Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Jabiluka Revisited: Negotiating Needs

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Jabiluka Revisited: Negotiating Needs

Article excerpt

Traditionally activism has concentrated on making arguments for change aimed at mobilising support and compelling decision-makers to change. Often this is done by appealing to the 'rights' of a disenfranchised party, and by taking direct action causing some kind of coercive disruption to the current status quo. I will argue that activists need to spend less time advocating for rights and coercing power holders into recognising and upholding them, and more time listening and communicating skilfully, to facilitate collaborative negotiation of mutual needs. Here I examine some personal experiences of blockading, with a view to illustrating an alternative way of doing activism.

Ivi uch activism seems to be based on the idea of rights. Activists often work to identify the rights of an individual or group, label the failure to legitimise or uphold these rights as injustice, and mobilise and demand that power-holders validate the rights in question. While many of us perhaps would like to find ourselves in a 'win/ win' world where everybody's rights are recognised and upheld, sadly, many rights seem to exclude or interfere with others. The approach to ethics I will suggest here acknowledges the centrality of context to ethical decision, and is thus presented interwoven with narratives from activist experience.

At Jabiluka in the Northern Territory, Australia in the late 1990s, I was involved in just such a scenario, where the rights of the Traditional Owners of the site were legally over-ruled by the rights of Energy Resources Australia (ERA) to mine the land for uranium. Activists, myself included, waged a campaign to overturn this decision. The rights of Traditional Owners to decide what happened on their land and the right of all Australians to a safe and clean environment were the two main arguments we used in our information strategy to try to convince people and governments to change what was happening at Jabiluka. This strategy was placed in tandem with our occupation of the site, with intent to physically prevent or forestall the operation of the mine.

Here I reflect on my experiences during this occupation as a way of demonstrating an alternative way of 'doing' activism, founded on negotiating needs rather than arbitrating rights. Much of the tactical concern of the activist has traditionally been how to influence decisionmakers. At Jabiluka, few of us believed we would ever have the resources to physically prevent the establishment of the mine, though making this establishment more difficult and costly, to make future ventures of this nature less attractive, was definitely part of the strategy. The deeper aim was to bring the issue to the attention of a wider authence and by their agitation coerce or persuade decision makers to recognise and protect the rights of the Traditional Owners.

The approach I will suggest here shifts activist attention from arbitration to negotiation. Successful activism is not where we 'win' the debate and establish our preferred reality, but where all parties collaborate to meet needs. Thus, in taking direct action, our primary focus becomes negotiating the needs of all those who become involved, both present and 'unpresent', as we simultaneously make our contribution to public debate. This idea will, I hope, have application in most areas of life, even as a response to actual violence. Importantly mutual recognition, as an aspect of moral behaviour rather than its sum, is contextual in its application. It does not present itself as a universalist morality, but an important and often ignored aspect of moral relationship - an aspect I suggest that could, in some cases, be more important than or indeed part of the instrumental outcomes of justice.

The intention to meet the needs of those I do politics 'with', as well as those I do politics 'for', will change the way activists approach direct action. At Jabiluka, while not in favour of uranium mining, my deepest purpose was to support the Traditional Owners (the Mirrar People) in their ability to decide what happened on their land. …

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