indigenous economic development today as the resource extraction industry or, more simply, mining. This is not only because most mines exploit a major Indigenous resource—their country—but also because roughly two-thirds of mines in Australia are adjacent to Indigenous communities. Recently, academics and industry lobbyists have begun speaking of a “quiet revolution” of Indigenous people enriched and educated through the recent (and now late) resources boom (Langton 2013), though it is difficult to gain a coherent picture of the relation between mining ventures, Indigenous people in general, and local groups in particular. In Western Australia’s Pilbara, the heart of the world’s second-largest iron ore industry, one major study found that Indigenous disadvantage in the region had “changed little” during the boom (Taylor and Scambary 2006, 1; see also Scambary 2013). In Cape York Peninsula, as in many parts of northern Australia, mining dominates the region’s gross regional product but remains one of its smallest employers.10 While, for example, Indigenous-identifying (p.194) people make up 1,800 of the 2,300 individuals employed in public administration, the region’s largest sector, 270 of the 900 people employed in the two functioning mines are Indigenous-identifying (see Interdepartmental Committee 2011). This latter figure is comparatively high, as many mines struggle to meet the “leading practice” within the industry of having a 20 percent Indigenous workforce. Meanwhile, many Indigenous organizations and communities are limited in their capacity to take advantage of commercial and employment opportunities related to new developments or to respond to the social impacts of mining (Altman 2009, 5). Apart from the forms of environmental pollution associated with mining, residents living near mines can expect significant rises in reported crime, the exacerbation of existing housing shortages, social displacement by nonresident workers, diminished access to lands, and new conflicts over the allocation of compensation between Indigenous titleholders and other Indigenous individuals and groups affected by a given venture (Carrington et al. 2012; see also Cleary 2012). More broadly, mining agreements often involve a process of “substitution” in which goods and services that elsewhere remain government responsibilities become “compensation” from a company, or such goods and services are withdrawn and must be subsidized by a group’s agreed compensatory payments. Summarizing the broad literature, Ritter (2009b, 61) concludes that the presumption that mining agreements reduce Indigenous socioeconomic indigence “should be regarded as an arguable proposition.”
As I suggested earlier (see Chapter 3), the age of agreement-making that followed the 1992 Mabo decision has not led to any new mines actually being established in the peninsula. The bathetic venture at Skardon River and the tenements north of Aurukun each illustrate the forces that shape mineral development, the latter leases having remained undeveloped since they were granted in 1975. In the 1970s, as in the 2000s, the social license for the mine was secured through a miner’s pledge to support “maximum participation by Aborigines,” the state government and news media presuming the interests of the developer to be wholly consistent with those of Indigenous residents (Roberts and McLean 1976, 38; Collins 1997). But as development scholar Philip Martin (2011) shows, for four decades Aurukun has been obliged to engage with a series of Godot-like leaseholders, each touted as the community’s redeemer and each (indefinitely) awaiting optimal market conditions; the long history of Aurukun’s “bright future” is bound up in grand promises to the community that are broadly publicized and broadly unmet. When, (p.195) in 2011, the most recent leaseholder’s rights were cancelled, the deputy mayor stated that “it’s a disappointment for us … [but] we need as many people working in jobs as we can get. We’ve waited thirty-five years, I guess we might be waiting a bit longer” (Fraser 2011). Governments can do little to curtail such delays or prevent “warehousing” of leases, as company decisions to move into production are dependent on commodity and labor prices, partners, and their transnational strategic objectives. Thus, standard practice for Australian governments is to ripen themselves for exploitation by reducing regulation, expediting assessment processes, and creating positive messaging around the industry. The Newman government, like its Labor forebears, eagerly trumpeted the “major economic benefits” and “social and economic independence” for Indigenous people that were promised by marginal and embryonic projects.
Alternatively, Indigenous people have a growing amount of equity in the region’s pastoral industry, a sector in which they have long been an indispensable part of the workforce (May 1994). Nonetheless, the sector is today constrained by the same distance from markets, difficulty of water storage, low soil fertility, and poor pasture grasses that have periodically led white titleholders to forfeit their leases (see CYPLUS 1997, 40). With Cape York Peninsula distinguished as being perhaps Australia’s most difficult pastoral country, even sanguine industry voices concede that significant growth requires introducing nonnative grasses and broad-scale clearing (State of Queensland 2011b, 98). As one optimistic analysis argued, state subsidies in excess of $2 million a year would be required to remediate the region’s phosphorus deficit alone (Cotter 1995, 45). Finally, as anthropologist Richard Davis (2004) notes, very few of the emerging state-acquired and Indigenous-owned ventures in northern Australia are able to generate monetary profit without sustained financial aid, not only because of their ongoing capital requirements but also because of the lack of improvements they inherit. Merepah, the most substantial property run by the federal Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), illustrates this. Situated within the Archer declaration area, Merepah drew upon annual investments of approximately $1 million and ran at an annual loss of $400,000–$600,000 between its acquisition in 2005 and 2012. While profitability is only one of the ILC’s three concerns—the others being training and employment—this comparatively successful project shows that pastoral expansion is not a magical process. Long-term investment and external expertise are required not only to create stations on the unimproved lands but also to protect them (p.196) from seasons of loss, whether caused by the temperamental tropics or stoppages in the controversial live export trade to Southeast Asia.
A more recent industry to emerge in northern Australia is in the Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) sector, a broad term that corresponds to biodiversity conservation, watershed conservation, and climate-change mitigation. As across the nation, government contributions to this sector in northern Queensland have historically been grossly inadequate, the workforce of national parks sometimes being less than a tenth of the size recommended by advocacy groups (Larsen 2005). Generally, as Altman and Dillon (2004) surmise, the conservation of Indigenous country suffers from a chronic “investment deficit,” arguably amounting to a form of primitive accumulation in which past and continuing care for the environment is exploited at a variety of levels, whether as a budgetary saving, tourist commodity, or carbon sink. The federal Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) program, for instance, now makes up a majority of the National Reserve System but is funded at a tenth of the average rate (Altman, Buchanan, and Larsen 2007). At the same time, remote-living Indigenous people are ideally positioned to participate in PES, work in which many profess a strong interest and where familiarity with country and a willingness to live on country constitute a relative advantage (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner 2007, 22–23). In effect, PES often involves monetizing tasks that are being performed unpaid, and over the past fifteen years, several government ranger programs have been established to employ people in PES ventures. In 2011, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service met its target of having a 30 percent Indigenous workforce in Cape York Peninsula (State of Queensland 2011b, 5).
But while ranger programs constitute “a standout success in a long history of failed Indigenous labour market programs” (Altman, Buchanan, and Larsen 2007, 37), they do not resemble what many would regard as development of the “real economy.” Certainly, there is compelling evidence that PES and other country-based activities are strongly associated with significantly better health outcomes and are more cost-effective than other conservation arrangements (Garnett and Sithole 2007; Burgess et al. 2009). There is also substantial evidence to suggest that ranger programs foster “sustainable economic development” by investing in skills, capacity, and “soft” infrastructure, and that expansions in the government sector generally generate greater growth in Indigenous peoples’ incomes than does growth in the agricultural sector (Stoeckl et al. 2013, 218). But this does not change the fact that PES programs, (p.197) like the service delivery organizations attached to Pearson’s Welfare Reform Trial, are state economies not easily converted into “real” private markets. Examples of market engagement do exist, including several initiatives in Australia where reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, derived from the strategic burning of savannah country, have been quantified and traded on carbon markets (Russell-Smith et al. 2013). Transforming this reduction into a tradable commodity is not only an intensive technical process requiring detailed modelling over multiple years, but land use restrictions and the high variability of carbon markets may also render these projects viable or unviable from year to year (Robinson et al. 2014).
Finally, it is worth noting various satellite ventures, such as the harvesting of Darwin stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and other timbers cleared during bauxite mining. Since the early 1990s, a small mobile sawmill operation has employed a handful of people to process logs felled during bauxite mining at Weipa, while another has struggled to become established. Studies of these cases have uncovered the same limitations as in other sectors, including the need for ongoing mentoring and capacity building because of the limited professional skills among the resident workforce (Feary et al. 2010, 129). Such present and future ventures also hinge on the valuing of other factors, including the pricing of carbon, an issue that has become unclear since the repeal of the national “carbon tax” in July 2014. To take one example, the net present economic value of sustainable forestry in the far north is less than that of pastoralism when no value is placed upon their carbon emissions. However, if their carbon footprint is priced according to international markets, then the situation is reversed (Ockwell and Lovett 2005). Equally, what value will be placed on culturally informed labor such as fishing and hunting in the future? One attempt in the early 1990s to calculate the economic value of Indigenous peoples’ food production in the region estimated that it exceeded $6 million per year, an economy that would be displaced by market employment and the privatization of land (Asafu-Adjaye 1996). There is also, beyond this, a set of complex “nonmarket values” whose social and political importance are a matter of broad disagreement and uncertain speculation, whether the object of concern is an ancient shell midden, the notched trunks of culturally modified trees, or the quantifiable biodiversity of a waterway. Overall, as economists Stoeckl et al. (2013, 214) conclude, Indigenous people with land rights always have “more to lose and significantly less to gain” from any scheme that erodes natural capital.
(p.198) In light of this brief survey, Cape York Peninsula’s economic future is likely to remain hybrid, not least because hybridity would entail a continuation rather than an abandonment of existing activities. Frequently glossed as “impediments to economic development” or “disabilities,” the remoteness and low productive capacity of their land and the low levels of formal education and professional skills, poor health, and limited financial resources among the region’s residents are factors not easily changed (Holmes 2012, 260). There is also strong evidence to suggest that specific projects live or die according to their ability to adapt to local work practices and elicit community support—those that survive fit into the people’s pattern of life. As Venn (2007, 139) summarizes, there have been a “plethora of economic development projects” in and around places such as Aurukun since the late nineteenth century, “all of which failed after the community-based brokers who initiated them became dispirited or departed.” Such an account accords with Holmes’ (2010) analysis of the tropical savannah as being amidst a “multifunctional transition” from being dominated by productivist land uses (e.g., pastoralism and mining) to balancing these with consumptive (recreational and residential) and conservationist uses, underpinned by Indigenous ownership and ongoing government subsidization. This is an empirically demonstrable model of modification, predicting that, unlike other multi-functional spaces, land uses will be divergent rather than complementary, mines will dig in alongside or within conservation lands, and land clearing for pastoralism will contend with ecotourism ventures. Differing preferences over land uses will form the basis of ongoing conflicts as traditional owners, title holding families, and conservation groups continue to gain more equity in country and, in turn, more influence in such contests. Following Davis’ (2004) analysis of Indigenous pastoralism, Indigenous people may well “gesture in opposite directions” by embracing capitalist forms of social stratification while also reproducing local knowledge and values.
Though the enduring complexities of Cape York Peninsula have elicited innovative practical solutions in some cases, they have also elicited an abundance of mythic fixes; in the context of the Wild Rivers Act inquiries, many of the fantastic ideas about the “problem” of development were recycled. These included proposals to remove all development planning regulation, grounded both in a principle of Indigenous sovereignty—and its supreme jurisdictional authority—and in the belief that such an exception would attract outside investors. Indeed, as several opponents admitted at inquiry hearings, it was not the Act but the (p.199) entire planning regime that they considered an onerous obstacle to capitalization. However, history shows that realizing dreams of deregulation usually just enriches capital-rich outside investors rather than capital-poor residents. A similar issue is raised by the familiar fix of converting disadvantaged people’s communal property into individual property, in this case devolving communal Indigenous land into pockets of alienable freehold land so as to solve Indigenous individuals’ relative lack of capital. Freehold would be “like giving you blue sky” because it would become an asset able to be mortgaged, one mayor suggested (in SCE 2010c, 17). The proposition, though, that freehold would maximize social welfare “cannot be justified” according to economists, chiefly because no one can predict the value of such a peculiar commodity with no known market. On one account, such properties would likely be subject to the “pioneer’s curse,” where investors with high expectations inevitably push for excessive land degradation, while banks would be hesitant to become involved in a market where foreclosures would be politically risky (see Quiggan 1992; Venn 2007). In each of these cases, the proposition is that “Indigenous enterprise” would flourish if not for the existence of one privileged actor (whether it is communal title, a deficit of “social norms,” or the Wild Rivers Act) and the absence of another (the “real economy”).
Any conclusions about the effects of such promises and pronouncements on Indigenous residents would require an immersive ethnography beyond the scope of this book. Certainly, in the space of these inquiries, many residents and traditional owners did not exhibit unbridled enthusiasm for outside developers or large population shifts to the region, and, similarly, any interest in mining generally centered on what might be achieved with associated injections of capital. Evidence from Australia, Canada, and other settler nations suggests that the optimism that greets new developments such as mines is often followed by disenchantment, creating lives that are different rather than necessarily improved. But while we await better data regarding the effects of industry boosterism, we might prepare by dwelling on two speculations about remote places and their economies from a prior era. Over twenty-five years ago, anthropologist Colin Tatz (1990) argued that the social problems of remote communities were perhaps caused by their disappointment in the unfulfilled promises of “self-determination” policies from the 1970s and 1980s. Deliverance was assured, but oppression and exclusion continued. We should ask now why our abiding investment in the alchemical “real economy” of market employment would be any less (p.200) alienating or any more predictable than the deliverance proffered previously. Is it not bad faith to speak of all such mythic futures as really “real”? Second, we might revisit the 1985 report on Indigenous employment led by Mick Miller—the noted Indigenous statesman from Palm Island—and its distinction between enterprise development, integration into the mainstream labor market, and building an economic base through Indigenous land ownership (Miller 1985, 376–377). Today, the commodity traded by native titleholders is not country itself—as Indigenous people do not have a legal proprietary right as Maori iwi do in Aotearoa New Zealand—but rather their procedural right to negotiate. This is their primary asset: the right to be heard and to make developers wait (if only briefly). Were Indigenous Australians today to have proprietary interests in country, would the question of “sustainable Indigenous economic development” be so routinely thought of as a matter of the “benefits” that others are willing to grant them in order to avoid protests or bad press? This is not to suggest that such a paradigm would be less alienating but that it would, at the least, shift the terms of engagement from coercion and concession to collaboration.
Fields of Wildness
The existence of capitalism is something we can do nothing about. The morality of this fact is a useless thing to consider. What we have to do is face up [to] the reality that we live in a market society and economy, and we are located at the most miserable bottom end.
—Richie Ah Mat, Chairperson of Cape York Land Council (2003)
It is an open question as to whether the unbridled belief in economic development through market activity, typical of discussions of indigenous development in Australia and other settler nations, constitutes a form of what critical theorist Lauren Berlant (2006) calls “cruel optimism.” All forms of personal attachment are optimistic, Berlant argues, but some affix themselves to objects and ideas that prevent flourishing, the very reason we seek out attachment in the first place. We reinvest in these “cruel” attachments even as their wasting effects become apparent because, once attached, giving them up would mean giving up something of ourselves. Destructive affairs and self-help books stand out as examples, though we might also point to Australians’ overidentification with coal mining, just as the disastrous effects of anthropocentric climate change become obvious in record temperatures, floods, and catastrophic (p.201) bushfires. In 2014, Prime Minister Abbott admitted that anthropocentric climate change is occurring yet also supported the logging of World Heritage–listed forests and insisted that new coal mines were “good for humanity.” To some, Abbott’s statements may seem disingenuous, certainly, but they are representative of a wider “cruel” attachment between Australia’s politicians, its resource extraction industry, and defining ideas of the nation.
Equally, does not the insistence that there is “no separate development path” for Indigenous people constitute something less like an argument and more like a reified persona or strategy? This may be an undecidable point, but what is clear from the Wild Rivers inquiries is that, first, whether or not abstractions such as the “real economy” and unmoored “opportunity” promote or prevent certain kinds of action, they routinely produce performances of overoptimism, and, second, that such overoptimism distorts the economic and political interests of those with the least financial capital and therefore the least control over development projects. Indigenous people in Australia are an exemplar of a late capitalist formation where, more specifically, overoptimism persistently limits the ability of affected groups to weigh the benefits and consequences of development fairly. In this instance, stakeholders again and again made vague references to the “many identified development opportunities” (SCE 2011b, 8), references that were seasoned with exaggerated estimates of the parameters and promise of specific ventures. A cattle station was said to promise “200 local jobs,” not the 12 long-term jobs forecast by its developer (SCE 2010b, 35; ILC 2011). The Lockhart biodiesel project offered “300 jobs,” not the 10 employed in 2009 or the likely 100 jobs stated by the proponent (SCE 2011b, 65; Roberts 2009b). Equally, TWS (2010, 61) submitted evidence that “more jobs could be created in tourism … than in all other industries in the region combined,” circulating estimates of 700 to 1,000 “future likely jobs”; these numbers merely required the region to defy the national downturn in tourism and triple in size. Within this discursive space, persistent obstacles to investment and equity can be conveniently and miraculously reimagined as temporary; isolation from “real economic development” is an accident attributable to an errant government; regulation is reformable; infrastructure can be built spontaneously; and “jobs” will be simply adopted by Indigenous residents. Following legal scholar Karen Engle (2010), the “promise” of indigenous development to provide autonomy and equity across settler nations is “elusive” in its realization while being discursively abundant.
(p.202) The Wild Rivers controversy also provides further proof that dominant ideas of “Indigenous development” and “community development” in Australia no longer involve the cultivation of communal resources. Rather, they equate to enterprise development—starting service delivery companies—and individual employment in the mainstream labor markets. With this in mind, one glaring omission from the parliamentary inquiries was any consideration of the 2005 joint-government Cape York Indigenous Employment Strategy report (KBC 2005). This extensive document insisted that workforce participation is not only a matter of jobs being available, and training being provided for those jobs, but also work readiness, social expectations, and career building. Also, despite the prevailing impression of a deficit of market employment, the report shows that the region’s potential Indigenous workforce is actually smaller than existing demand. This demand, however, is primarily located in the majority white towns of Cooktown and Weipa, whereas many other communities have neither private enterprise nor any experience with it (KBC 2005, 20). There are “jobs,” in short, but residents have not migrated to them. The forces governing Indigenous mobility are complex, as Taylor and Bell (2004) show, though it is clear that in this instance and others mere “jobs” are neither a solution nor a mighty social force. Such findings also suggest that “Indigenous domains” such as Cape York Peninsula constitute “territories of difference,” to use Escobar’s phrase, in which a mix of Indigenous-directed productivist, consumptive, and conservational practices could and do take place without strict reference to the hegemony of market productivity; a “territory of difference” where the “real,” “substantial,” or “sustainable” may fit poorly with the discourse of market capitalism but accord with the resilient social and ecological conditions of life in the region. As anthropologist James Ferguson (2010, 178) has argued, development theorists and policymakers around the world have to address the existence of areas “in which many, or even most, people, for the foreseeable future, will lack formal sector employment,” meaning that social support may have to be “radically decoupled from expectations of [market] employment.” This proposition is anathema to the neoliberal thinking that prevails in settler colonial nations, such as Australia, where social viability is routinely conflated with economic viability.
What the inquiries also showed was how different groups attempted to reform or reframe this part of northern Australia in the name of “real” forms of the wild. In an immediate sense, the inquiries were the consequence of attempts by the Queensland government and environmentalist (p.203) organizations to prioritize the “natural values” of these “intact” rivers through declarations under the Wild Rivers Act. Fixing upon these catchments, different agencies were able to quantify their “wildness” in terms of the number of species and the size of their populations, the interrelations between species and other components of these ecologies, the strata and physics of their aquifers, the volume and temporality of their discharge, and so on. To attempt to regulate a whole catchment was, advocates pointed out, both legally novel and congruous with the immanent ecological structure of a river system. “The whole purpose of Wild Rivers is to regulate the river as a whole, not as a patchwork,” Glenn Walker of TWS told me, a “whole” understood through the isolation of specific data. But the use of such seemingly objective scientific measures is necessarily a political strategy, one that occludes the scales across which such government and nongovernment groups invest in the real “intactness” of these rivers, their nonhuman inhabitants, and their riverine vegetation. While the Act’s attempts to preserve this wildness in the environmental interests of “national” or even “global” humanity illustrated how conservation can reinforce the relative disadvantage of “local” humanity, it also revealed the existence of underlying economic relations. In attaching value to the condition of these catchments, Act supporters created a context to ask who might best maintain those values and whether there was an obligation to compensate others for their preservation. The fact that Indigenous people do not “have the right to go in and trash those areas, just like whitefellas did to other parts of the country,” as a representative from the Queensland Conservation Council stated to me, is separate from their potential right to be compensated for the extraction of “natural values” from their country.
In the inquiries, issues of compensation, consultation, and benefit became the grounds for assertions about another form of wildness based upon the reality and primacy of Indigenous environmental stewardship. Clearly, statements that “we cannot impact on the environment” or that Indigenous people have tended to country for millennia are also necessarily statements about who is and is not able to speak for country. In our interview, Claudie explained his uncertainty about the term “traditional owner” and its implications of ownership or possession: “We don’t trade our land. We can’t. It doesn’t belong to us, we belong to it. We’re the caretakers of that land. Caretakers with all the other biodiversity inside that land, all the microscopic organisms. So, we can’t make a decision like a whitefella does, about what to do in terms of development. We’ve got to talk to her first.” As Don De Busch said to me, there are “right” and (p.204) “wrong” people to govern particular places, the latter being those who “don’t have the obligation.” “It’s stronger,” he added, “when you have a connection to a landscape, and to the stories and the springs and the water and the trees.” Country, in this vein, is an intact but brittle object to which some have a greater right and responsibility than others. But even if everyone recognizes the existence and, to a lesser extent, difference of Indigenous governance over these rivers and their surrounding country, none are in complete agreement about who wields this authority and how its existence is best recognized. The absorption of Indigenous politics into the acknowledgment of “tradition” has provided categories with ongoing and possibly irresolvable complications and contradictions. Arguably, the ideas of stewardship mobilized by traditional owners such as Claudie and De Busch are a more powerfully exclusive sense of place than those of others, for example, who profess that all (and only) residents have a right to speak for these “wild rivers.”
Finally, the Act inquiries were a venue for an uncanny return to the settler imaginaries of territory as a wild awaiting cultivation, a return that, ironically, has been made obvious by the Queensland government’s own attempts to set or settle land uses. In declaring these rivers “wild,” they elicited an outcry from those who imagined them precisely as another kind of wilderness—a dormant site awaiting capital’s alchemy. At the inquiries, those who had told journalists of the great harm the Act was doing to economic development spoke of untapped “opportunity” and the future benefits of “the corporate and philanthropic community,” who, as Balkanu’s Gerhardt Pearson stated, “know how to make money” (SCE 2010a, 14). What amounted to “sustainable Indigenous economic development,” in this frame, was any project that shifted capital to the region and, by implication, to previously unemployed Indigenous people. In short, Indigenous economic development resembled clientism. The ostensible solution was to attract the “opportunity” of prospective projects such as mines or agribusinesses whose workforce requirements in number alone exceed the existing workforce in nearby Indigenous communities by an order of magnitude. In truth, therefore, the region’s “real economy” is foremost an imagined future formation rather than an existing sector, one whose conceptual dominance is visible not only in descriptions of the present as being without economic activity but also futures in which the environmental, political, and social conditions of the region are magically overcome. In thinking about the future of Cape York Peninsula, the tropical savannah, and northern Australia, Indigenous and non-Indigenous figures may continue to omit the complexities (p.205) of these conditions, their embedded histories, and their resistance to reform. They may also neglect to advertise the many decades through which the settler colonial project has failed in such places. To omit these histories is not only to disvalue the other economies that have emerged and endured within these conditions but also to presage an uncanny return of the idea of them as fields of wildness, territories of potentiality without order.
(1.) Technically there have been four inquiries into the Wild Rivers issue, though only the first three conducted public hearings or produced reports: the 2010 Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill [No. 2] (the first inquiry), the 2010–2011 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics inquiry into Indigenous economic development in Queensland and advisory report on the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 (the second inquiry), and the 2011 Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill [No. 2] (the third inquiry). The fourth lapsed in September 2013 without having conducted any hearings.
(2.) Author’s field notes, 8 March 2011.
(3.) My emphasis.
(4.) Particularly influential here is the work of Hernando de Soto, which Pearson and others have incorporated into their policy reform ideas. Perhaps the most influential aspect of de Soto’s work has been his suggestion that the most effective way to ameliorate poverty is to incorporate people into the formal “real” economy.
(5.) As Balkanu’s CEO Gerhardt Pearson admitted during the first inquiry, the company had been paid between $63,000 and $70,000 to set up the “logistical opportunities” for consultation. COO Terry Piper later commented to me that this money “was used by government to hit us across the head” in the following years.
(6.) My emphasis.
(7.) The length of inhabitation suggested by Woosup and Pootchemunka is not important to the more general argument made by both.
(8.) This was a remarkable strategy given Balkanu’s partnership in three similar ranger programs.
(p.228) (9.) The original taskforce included many who would later oppose the Wild Rivers debates, such as Senator Bill Heffernan, Senator Ian Macdonald, and Noel Pearson.
(10.) For instance, 2006 Australian census data show that 1 percent of the total Indigenous regional population were employed in mining, as against 6 percent of the total non-Indigenous population.