Andrew McIlwraith on Terraforming and Indigenous Rights

By Andrew McIlwraith

As post-industrial nations around the world position themselves as leaders in the climate crisis through pushing ‘sustainable development’, Andrew McIlwraith considers whether historically colonial powers are best placed to ‘solve’ the problem they started in the first place.

Andrew argues for the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People as a necessary step for the long term rehabilitation of people and Country from colonial interference.

Saltwater identity

For me, some of the greatest connections I have to my culture is my relationship with the coast. I come from two ancestral lines of Saltwater peoples – from my mother, the Bundjalung and Worimi First Nations peoples of the east coast of Australia, and on my father’s side the Norse-Gael Hebrides of the Western Isles of Scotland.

Both lines have a deep respect, care and understanding of the sea around them, for the sea gave them food, protection, opportunities from trade and transportation. It is a connection so deep that many important meetings, gatherings and celebrations were held near the ocean.

This has continued for us as Saltwater peoples to this day. Many significant moments of my life living on Darkinjung and Awabakal Country are by the beach, where there is always a sense of celebration and togetherness. We also return to our own ancestral waters for events like family gatherings on my Grandmother’s side at Nelson Bay. Along the stretch of beach our Aunties and Uncles relax after a long trip, as us younger Cousins help set up all the food and drinks. Some of us yarn away as others watch over the kids, running around across the sand and splashing in the water.

For me the sea, my Country, is a constant presence. It has been a part of my life that I love. For me the great blue has been here, and it has seen me, my ancestors and will see my children. It is the place where I call home, for it is where my people have come from and explored.

Our Bundjalung ancestors journeyed to Australia in a great canoe. They saw the rising and falling of the oceans and recorded this in oral history, like many Saltwater peoples. Their practices adapted to natural change and worked with the land and water to create sustainable ecosystems, which flourished for thousands of years. Independent of their action, global warming has caused the degradation of those systems, leading to flooding on an unprecedented scale in the Northern Rivers, fire storms which have stretched across the continent and the global warming of oceans that have been characterised as the hottest ever. If it was not our practices that led to this change, then we need to consider how this occurred.

Terraforming and colonisation

Have you ever watched a science fiction movie where astronauts discover new planets and try to replicate Earth’s ecosystem?

This process, called terraforming, is often seen as the inevitable consequence of humanity destroying our Earth. If you think that sounds unbelievable, think about the practices of colonisation where the introduction of non-native animals and plants was seen as an opportunity to make the “new” land “home”.

Here’s the thing though. These lands were already home to sustainable systems which had lasted for thousands of years. These lands, here in Australia, were already home to us.

It isn’t only the natural world that colonisation changed. By denying the rights of Indigenous people, attempts at the deliberate replacement of Indigenous cultures and ways of relating to the land and water (Country) has also occurred. This “replacement” involved processes of violence and the systemic demonisation of Indigenous beliefs and interactions with Country.

The consequences of what has wrongly been termed acts of “civilisation” and “advancement” is the current state of environmental degradation the planet is faced with today. It is truly ironic that Western settler-colonial countries and historically colonial powers, who created the problem, now believe they are the ones best placed to solve the climate crisis by leading on “sustainable development”. Instead, we should be revitalising those Indigenous practices which centre Country itself as having rights, and the human rights of First Nations as embodying our responsibility as the custodians for the health of Country. Structurally, this means Australia must uphold the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People which recognises,

the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.

Understanding sustainability through Dreaming

Looking at sustainability as an Aboriginal person, a key concept which encompasses all these areas is the Dreaming which is the foundation of Aboriginal cultures past, present and future. Our Dreaming shows us how to interact with each other and to value all parts of the ecosystem as the holders of story and the means by which we are sustained.

Aunty Frances Bodkin provides an example recounting the Dreaming of the D’harawal people, and how the Gymea Lily comes from the story of Kai’Mia. Kai’Mia was a warrior who tried to help his people who were trapped in a cave even though he was injured himself. Where his blood splashed on the ground, red flowers grew, becoming a tree that gave food, water and fibre for making rope. Even today, the plant holds the knowledge of Country and is a call to action because when the Gymea Lily begins to bloom D’harawal people know it’s time to go to the coast to view the whales.

While this story shows how the D’harawal valued the self-sacrifice of Kai’Mia, it also informs future generations of the practical uses of the plant. The stems and roots can be soaked, roasted and made into cakes to be cooked in the fire. The flower is filled with sweet nectar to drink but it also attracts birds which can be caught to eat. The leaves can wrap food for cooking. The fibres of the leaves can make brushes or be woven into baskets, rope, mats and fish traps. The pulp of the lily can treat stings including blue bottle stings.

The Gymea Lily has so much more versatility than introduced European plants, which are generally not suited to the soils and available water in Australia. Every part of the plant channels moisture towards the centre of the plant and the roots grow at least 30 centimetres deep, making them very resistant to drought. This plant comes from the Country itself, our lands and waters across this continent are not “alien” or “wilderness” – they are already what they should be.

Sovereignty is the answer

We have important questions to ask ourselves as the climate crisis worsens:

  • Why are multinational companies allowed to practice ecological violence by introducing crops to First Nations land and water systems, which are so critically damaged by its rapacious needs?
  • Why do the ancestral rivers of our inland kin run dry, and the totems of our cousins to the West perish?
  • What impact will warming seas have on the Aboriginal totems and non-human kin who inhabit them?

To begin to answer these questions we all need to state what lessons Country gives us, and how it shapes our social world too. We must start by valuing our own connections to land and water, the lessons they give to guide our sustainability efforts.

This is the first crucial step of understanding and respecting the rights of sovereign Aboriginal people, especially our rights to self-determination over our Country. This is bigger than just an Australian issue, these rights are inherent to our status as Indigenous people under international human rights instruments. Through this human rights lens, tackling climate change must centre the empowerment of Indigenous peoples globally.

It was not our practices as Indigenous peoples that led to this change but it may be our practices that will save us from it.