'Wild Rivers, Wild Ideas': Emerging Political Ecologies of Cape York Wild Rivers

By Slater, Lisa | Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

'Wild Rivers, Wild Ideas': Emerging Political Ecologies of Cape York Wild Rivers


Slater, Lisa, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space


Introduction

This is a story of rivers, some say wild rivers. In November 2009 in Aurukun, west Cape York, Australia, on the traditional lands of the Wik and Wik Way peoples, I first encountered Wild Rivers. Outside the shop, nailed to a tree, was an intriguing, provocative sign: 'Wild Rivers, Wild Ideas'. I asked around: what did it refer to? I was told it was a protest, which was gathering momentum, against the Queensland (QLD) government's Wild Rivers policy. In 2005 the QLD government passed the Wild Rivers Act, creating a thing called Queensland Wild Rivers, to protect 'near natural rivers'. (1) My interest is not with all Wild Rivers, but rather those in Cape York, where the public debate between Traditional Owners --those for and against the Act--has been fierce and divisive. The conflict is an example of John Holmes's (2011) and Ben Smith's (2005) argument that Cape York politics is being reconfigured: there is a schism between regionally focused visions of Indigenous futures and locally focused, traditionalist visions held by community leaders 'living on country' (Holmes, 2011). To prise open the debate to analyse the emerging political ecologies and what the public controversy conceals, I will follow Latour's advice to gather what assembles around Wild Rivers. He advocates a theory of object-oriented democracy, in which 'matter' or 'things'--human and nonhuman--are constituted as active participants in sociopolitical processes (Latour, 2005). By putting the rivers at the centre of my analysis, I want to clear a space to reflect upon the anticolonial political practices that are surfacing and what they might demand of research and social justice. We know that rivers sustain and reproduce life, but what life worlds are being considered? What happens when we take seriously the idea of rivers as actors in a multirealist world? A pressing question in postcolonial Australia is: what worlds live and what worlds die? (2)

Cape York is rich in bauxite deposits and home to the world's largest mine, Rio Tinto Alcan, Weipa. Yet the Peninsula's rivers, according to The Wilderness Society, are some of the healthiest on the planet, and the unique bioregion is regarded as having an iconic conservation status, compelling the government to enact region-specific preservation regulations and legislation, and consider applying for World Heritage listing (Holmes, 2011; The Wilderness Society, 2011). Since the mid-1800s pastoralism has been prominent in the Cape, and the agricultural sector is a powerful political player in the debates about the future of the Peninsula. Notably there have been prolonged development debates on Cape York, and it has a history of what is often portrayed as Green versus Black politics (Holmes, 2011). Cape York is also an Aboriginal domain, as is all of Australia, where Indigenous peoples have won and lost formidable battles in defence of their sovereignty. After all, Australia is a settler colonial country, where sovereignty is contested.

Predictably, introducing a new environmental management policy was controversial. For the moment, I will give a brief summary of the controversy so far: to protect QLD's natural heritage from the negative effects of economic development, the state government introduced the Wild Rivers policy. In April 2009 the state government declared three rivers in Cape York as Wild Rivers--the Archer, Lockhart, and Stewart--and in June 2010, the Wenlock Basin. Prominent Cape York Aboriginal leaders condemned the bill. In support of their stance, the leader of the federal opposition called for Wild Rivers to be overturned. A collective of Traditional Owners then protested and publicly supported the state government's policy. This all played out in the national media. It would be easy to assume the Wild Rivers policy ignited the same divisive politics that have long been an aspect of Cape York: the clash between economic development, environmental protection, and Traditional Owners. …

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