'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


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. Arguably, this is not the case. How then to move beyond the fractious public debate?

What is the matter?

The QLD government's concern is the pressing environmental problem of how to protect 'near natural' rivers from ever-encroaching development--a concern shared by many. One should probably add, given the prodevelopment history of the state, that many support the government's position as long as protection does not encroach too much on economic development. According to the state government,

"Queensland has a number of river systems which are relatively untouched by development and are therefore in near natural condition, with all, or almost all, of their natural values intact. One way of preserving these valuable river systems for the benefit of current and future generations, is to declare them as a 'wild river area' " (State of Queensland, 2011, page 2).

For the river to be a constituent or an object of concern, it cannot represent itself but must be represented. Wild Rivers is a policy, a very particular mode of address. Or one could think of it another way: the QLD government perceives these rivers as in need of protection, and the Wild Rivers Act is a mode of speaking for them. The natural world is endangered, and the social world is enrolled as a caring agent. The QLD government writes:

"A wild river declaration is a statutory document under the Wild Rivers Act, which aims to preserve a river that has all, or almost all, of its natural values intact. This is done by regulating certain new development activities that have the potential to impact on the river's natural values" (State of Queensland, 2011).

The Wild Rivers Act is a planning tool that allows "current and future economic development activities to occur. It simply ensures the natural values of the rivers declared wild are not impacted by these activities" (State of Queensland, 2011). Having given this very brief summary of the Wild Rivers policy, I will discuss the contest that ensued.

For some, the Wild Rivers policy is contentious, and no more so than for Aboriginal public intellectual and Director of the Cape York Institute, Noel Pearson. (3) Pearson came to prominence during the Wik native title case and has since developed a high public profile; he is considered to be one of the most influential Australian public intellectuals. Until recently, he had a regular opinion piece in the national newspaper The Weekend Australian, which he used to great effect to campaign against the Wild Rivers policy. His commentary was vitriolic. In particular, Pearson used his opinion pieces to rage against the Wild Rivers policy, and most particularly what he determines as the state's and The Wilderness Society's collusion to further dispossess Indigenous people of their land and frustrate socioeconomic betterment. If you read his articles, you would miss none of his contempt for those he sees as wilfully destroying Aboriginal lives. Pearson's rhetoric is passionate--infused with anger, disgust, outrage. There are always plenty of rogues--individuals who through arrogance, ignorance, and near evil are bent on further discriminating against Indigenous people and the "appalling lack of indigenous power". He denounces former Premier Anna Bligh as the "leader of this pig trough that passes for a system of government"; he calls Alex Marr from The Wilderness Society an "old sorcerer", and laments that the government has "ceded all key power to The Wilderness Society" (Pearson, 2010a). Pearson pronounces that the "extension of Wild Rivers protection to Cape York will prevent economic development, condemning communities to ongoing poverty and suffering". In the same article he calls the Wild Rivers law "a new wave of colonialism" (Owen and Wilson, 2010). In another he writes:

"It is not possible to convey the intensity of the feelings I harbour for these bastards. It is not their contempt for Aboriginal people. It is not their utter lack of principle. It is the torment of our own powerlessness that gets me. The powerlessness of Aboriginal people to hold a position of dignity in this state--in this country, which is supposed to be our country, too. How can the 3 per cent mouse deal on a level playing field with the 97 per cent elephant? How can Aboriginal people be dealt with fairly in a governmental system in which we have no adequate representation?" (Pearson, 2010a, page 14).

Pearson's strident opposition to the policy is shared by at least two other key Cape York Aboriginal organisations: Balkanu, which is committed to economic development, and the Cape York Land Council. Their broad criticisms are that the responsible government minister did not properly perform his functions, and most importantly that there was not enough consultation with Indigenous owners and their opinions were disregarded. Pearson has accused the government of maladministration. Secondly, those against the policy argue that secret deals were made between the 'privileged lobby groups' (ie, The Wilderness Society and the QLD Resources Council) to provide a buffer zone that is more lenient for the mining industry than it is for Indigenous people (Pearson, 2010b). Pearson insists that ecologically sustainable development is needed; however he argues that:

"The Wild Rivers Act strips indigenous people of the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development of their lands. Land and water and the right to 'speak for country' and to make decisions about country is at the core of Aboriginal tradition. Wild Rivers declarations substantially remove the rights of traditional owners to speak for their country and place this responsibility with government bureaucrats and lobby groups" (2010b, page 7).

Not all Cape York Traditional Owners share his criticisms. Notably, as I mentioned earlier, the Wild River's controversy is primarily limited to the Cape. Holmes argues that this is due to a "[c]omplex mosaic of land titles, claims, regulations and agreements" particular to the region (2011, page 54). I want to think through some of the effects of Wild Rivers and what alliances and associations Pearson draws upon to constitute a powerful force within the debate. As noted, in Cape York there is a long history of conflict between Aboriginal and environmental groups, and Pearson pulls these tensions, fears, and animosities into his political assemblage.

Let us return to Aurukun, to a protest that took place on 9 December 2009--John Koowarta Day. John Koowarta was a Mungkanhu man who lived in Aurukun, and who in 1976 sucessfully won Federal government support to purchase the Archer River Pastoral Holding. Soon after, to stop the transfer of land title to Traditional Owners, the then Queensland Premier Jo Bjelke-Petersen's government passed legislation to declare the area a national park (Holmes, 2011; Smith, 2002). The day is marked as another Queensland government land grab and Koowarta is remembered as a local hero. On 9 December 2009 Aurukun locals held a protest meeting and marched against the Wild Rivers policy, thus connecting it to the Bjelke-Petersen government's sly manoeuvre to retain control over Koowarta's country. The protest was organised and supported by the Cape York Institute and it is from one of their placards that the title of this paper is taken. Alongside this demonstration, the online anti-Wild Rivers campaign 'give us a go' was established to garner wide-ranging public support. As noted earlier, national parks have been perceived by many Aboriginal people as a key means of dispossession of and alienation from their lands, and it is through this lens that many Aboriginal people in the Cape understand enviromentalism and conservation (Smith, 2002, page 2). Holding the protest on this day invokes a particular history for Cape York Traditional Owners in which they are powerless against the state and the ongoing processes of colonisation.

In the 1990s the Queensland Labor government discovered the importance of environmental and conservation values to maintaining power. The "recognition of the Peninsula's wilderness values", Holmes observes, was a convenient means of gaining pivotal green preferences at elections (2011, page 59). Pearson has been railing against the state 'locking up' country in the form of national parks for many years. In 1994, in The Australian, Pearson declared:

"Some greens are just another arm of dispossession. There are the miners and developers who want the land to be regarded as terra nullius so that they can tear at it. There are greens who want the land to be regarded as terra nullius because their real interest is in national parks and not in Aboriginal people" (quoted in Holmes, 2011, page 59).

In his more recent writing in The Australian, Pearson continues to perform for a southern, cosmopolitan audience, which knows little of the complexities of the contemporary debate and the ensuing alliances being forged within it. Pearson assembles and rehashes an old-style Cape York politics, and, arguably, wilfully omits emergent affiliations, threats to his and prominent individuals' and organisations' authority and, perhaps, the power of country to intervene and reassemble the political ecology.

Perhaps the wildest aspect of this debate is the former (conservative) federal opposition leader, Tony Abbott (now Prime Minister), advocating for Aboriginal property rights. The ongoing controversy and, importantly, Pearson's advocacy resulted in Abbott proposing a private members bill--the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 [No 2] --which sought to override the Queensland government's Wild Rivers Act 2005 on the basis that it further limits economic opportunities for Aboriginal people living in remote areas and undermines native title. Abbott contended that Aboriginal land rights were not real rights if native title land did not include the right to use land for productive--that is, commercial --purposes (Altman, 2010, page 2). This is an unusual position for a conservative politician to take, especially for one who was part of the government that watered down native title rights. The "cultural strangeness" of Coalition politicians advocating Aboriginal property rights, as Sarah Burnside writes, can only be fully appreciated in the context of the tempestuous history of native title in Australia (2010, page 1). As many will remember, the 1992 Mabo v Queensland (No 2) decision released a contagion of fear, loathing, and hyperbole from conservative politicians, organisations, and commentators, which continues today.

"The Keating Government's Native Title Act (NTA) ignited some of the longest debates in Australian parliamentary history; the Coalition government voted against every section. Fearful of the Act's impact, the WA Coalition government quickly legislated to extinguish all native title in the state" (Burnside, 2010, page 1)

Western Australia's ploy was reminiscent of Bjelke-Petersen's earlier move to transfer Cape York pastoral leases to national parks. But what cannot be forgotten is that, following the conservative backlash against the Wik native title decision, the Howard government introduced their 'Ten Point Plan' (Native Title Amendment Act 1998), which had the effect of weakening the Native Title Act. Importantly, native title holders cannot veto development and have no "ownership of commercially valuable resources such as minerals, fisheries and fresh water" (Altman, 2010, page 2). Abbott was a minister in the Howard government. According to Jon Altman, the Wild Rivers Act 2005 (Qld) complies with the Native Title Act 1993 by maintaining customary rights on native title lands. Furthermore, the Wild Rivers Act 2005 (Qld) limits only certain forms of intensive development within what is termed a 'high preservation area', within a kilometre of a river in a declared wild river basin. Altman poignantly writes:

"While we continue to express policy concern about Indigenous poverty, wealth disparities between Aboriginal and other Australians will arguably never be eliminated unless land and native title rights are accompanied by resource rights. Paradoxically, while the current policy approach to Indigenous development focuses on mainstream participation, the only guarantees that Indigenous people have to resources are outside the market system" (2010, page 2).

The federal Coalition's Wild Rivers Bill was not passed. Ironically, if it had been, it would have resulted in fundamental reforms to the workings of Australian land rights and native title laws: resource rights for native title lands. Some have argued that, if Abbott is so concerned about the property rights of Indigenous people, he might begin by strengthening federal native title law to guarantee resource rights and consent (Altman, 2010; Burnside, 2010; Claudie, 2011). Unless Aboriginal people are in a genuine position to utilise their lands and waters for all land-use activities--be they economic, environmental, cultural, or spiritual--then we continue to live in wild times. Of course, such changes to Aboriginal resource rights are the makings of a much more complex and contestable world, but it would enhance Indigenous people's political agency (Head, 2000). The continuing dispossession of Indigenous peoples and their lack of access to economic rights is shameful, and even more so for a nation with policies dedicated to ameliorating socioeconomic disadvantage. However, I want to recentre the rivers as the matter of concern and take seriously the work rivers do as active participants in sustaining and reproducing particular worlds (Muecke, 2012).

On 29 September 2010, a delegation of north QLD Indigenous groups--an affiliation of Traditional Owners with interests in seven declared wild rivers--travelled to Canberra to reject Abbott's anti-Wild Rivers bill, and deliver a message to parliament:

"We totally reject Tony Abbott's intervention on Wild Rivers. We support sustainable development and we are keen to see the creation of employment opportunities for Aboriginal people. But Mr Abbott's legislation of itself will do nothing to protect our Heritage. We call on Parliament to reject Tony Abbott's anti-Wild Rivers Bill and move to a proper recognition of the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ...

We call upon parliament to consult with the relevant Traditional Owners who have experience of this legislation and who have the right under Indigenous governance to speak on such matters .

We are determined that Mr Abbott does not undermine our local Indigenous organisations, our efforts to participate in the Australian economy or our management plans for Wild River declarations on our lands. Wild Rivers is supporting the proper Indigenous management of country including homelands-based initiatives and sustainable enterprise, and provides important employment, training and capacity building opportunities for our people" (Claudie et al, 2010, my italics, no pagination).

Interestingly, this group accuses Abbott and Pearson of a lack of consultation. They gave their support to an online organisation, 'Give Us a Break', administered by the QLD government to "expose the anti-Wild Rivers campaign" (Give Us a Break, 2010). The organisation accused Pearson and Tania Major (4) of attempting to "mislead the public, derail sensible protection and management of Cape York's rivers, and strike fear into Indigenous communities with blatantly inaccurate information about the status of Indigenous rights under ... Wild Rivers" (Claudie et al, 2010, no pagination).

Here we witness a reconfiguration of Cape York politics. The Canberra delegation calls for local Indigenous organisations and Traditional Owners to be respected and for the "right people to speak for right country". Exploring the political ecology of Wild Rivers, one sees, as Holmes (2011) and Smith (2005) argue, changing local and regional political assemblages. Not only the contest in Cape York has been transformed but so have, in the words of Holmes (2011), the dominant contenders, who have recently emerged as Indigenous peoples and conservationists, and the former QLD government had to respond and realign itself to these power groups. Holmes identifies an increasingly potent schism between what he refers to as "modernists, reformists, regions-focused visions of Indigenous futures, forcefully presented by Noel Pearson against more traditionalist, local-focused visions held by many community leaderships" (2011, page 54).

In the context of the Wild Rivers debate the 'local traditionalists' are represented by those who travelled to Canberra to protest against Abbott's bill. They are asserting, to borrow the words of Smith, "the necessary primacy of Aboriginal cosmologies and linked forms of social organization in determining the character of local 'governance' projects and 'natural resource management' " (2005, page 5). They are reclaiming Traditional Owners' rights and responsibility to speak for country, not the rights of Aboriginal organisations, such as the Cape York Land Council or Balkanu, to do so--organisations seen by some as outside organisations who have displaced Traditional Owners' authority to speak for their country (Smith, 2005). Alongside the extensive array of actors--including politicians, environmentalists, ecologists, newspapers, Indigenous organisations, and Senators--the matter of concern, Wild Rivers, has enlisted Aboriginal country, law, and the Rainbow Serpent story--about the Creator Being--into its vital political ecology. (5) How can progressive politics respond to this? Does social justice require an alliance with the Rainbow Serpent?


As is only too clear, I have little interest in fashioning a definition of Wild Rivers or assessing the policy. It is not an objective definition of the river, be it wild or not, that is needed, "a detached definition everybody should accept, but the active participation of all those whose practice is engaged in multiple modes" with the river (Stengers, 2005, page 1002). I want to assemble a complex political ecology, or as Hinchliffe et al (2005) prefer, ecologise politics: trace the entanglements, interests, encounters, affects, and political enactments that Wild Rivers produce. It is worth keeping in mind Stengers's proposition that collective thinking needs to proceed "in the presence of those who would otherwise be likely to be disqualified as having idiotically nothing to propose, hindering the emergent 'common account' " (2005, page 1002). Stengers's idiot is not an idiot, and nor is mine; rather, she is referring to those who slow everything down by thinking, being, and understanding the world differently, and questioning 'common sense'. One might be grateful that in the Wild Rivers debate there is no 'common account', just those with better representation than others. However, I do not want to make a 'good' representation of rivers, or more pertinently the Wild Rivers debate, and in so doing to settle the politics and be assured of how to proceed. To do so would be to fuel the liberal fallacy, as Hinchliffe et al (2005) contend, that all that is needed is to include the previously excluded or become educated about the issue rather than transform political practices. To ecologise politics is not to write up wild rivers--represent the rivers and the debate--but write around wild rivers: to form a complex of writing that is weaved from connections, intensities, attentiveness, affect, and entanglement, and produces them. It is to do what Hinchliffe et al (2005) refer to as performing a creative address: to address, present oneself to, things as fellow subjects and inhabit a world of encounter and relationality. To ask, how is the world coproduced? What articulations of the world might be possible?

Cape York rivers are actors in a multirealist world. Respecting Aboriginal ontology is an ongoing challenge for environmental management, and settler colonial Australia more generally. By insisting that the rivers are active participants, I want to take seriously the diversity of life the rivers sustain and reproduce. I am arguing that 'we' do need to address rivers as cocreators of worlds, but also that, importantly, social justice and the creation of new political practices require recognition of at least two important points. Firstly, Traditional Owners address rivers as sentient and inhabit a world of relationality. Country is a connecting force that is already and always entangled in social relations, be they human or nonhuman. Secondly, the settler colonial state cannot countenance such ontological differences. Yet without so doing, is social justice possible? I bring the postcolonial, or anticolonial, into relation with more-than-human praxis in the hope of doing more justice to the forms of coexistence that make the world inhabitable (Hinchliffe et al, 2005).

The wild

One of the things being held firmly in place by the state is that environments worth caring for are 'near natural', although notably a somewhat tamed or contained wild. Unlike much colonial thinking, contemporary 'wildness' is not rapacious and to be feared as potentially ruinous of civilisation, but conservation and management of wilderness is a mark of civility. Still it is an imaginary that continues to be reliant upon 'wilderness thinking'. Wilderness has been a contentious term for many decades: Traditional Owners argue that it reinforces the notion of terra nullius (a land belonging to no one). Jessica Weir (2009), along with other scholars, criticises and defines wilderness thinking as a separation of nature and culture into opposing binaries, which has been replicated in land systems that create 'natural' people-free spaces, such as national parks and protected areas. Traditional Owners from across QLD dispute the term Wild Rivers as it implies the country is uninhabited and void of human activity. In its submission to the Senate on the Wenlock Basin Wild River Declaration Proposal, the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation, which supports the declaration, noted as one of its concerns "the inappropriate use of the term 'wild' to describe rivers":

"For Indigenous people the term 'wild' is often used to refer to traditional lands or waters where the proper management of the country has been disrupted for some time or where inappropriate regimes have taken over. This is usually evident in landscapes where traditional fire management practices have been interrupted, so there is too much undergrowth and the country is described as having gone 'wild' " (Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation, 2009, page 5).

The use of the term 'wild' denies, in this case, that Cape York is an Aboriginal domain and that the country has been cared for and managed by Aboriginal people for thousands of years.

"The very rivers that the Wild Rivers Act provides a framework to preserve have all or most of their natural processes intact because they have been under Indigenous management for thousands of years and have not suffered the degradation that rivers in the southern part of Australia have" (Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation, 2009, page 5).

The concept of wilderness valorises nature (and those who protect it) and perceives humans as separate from their environment, erasing Indigenous peoples' social relationship with country, or 'caring for country', which maintains the health of the integrated human and more-than-human world. Our colonial heritage, as Lesley Head (2000) writes, is deeply embedded in all manner of Australian practices, and she suggests that the myth of terra nullius remains evident in the creation and preservation of landscapes. Interestingly, in the Wild Rivers Act what is imagined is water belonging to everyone (at the very least, all Queenslanders). Yet I would argue that the sheer complexity, force, and abundance of life that is Cape York address many, human and nonhuman, as strangers.

Yet the state constructs a particular assemblage where rivers are represented as 'wild', 'natural', or pristine, but still governable. The government champions the wildness of the rivers, whereby wild is untamed but not brutish. These are Queensland rivers, implying a state-wide form of river ownership which lies in stark contrast to Aboriginal Traditional Owners who have rights and responsibility for very localised areas. Governing of the river systems is separated from the local and centralised in Brisbane, and thus geographically and personally detached from the objects of governance. As Ben Smith argues, this separation is necessary for the functioning of the bureaucratic administration (2005, pages 9-10). The government is acting responsibly to manage the people of Queensland's natural heritage, and to do so it introduces a 'planning tool' in which a whole government apparatus and Western imaginary of intervention and control are deployed but hidden. A highly political move is depoliticised, simply by acting upon and for the natural values of the river and by regulating the economic but not impinging on it. Governing is performed as common sense, a form of nurture and tending. Nature and culture, heritage and development can sit comfortably side by side if the government acts to protect passive nature from (de)generative development. The seemingly limitless reach and insatiable appetite of economic development (in this case mining) and technology can be guided and restrained by the quiet hand of government. The longstanding development disputes on Cape York are neutralised. The entanglements, conflicts, complexity, enmeshment, and interdependence of the human and nonhuman world are rendered invisible and inaudible.

Let me slow this assemblage down. The Wild Rivers policy was first proposed in 2004 by the Beattie state government. In November 2010 the former Premier Peter Beattie, speaking in defence of the bill, wrote:

"Imagine the appeal of 13 rivers in close proximity, still in pristine condition from source to mouth, to an international audience. Less than 1 per cent of the world's rivers are currently in this condition" (Beattie, 2010).

Beattie invited his audience to imagine. I want to trace the imaginary that he invoked in his call to fellow Australians. Arguably, what is made present in the Wild Rivers Act is an ontological politics by stealth (Law, 2004). The world is imagined and rendered in a particular way, whereby rivers are perceived as passive and subject to geographical and topographical processes which can be discovered, measured, known, and represented by modern Western technology. They exist prior to the sociocultural. The so-called natural world is a material reality that is separate from, yet subordinate to, the social, despite the necessity of people and all their technical appendages to authorise this determination (Law, 2004, pages 131-132). River basins are a 'natural resource', not country or water places (Gibbs, 2009), and thus are enlisted into a web of settler liberal governance in which only humans are agents who have the capacity, authority, and superiority over other life forms to intervene, manage, and control passive nature for the good of the human and nonhuman world. It is an epistemology shared by Western ideas of development and conservation (Howitt and Suchet-Pearson, 2006). It is an ontology that is dependent upon historical, singular time, and thus effaces alternatives such as Australian Aboriginal cosmology where the past and present coexist simultaneously. As Howitt and Suchet-Pearson argue, an "inevitable linear movement of progress from an original, wild state to a developed, civilized and domesticated state" (2006, page 324) is advanced as an ontological assumption. In this linear movement Indigenous knowledge is designated traditional, and thus of limited value in resolving problems wrought by modernity. However, the Wild Rivers Act alerts us to a troubling development. Strangely, Beattie addressed his audience as both concerned environmentalists and national tourist operators, and the state is the social conscience reining in development to conserve wildness. (6) Arguably this was a form of benevolence historically enacted upon the 'natural heritage' of 'our premodern' Aboriginal peoples. (7)

For the moment, putting aside the agency, productivity, and associations of the so-called natural world, the Wild Rivers Act is a collective practice of nonhumans--especially science and technology--and humans. Just to name a few, this assemblage is composed of bureaucrats, politicians, ecologists, offices, laptops, software programs, reports, planes, four-wheel drives, infrastructure--roads, bitumen, and otherwise--maps, GPS, Brisbane, environmental groups, most especially The Wilderness Society, informed by similar international environmental policies, and no doubt plenty of sunscreen and hats. It takes a lot of the nonhuman world to make Wild Rivers or wild places. Sarah Whatmore (2002, page 14) contends that we are led to believe that only humans make wild places, and only humans can protect them. I agree that, according to a Western ontology, only humans are perceived as agents; however, in this case rivers are understood as making Cape York wild, and the sociopolitical is enrolled as protector and authenticator of wild rivers, but it is not working in association with the rivers. The rivers' wildness is dependent upon, but separate from, the workings of government. There is no doubt that 'specialists' make field trips to these 'water places' (Gibbs, 2009) and, through collecting data and apprehending this complex bioregion, many must become deeply immersed. However, the performance of authority necessitates a detailed, complex knowledge of place, alongside an ability to dissociate oneself from the very matter of concern. It is important to remember, as Weir suggests, "the influence of modernity on the authority that Indigenous people can command in settler societies" (2009, page 22). Not all humans are recognised as possessing (enough) agency and authority. Rather, authority is granted to those who are savvy with, and move in and through, a world of Western science and technology, and it is with these ways of grasping and inhabiting the world that people are made powerful actors in this assemblage, which I will call liberal settler colonialism.

River country

What are people's material relations with the rivers? Cape York's four river basins subject to the Wild Rivers policy hold significant economic, social, cultural, and spiritual value for Traditional Owners. In a discussion on the cultural significance of the Wenlock Basin, David Claudie, representing the Northern Kaanju Traditional Owners, writes:

"[It features] many significant Story Places as well as sacred ceremonial grounds (Ngaachi Kuu' ul Kincha), totemic sites, and areas of rock carving and painting. The whole Wenlock River ... and [its] tributaries have enormous cultural significance as the Creator of all of Kuuku I'yuNgaachi under the umbrella of Pianamu (Rainbow Serpent). We are obliged under Kaanju law and custom to 'look after' our Ngaachi in a sustainable manner. In return our Stories, which are the land, will look after us physically, culturally and spiritually" (Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation, 2009, page 3).

Claudie is speaking of his responsibilities to his traditional country, which he inherited from ancestors and ancestral beings. He is expressing a non-Western ontology whereby country--land, water, sky--is sentient: it has its own Law, people, spirit, and agency. Country is multidimensional and has an interdependent web of relations: including people, animal, plants, Dreamings, air, water, minerals, plants, and soils (Rose, 1996). It is the responsibility of Traditional Owners to care for country or "look after it", as Claudie writes, to keep the country strong through an array of activities from ceremony to harvesting and traditional land management practices, so it will look after them. Laklak Burarrwanga explains the concept of country:

"Country has many layers of meaning. It incorporates people, animals, plants, water and land. But Country is more than just people and things, it is also what connects them to each other and to multiple spiritual and symbolic realms. It relates to Laws, custom, movement, song, knowledges, relationships, histories, presents, futures and spirit beings. Country can be talked to, it can be known, it can itself communicate, feel and take action. Country for us is alive with story, Law, power and kinship relations that join not only people to each other but link people, ancestors, place, animals, rocks, plants, stories and songs within land and sea. So you see knowledge about Country is important because it's about how and where you fit within the world and how you connect to others and to place" (Wright et al, 2012, page 54).

The human and more-than-human are entwined in social relationships, and the world is continually cocreated by human and nonhuman agents (Wright et al, 2012). A political response that takes seriously the vitality and agency of river country must be attentive to and comprehensive of non-Western modes of addressing rivers such as interconnection with the more-than-human world as modes of caring for self and others. Yet historically, Aboriginal people and country have been marginalised in environmental and economic debates. Let us again listen to Claudie's concerns about the well-being of the Wenlock Basin:

"Traditional Owners have a number of concerns about threats to the natural and cultural values of the Wenlock River. We are particularly concerned about the deterioration of one of the core Kaanju Story Places on the Wenlock River, Malandaji--Lightening Thunder, Coming of Wet Season. During the dry season uncontrolled third party (visitor) use in the vicinity of this site results in severe erosion and land degradation and during the wet season flood waters exacerbate the erosion problems, and silt builds up at the site of Malandaji. This degradation has severe consequences for the ability of the Story to carry out its role in the Kaanju cosmology and, ultimately, for the sustainability of the land and waters. We are also concerned that people camping and fishing at Malandaji (many of whom would be unaware or ignorant of the site's Aboriginal significance) without consent from Traditional Owners will result in severe consequences for our own people under Indigenous law" (Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation, 2009, page 3).

Story is a place with power that must be cared for by Traditional Owners; otherwise the Story will be degraded, which will have negative material effects upon the human and nonhuman. Country tells its people when it is healthy or under threat, in this example through erosion. Kaanju well-being is interwoven and dependent upon the well-being of the Wenlock.

If you travel up or down the rivers, you will see it is also cattle country. Cattle feed from the waterways and roam across vast tracts of land, managed by stockmen on horses and motorbikes, in four-wheel drives and now helicopters. Cattle stations have been a part of the Cape since the 1870s, when the country was 'opened up' by colonial pastoralists, either pushing Aboriginal people off their land or assimilating them into the workforce. However, Cape York cattle stations have never been the province of white people only. For all of the historical and ongoing racism and opposition that some non-Indigenous pastoralists have to Aboriginal people and land rights, one needs to keep in mind that they have worked and lived together for generations. Through this time lives became entwined with people, places, and all manner of things. Smith writes:

"Aboriginal people were drawn into the pastoral industry and quickly assimilated pastoralism to their own system of land use and land ownership. Ranging hunter-gather bands were transformed into station populations and Aboriginal pastoralists managed land. As they mustered cattle, the region's Aboriginal people continued to burn country and conduct increase ceremonies" (2002, page 2).

Proud old Aboriginal men who were stockmen in their youth still have a cowboy's swagger, jeans, large shiny belt buckles, and checked shirts. It was, and perhaps still is, one of the few industries where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people worked side by side, if not in equality, at least often respecting one another's skills, endurance, and daring. It is not my intention to underplay or dismiss non-Indigenous people's connection to and deep love of and commitment to the Cape, which for many has been their family's home for generations. Notably, historically, Traditional Owners and pastoralists have shared a suspicion of environmental groups and governments' conservation agendas, where country has been 'locked up' for national parks, at the exclusion of grazing and Aboriginal land management. AgForce, a peak organisation representing Queensland farmers, is opposed to the Wild Rivers legislation, arguing that it accommodates environmental values at the cost of economic and social values (AgForce Queensland, 2010). Wild Rivers stirs up old rivalries and animosities, but it is also producing new political assemblages and fascinating alliances. The debate should serve to remind us that even at the height of colonial brutality Aboriginal people actively pursued modes of coexistence, which enabled them to continue to care for country.


Jane Bennett's (2010) call for (largely non-Indigenous) scholars to take seriously the vitality of nonhuman bodies might be no better evidenced and tested than by Aboriginal cosmology. Creating new political practices requires attentiveness to the multiple associations, alliances, coexistence, and inhabitation. The question I put to myself as a white settler scholar is how to shift one's relations with the rivers without slipping into new ageism or appropriation. Or to put it plainly, how does one practise anticolonialism? Arguably, it is as much a question of writing as it is epistemology. Thinking along with Stephen Muecke (2012), I want to consider how the river is reproducing itself and its cultures and its partners are for reproductive purposes. Respecting different modes of existence requires a curiosity and alertness to multiple attachments and affective associations (especially one's own).

Allow me to double back to Aurukun. If one follows the road that winds from the township of Aurukun to the river junction, there is the local 'beach' or landing. From here, I would like to return to my entanglement in Wild Rivers, to consider the effect of these rivers upon me. They make me think and wonder. But before Wild Rivers, these 'water places' captivated me (Gibbs, 2009). The Aboriginal township of Aurukun is located on the west coast of Cape York at the junction of three rivers: Archer, Watson, and Ward. To the south are the Kirk, Love, and Kendell Rivers, and together this extensive network of rivers forms the Aurukun Wetlands, one of Australia's largest wetlands encompassing over a million hectares, abundant with life, some endangered and endemic (Aurukun Wetland Charters, 2011). As wondrous as this teeming ecology is--the vastness and the diversity of the wetlands are exhilarating, individual species disarm and charm, and magenta water lilies arouse a smile and hope--my attachment is simpler. Every time I went to Aurukun for research, foremost I wanted to be in the river's company, (8) to go down to the landing or the beach, as locals say. Usually I just wanted to stand there, to answer the Archer's call with proximity and stillness. But it was rarely possible to greet the river first: sometimes it was too late in the day, too hot, I had people to meet with, or, more importantly, it was much more appropriate to let people know I was in town first, by calling into the council and a government agency or sitting outside the shop drinking a Bundaberg ginger beer and chatting to whomever was around. Although over the years I have learned the cultural importance of making one's presence known to country--calling out (shyly, if not inaudibly, I admit) or rubbing a stone in my perspiration and throwing it into the water--I do not know if this is what leads me down to the water's edge. Maybe it is to romance the river, or be romanced by the river, whereby I am forgetful of my networks and entanglements. It could be nothing more than contemplative detachment (McLean, 2009). But it is clear that the river moves me: puts me in motion. Invoking Ingold (2007), I understand that the river is not just endowed with an agency of its own, as humans supposedly are, but rather, in my interaction with the river, I am affected. In this sense the river has agency: I "answer to the movement of another [river]" (page 31).

The Wild Rivers policy stirs and provokes me. The river and policy are my collaborators. It is true, as Wright et al (2012) so beautifully speculate, that the rivers are purposeful contributors to my work, inspiring and coproducing my research directions and experiences. But thankfully these water places did not charge me with determination but rather led me to reflect, explore, wonder, drift, care, worry, and sometimes experience stillness. Standing at the river's edge, I contemplate Ingold's (2000) idea that I am, like every organism, immersed in the world, and the impossibility of being able to remove myself, to "watch from the sidelines" (page 42). It is through a common immersion in the flux of a continually (re) forming world that interplay is possible: immersion is an "active, practical and perceptual engagement with constituents of the dwelt-in world" (page 42). If we know and understand the world by absorption and participation in its materiality, I would argue that perception is a mode of inhabitation (McLean, 2009).

If in my contemplation of the river I turn my back on the multiplicity, relationality, and regeneration of the world, then attending to the busyness around me easily interrupts my romance (see Ingold, 2007). At the 'beach' there is a lot of activity. Sitting under the shade of the pandanus lean-tos, set back from the water's edge, one might see: the barge bringing supplies to Aurukun; countrymen and women line fishing off shore; families piling into their motorised dinghy and heading off up river to their favourite fishing spots; empty beat-up old cars and four-wheel drives awaiting the return of their drivers; fish jumping; the exposed muddy mangrove roots at low tide, or at high tide mangroves seemingly in readiness to march in long thick lines across the river; a crocodile sunning itself on a thin strip of sand; busy mud crabs scrambling about; blue salmon, queen fish the size of fishing legends, black ducks, white breasted sea eagles, storm birds, brolgas, magpie geese, or any number of the hundred or so bird species living on these waterways; teachers from Aurukun school with their new outboard motors, or a young couple, perhaps also teachers, having met in their first term at school, parked on the river's edge, as if at the drive-in, growing intimate. A four -wheel drive piled high with cabbage palms and pandanus leaves, which later might be woven into a basket that will so captivate someone with its beauty and elegance that her partner buys it for her to take home, far away. Some evenings, returning from work, it catches her eye and taking it in her hands she forgets her day and, although she does not know it, she is caught up in the life of the Archer River Basin.

Standing on the beach, if you look off shore, the MV Pikkuw--the Aurukun Wetlands charter boat--is anchored at the river junction. If you take a guided tour on the Pikkuw (Wik for crocodile) you will meet traditional custodians, each of whom have a connection to particular tracts of land and river country. They will speak of the significance of places and animals to Wik and Wik Way culture, and tell you their creation stories. Unlike for settler colonials, for Traditional Owners their ontological primacy is country. You might collect bush tucker and medicines, identify trees for spear making, and hunt fish in the river's shallows; all the while curious to see, but anxious not be near, saltwater crocodiles. If it is burning hot, you will want to toss yourself in the river. The guides might take you to a crocodile-free swimming hole, where some visitors will throw themselves into the river with abandon, while others need much more reassurance. You will learn on this tour that the Wik and Wik Way guides have totems such as: barramundi, mud crab, black duck, white breasted sea eagle, fresh water shark, or brolga. The nonhuman world is in the web of kinship relations: the more-than-human is not just enrolled in the social world but is an active participant (Ingold, 2007; Hinchliffe et al, 2005). Indigenous peoples with cosmologies of what is often referred to in Western thinking as animism, as Ingold contends, are "misunderstood as inputting life or spirit to things that are truly inert". He continues:

"For one thing, animism is not a system of beliefs about the world but a way of being in it, characterised by openness rather than closure--that is, by sensitivity and responsiveness to an environment that is always in flux. For another thing, it is not a matter of putting life into things but of restoring those things to the movements that gave rise to them" (2007, page 31).

Aboriginal country is a powerful actor that connects everything to something (Rose, 2007). The dwelt-in world is coproduced, communicative, and purposeful (Wright et al, 2012). In a contested country dominated by, however disguised, settler colonial epistemology and ontology, Aboriginal 'beliefs' are at best tolerated and sensitively negotiated and incorporated and contained within the Australian political-legal system. But they cannot be law. Arguably, however, Traditional Owners are demonstrating ways of addressing and being in a multirealist world. I am left wondering if understanding knowledge systems as ways of being in and communicating with the world might provide an opening to and possibility for ontological pluralism.


To put it bluntly, Pearson's rhetoric and vitriol is disguising the schism occurring in Cape York Aboriginal politics: between regionally focused and local, traditionalist visions of Indigenous futures. Importantly, he is advocating for political power, thus socioeconomic decision making, to be held by prominent Aboriginal organisations. For the traditionalists this is not Aboriginal governance, which requires the active participation of country. In submissions to the Senate enquires, Northern Kaanju Traditional Owners detailed the significant work of the Wenlock River to maintain, connect, and reproduce their life world. Under Kaanju law, Traditional Owners are obliged to care for the river to ensure it can carry out its role and thus ensure the sustainability of their Story places, sacred ceremonial grounds, and creator spirits, such as the Rainbow Serpent. Through the Wild Rivers debate, the rivers and Rainbow Serpent have shifted from social to political actors. In so doing, the traditionalists are creating new political practices.

By tracing the Wild Rivers debate and keeping the life of the rivers as the matter of concern, I hope to draw scholars' attention to several issues. Posthumanists have long argued that the subject/object division serves Western power, or in this case settler colonialism. But there are further challenges. The call to take seriously the more-than-human world needs to address a sentient multidimensional country, which has agency, law, and spirit. More so, scholars need to be guided by those who have always inhabited and taken seriously the agency and vitality of country. Secondly, as Holmes (2011) argues, the reconfiguration of Cape York Aboriginal politics has meant that government and agencies have had to respond and realign themselves to the ascendant contenders: traditionalists and environmentalists. There is a much more radical politics at play here. The traditionalists' tactic of explicitly discussing and drawing their cosmology into the public domain potentially reconfigures the notion of social justice. Traditional Owners, in this case Northern Kaanju, publically assert that the erosion and degradation of the Wenlock Basin is a threat to their Story places, which in turn severely compromises the capacity of the Story to carry out its cosmological role and thus the human and nonhuman are in peril. Traditional Owners need to undertake particular practices to sustain and reproduce a healthy, vital world. If the state, and Australia more broadly, want to close the gap on Indigenous health and social inequalities, then this requires, as the traditionalists are asserting, taking seriously the work that the river Story, Rainbow Serpent, or country do to sustain and reproduce life. However, I want to make it clear that I am not arguing that only Aboriginal cosmology should be taken seriously: places matter to all those who inhabit them. Rather, anticolonial justice requires the recognition and practice of inhabiting a multirealist world. I asked earlier, does social justice require an alliance with the Rainbow Serpent? Yes, I think it does.



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Lisa Slater

School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication, Faculty of Arts, 2015/Building 19, Arts Building, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia; e-mail: lslater@uow.edu.au

Received 21 February 2012; in revised form 18 January 2013

(1) In March 2012 the Queensland Labor Party lost government to the Liberal National Party (LNP), and Campbell Newman became Premier. In his election campaign Newman took a strong and vocal stance against the Wild Rivers policy and vowed to repeal the legislation if he won government. Despite this, at the time of writing, the LNP have not as yet made changes to the policy.

(2) I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for making this point.

(3) The Institute was established as an independent organisation to advocate reform of Indigenous economic and social policies, and to support and develop leadership on the Cape. Its focus is on issues troubling Cape York, but it very successfully aims to have a national influence (Cape York Institute, 2011).

(4) Tania Major is a Kokoberra woman from Cape York, and was the Youth Development Project Officer for the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. She is a prominent public figure, and she has been a vocal opponent of the Wild Rivers policy.

(5) See Claudie (2011), where he writes: "Importantly, the Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju worldview, particularly governance and cosmology, underlie all aspects of Northern Kaanju relationships with Ngaachi [homeland] including land tenure and ownership, land management practices and regimes, and our rights and obligations in regard to the management of Ngaachi. To Kuuku I'yu Northern Kaanju people living on homelands 'governance' refers to the system of territoriality found in the region's Aboriginal law. Our use of governance refers to the division of country into different 'named Ngaachi' (or estates), each with their associated bloodline or family. Thus bloodline ties people to particular country, language and resources, and to the species whose 'Stories' lie in their Ngaachi. A number of these named Ngaachi include Chuulangun, Malandaji, Pa'un, Muula, Puul'u, Kathu Pathu, Nhanthanji and Iipajiko. Each estate and its associated bloodline(s) is associated with a particular Story, for example, Malandaji is the Story for 'Lightning and thunder, coming of wet season' and Chuulangun for the frilled-neck lizard. Pianamu (Rainbow) is the overarching Creator Being along with Iwa'I (Crocodile)."

(6) Timothy Neale (2011) makes a strong argument that the Queensland government, under the premierships of both Beattie and Bligh, has deployed the term 'wild' pragmatically (and ambivalently) to position Cape York as an ecotourist destination.

(7) I thank Chloe Patton for this observation.

(8) From June 2007 to December 2009, I was the primary researcher on a project examining the impact of Indigenous festivals and well-being, which took me several times a year to Aurukun. See Phipps and Slater (2010).

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