The Problem's in the Thinking

CW: Discussions of Indigenous Australians' Dispossession and Colonialism

This article will use the acronym of ILM for simplicity’s sake, despite the generalisation and homogenisation that the term represents.

A solution often posed to the challenges of climate change, environmental damage, and habitat loss unleashed by colonialism, is to find ways to integrate Indigenous land management (ILM) into the Western ecological management systems currently used in Australia. In support of this promising solution, ten years ago the Australian Landcare Council commissioned a review of the extent, scope and diversity of ILM practices across Australia, seeking to assess success factors and barriers to its use.

Although this review represented a positive step toward changing how we care for land in Australia, very little has changed on the ground. Australia’s natural landscape continues to suffer from extractive and damaging practices. The review identified that one barrier to integrating ILM into current practices was that “power imbalances lead to western systems playing the dominant role in education and land management practices” and suggests this represents a threat to traditional knowledge and languages and ILM.

While the identification of this barrier gets close to the issue, the reasons Australia’s attempts at ILM integration continually fail are more complex. The underlying barrier is the uneven dynamic of power between Western and Indigenous epistemology and ontology. Epistemology and ontology sound like scary words, but epistemology is really just theories of knowledge, and ontology is the philosophical study of existence, being, and reality. By thinking about ILM and western environmental management through the lenses of epistemology and ontology, we can begin to see where tensions emerge in integration.

Academics have argued natural resource management in Australia relies on ‘whitefella’ separation of cultural, ecological, and social knowledge. Specifically, Western ecological knowledge treats elements of the environment separately, and compartmentalises their management, focusing on quantitative measures, like equilibrium, and notions of ‘maximum sustainable yield’. Moreover, the environment is treated as a commodified resource that must be managed, not a living entity in relationship with people.

We can trace the epistemological foundations of western resource management back to the Age of Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the replacement of religion with science as the primary source of knowledge and normative judgement. From this shift, a tendency emerged in Western philosophy towards positivism. Positivism is a philosophical system that focuses on what can be scientifically verified, or logically proven, and rejects metaphysics and theism.

The dominant scientific paradigm of today finds its roots in this tradition. In this world view, the binaries between mind and body, nature and culture are reified, and many aspects of human life are reduced to biological imperatives. Western philosophy, with its emphasis on reason and science, rejects the metaphysical, and instead seeks to understand reality in ‘objective’ terms. This ‘enlightened’ preference for secular thinking has led to a treatment of any ‘non-objective’ religious or spiritual traditions as beyond the realm of the objective sciences.

In this system, knowledge exists separately from and outside social and historical definitions and processes, and moreover, this separation is the basis for its authority. Western philosophy, in its quest for ‘objective’ knowledge, has sought to exclude any cultural, ontological, or epistemological elements, essentially erasing any link between culture and place, which is the foundation of Indigenous knowledge.

Indigenous knowledge processes are deeply bound to local place, as knowledge is formed through the unique characteristics of ecologies, in which “country tells you what is going on, it calls for action and invites engagement”. In this model, the health of the land is linked to the health of the people. Relationships to land form the basis for all interactions, and a symbiotic relationship exists in which the knowledge that sustains ecological practices, the social roles between people and the living environment, and the environment itself, all produce each other. This system of knowledge stands in stark contrast to the Western tradition, in which culture and nature, human and non-human are distinctly separate categories.

Due to the philosophical origin of Western ecological theory, a tendency has emerged to understand and use Indigenous knowledge in a very specific way. Specifically, it is generally only engaged with or sought out or regarding knowledge that is already considered to be relevant to Western notions of environment, and already within the purview of ‘science’ and ‘reason’. An example of this is the seeking out of Indigenous knowledge around back burning for fire control, in order to improve the current practices and systems. Another tendency that emerges is to view ILM as a timeless, static repository of knowledge to be mined. This perspective emerged during the environmental movements of the 1960s, in which indigenous people began to be understood and portrayed ‘noble environmentalists’ living in harmony with the land.

The consequence of these tensions is that the process of integrating ILM becomes a process in which Indigenous knowledge is seen as ‘content’ to be extracted and used for management purposes, rather than a process itself, a set of practices and symbiotic interaction and relationships between people, other living beings and things. Western ecological management often seeks to extract ILM from its local context which produces it, taking only what is perceived to be of value – that with demonstrable tangible outcomes. This extraction of ILM is completely contradictory to Indigenous culture, in which knowledge is produced in relationship to local places, and through the relationships between the people living on the land.

This tendency for ‘cherry picking’ has been widely discussed in environmental theory as a major obstacle in integrating these systems of knowledge. However, it is not enough to simply recognize that ILM is not static but adaptive, constantly being renewed in local engagement with people and country, and not able to be extracted as a tool for ecological management.

Instead, we must also recognize the epistemic incompatibility between the two systems of thought, because the underlying objectivity of the Western system is derived from its separation between science and culture, people and things, from its rejection of the spiritual and metaphysical.

Indeed, it seems an unlikely possibility that the dominant Western system would be able to understand and view indigenous knowledge as valid for what it is; a place based, ethic of living, that incorporates non-human living things. To recognize this and to recognize the value ILM has, would be to undermine Western philosophy’s authority as ‘objective’.

Frameworks for integration have suggested a re-conceptualisation of the relationship between these two systems. Suggestions include holding meetings about environmental care on country, set through Indigenous frameworks of negotiation, based on Indigenous customs. Other suggestions include the pedagogical tool ‘perspective taking’, where participants are required to engage in the identity and narratives of others, and situate them according to themselves, and examine any connectedness between the two has been posed. These solutions, however, unfortunately, fall short of a suitable framework for integration, as they fail to account for the uneven dynamics of power between the Western and Indigenous systems of knowledge. They reflect a superficial engagement with the ontological divide, and suggest an even playing field in which each perspective is given the same epistemic authority.

Other solutions posed, emphasise that engagement with indigenous knowledge must be ‘equitable’, and incorporate “genuine exchange”, “two-way learning” and “moral reciprocity”’. However, moral reciprocity is an intersubjective exchange, in which each party recognizes the worth of the other. For that reason, I am hesitant to accept that a framework of integration between these two systems of knowledge could involve moral reciprocity, when the epistemic authority of one system relies on the abject rejection of fundamental elements of another.

Indigenous scholars have echoed similar concerns, arguing that when Indigenous knowledge becomes a commodity, it can be appropriated and used by the dominant structures of power to support the existing status quo, and can be appropriated, marginalized, and even used against Indigenous communities.

In this way, we can see we should be sceptical of any attempts to integrate ILM into Western ecological management systems, as it could be seen as is akin to neo-colonial assimilation, in which the context and true meaning of the knowledge is erased, thus perpetuating the constant, gradual dispossession of Indigenous dispossession on country.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.