Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal, Custodian of the land Minjerribah, Peace Prosperity and Healing, Sacred Treaty Circles

Terrra Nullius and Ecology

Posted in Aboriginal, Australia, history, indigenous, invasion, Terra Nullius by John T. on February 10, 2009

by John Tracey

“Yet the form of bush that is protected in the national parks of today, places without the human species, are a phenomenon of the last hundred years, younger than many Australian urban centres. The removal of human beings from the bush in the last two hundred years has turned our wilderness areas into overgrown untended gardens.”

The Green movement has built a concept of wilderness, without consultation with Aboriginal people, we have generalised that concept, politicised it and it is now a significant issue on the Australian political landscape. Yet the way we have described the natural environment bears no resemblance to its ancient reality.Modern Australia began with the legal principle of Terra Nullius, meaning a land with no law or government, no sovereign population. The British declared this continent to be Terra Nullius after Captain Cook “discovered” it, which allowed the British Crown to claim possession of the land in accordance with international law. Terra Nullius of course is a lie and was found to be such by the Australian High Court when Eddie Mabo proved that his family had owned their block of land since before Captain Cook.. Anthropologists and Aboriginal people assert that there was, prior to Cook and up until today, a complex and sophisticated system of law, government, economy and language, all the defining points of a sovereign nation.

Despite the high courts findings, Terra Nullius remains as the legal foundation for the sovereignty of the crown in Australia which in turn is the foundation authority for the parliament, courts, police, military and every other migrant legal institution.

Modern Australian conservationism dovetails with the legal fiction of Terra Nullius. Both deny the reality that this country was and still is occupied by a large complex Aboriginal society.

The conservation values of the Australian Bush are usually articulated in terms of species of plants and animals, geological considerations and often last and least, cultural heritage; usually a description of the history of the European colony and, occasionally, a reference to native title holders or Aboriginal place names (with little understanding of the meaning of either).

The principles of ecology and biodiversity have made us aware of the devastating consequences to an eco system if a particular species of plant or animal is removed. For example if a particular bird becomes extinct, the seeds it used to carry do not propagate and the insects it used to eat swell in numbers. Insect plague and reduced propagation in turn affects an infinite number of other organisms, radically degrading the systems of the ecosystem. The balance of bio-diversity has become an accepted principle in green ideology, yet how much have we considered the devastating consequences of removing the human species from wilderness eco-systems? For thousands of years humans interacted with the bush which provided them with all of the resources of daily life.. Human society and the natural eco systems evolved as one. Today we protect places in national parks and nature reserves and pretend that we are preserving their ancient integrity. Yet the form of bush that is protected in the national parks of today, places without the human species, are a phenomenon of the last hundred years, younger than many Australian urban centres. The removal of human beings from the bush in the last two hundred years has turned our wilderness areas into overgrown untended gardens.

Bushfire management is one example that highlights our misunderstandings of the bush. Conservationists have often argued that preventative burning strategies threaten eco systems; and they are right. Many farmers and fire authorities say the only way to avoid super-fires is to burn forest litter, and they are right also. In the old days the landscape was scattered with sacred campfires burning twenty-four hours a day providing a wide range of functional and spiritual purposes. These fires, along with hunting and cleansing fires, were fuelled solely by forest litter, gently and gradually cleaning the bush in a way that does not disrupt the sacred ecosystems that sustained the fire makers.

It has been a long time between sacred fires in many of our protected areas and as such they have degenerated into dormant infernos awaiting ignition.

Environmentalism tends to subscribe to the notion that the natural habitat of the human species is towns and cities, this is our territory and we should stay out of the territories of the other species. Centuries old notions of the evolution of humanity identify a progression from living in the bush in a savage and unsophisticated consciousness, through the epoch of barbarism into civilised society. This Darwinian notion conforms to the idea that the habitat of the modern human is urbanity. The inherent contradiction of this is it is the city structure that is doing most damage to the habitats of all species, including human. As a product of feudalism, industrialisation and capitalism, cities have grown as ever extending cancers, totally destroying the ecosystems of Europe and almost completing that process in Australia. By the simple evolutionary imperative of survival of the species, industrial civilisation represents a failure, it is our greatest threat as a species. the development of urban civilisation has been a process of ignorantly shitting in our own nests for millennia. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of years or more of sustainable human society in the bush, urban society is a dysfunctional devolution and disintegration.

If we are serious about preserving the Australian environment and indeed the human species we must take direction from Aboriginal people, their traditions of are the only record of the true history and nature of the bush, including how humans manage it. Aboriginal culture itself is a working example of a social ecology, including law and the individual and collective consciousness’ that have been created by the interrelationship between human society and the wilderness.

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9 Responses

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  1. Rebekah Copas said, on February 23, 2009 at 8:04 am

    On the whole you are making a set of important points, but how can you work your points in with all those “greenies” and “environmentalists”, whom may well have predominantly grown up in cities and towns, and without hardly any real culture, but who truthfully want to become able to work together with Indigenous Australia to protect and save the existing native species?

    Many of them would be willing to sign the Treaty document, if only that option is made more commonly available, in the sort of settings where ordinary white folk who care about the issues at stake, tend to hang out. Why not ask at the Northey St City Farm if the Sacred Treaty Circles can have a stall there every week? A stall which provides information about Indigenous landcare values and makes the Treaty available to be signed by the many people who frequent that local place? I wonder about that, and wonder whether part of the reason it is not happening yet, is because of the nature of their site; which is the place that floods before any other in Brisbane. Somewhere which may not have held special or unusual signficance as a site prior to white men’s arrival in the region, but it is the land which the Brisbane City Council could give to the environmentalists who want to prove that nobody needs to rely upon detrimental agriculture, and there efforts there today make it an oddly significant place. They are a mob of mainly blokes who really do want to have the blessing of the indigenous community, but whom have little insight into culture, and so cannot comprehend normal cultural protocols which the Indigenous community is accustomed to these days in almost all dealings with government, and even at time with the police.

    What I like about the Northey Street crew, is that they will get down and get their hands dirty, so long as the business is linked to their work of proving that human beings never needed to live so heavily on the land as most have been. Lots of us are good at swimming in the ideas around why landcare patterns need Indigenous culture, but who is actually getting in there for the Sacred Treaty Circle, and doing the work of making it happen in reality.

    Your last sentence says it like this: “Aboriginal culture itself is a working example of a social ecology, including law and the individual and collective consciousness’ that have been created by the interrelationship between human society and the wilderness.” Which makes a lot of sense for anybody who can read the syntax well. In the first paragraph, the last sentence reads like this: “The removal of human beings from the bush in the last two hundred years has turned our wilderness into overgrown untended gardens.” Your words ring true to me, but I read it knowing that the tone and language is alienating for many of those white fellows who do voluntary Landcare work in all sorts of parts of Brisbane. So I wonder what might happen if we think of how Europeans use the words “wilderness” and “garden”, when folk are being for real. The wilderness is often thought of as where flora and fauna is not being well enough tended to by human beings, or not being tended to within God’s will, and gardens are where men have chosen what plants might outlive others. Surely then, in that definition, the cities are the real wilderness, and Indigenous Landcare management prior to 1788 was a real form of gardening. I do not mean to try to prove that your ideas had any fault, but only to present the same ideas within the frame of reference in English usage, which makes the same ideas more accessible to most English speakers, especially those who are willing to work for hours at gardening just for a meal, which goes on every week at the Northey St City Farm.

    Treaty Business has to also be practical business, hands on business, and business that is attuned to the needs of people in every age group. Language is a hard ball to play, and as an English speaking person, I have to say that it is because of my own belief in Aboriginal culture, that I feel strongly that the city is a far wilder place than the bush. A roo is a wild animal, maybe, at times it can be, but as a human being, when I know how to call it to attention, and can more effectively than I call most people to pay attention, then I know that the city is the wild and untamed landscape. Perhaps we only need be careful about not buying into the romanticism of those first English writers who attempted to define Indigenous humanity more positively than others were at the time. To those authors, wild Australia was to be admired, but what they did not recognise, what that their admiration was actually for the way Aboriginal culture has long had the the capacity to tame itself. What I see among modern Environmentalists/Greenies, is a bunch of folk who recognise that the cities are the problem, even through it is often the cities where they come from, and within that recognition, they want to prove that perhaps they themselves might be able to be tamed rather than also be a part of that same problem. True, they simply need Aboriginal way to achieve their goal.

  2. John T. said, on February 23, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Hello Rebekah,

    I believe that the problem with the reconcilation movement was that the needs and demands of Aboriginal Australia were redefined in terms of the language and consciusness of non-Aboriginal Australia. Non-Aboriginal Australia did not change their consciousness towards Aboriginal reality from this process, they simply fitted the new packaging of Aboriginal issues into their status-quo assumptions about the world, and nothing changed, in fact things got much worse.

    The purpose of the treaty process, as I understand it, is not an outreach to non-Aboriginal people offering them confirmation of their status in this country so that they can feel better about themselves and their non-Aboriginal world view be expanded.

    The purpose is rather to find some means of resourcing and facilitating customary law and Aboriginal perspective to be what it is supposed to be in this country. For non-Aboriginal people to support this process they need a conscious understanding of customary law, not so that they can decide if they approve of it or not, but so that they can become active participants in it in one way or another.

    The process of understanding Aboriginal law is not the intellectual/ideological/philosophical knowledge that characterises the environment and social justice movements. You can’t just read about it. The process of learning requires a basic spiritual transformation, a transcendence from cultural assumption, in order to be able to even see and hear Aboriginality for the first time. This is the importance of the cultural heritage education program and the initiation circle (one of the five circles) in the treaty process.

    The environment movement is as deeply racist as the rest of the country and equally need to confront their own sacred cows in order to connect to this country. If they simply co-opt Aboriginal symbols or words into their disconnected illlusory framework then nothing changes.

  3. Rebekah Copas said, on February 28, 2009 at 10:27 am

    A couple of points here John:

    First is that the environment movement is not a “disconnected illusory framework”, and when it becomes defined like that, we are selling out the Treaty process.

    Second, you mention the phrase “Aboriginal symbols”, so within your word usage there, can I direct you back to the post I made after your most recent one, in the thread about Father Peter Kennedy saying that signing treaty is a symbolic gesture. We can’t get away with saying that Aboriginal symbols are something real if we do not also accept Father Peter’s gesture of signing Treaty as equitably real.

    I agree with you that understanding Aboriginal Law is not about intellectual/ideologial/philosophical knowledge. I also agree that the environment and social justice movements are characterised by scientific modes of contemplation, which are very intellectual. True understanding of Aboriginal Law is always experiential rather than by book learning, there is no question in my mind about that. However, when you begin to use words like “spiritual transformation”, and “transcendence from cultural assumption”, you too are intellectualising the experience.

    Important to the definition of culture, in fact, is that certain aspects of our belief are never transcended, otherwise we’d be able to transcend culture, which would make the concept of culture unviable. Culture is by definition, the way in which we engage with one another and with the world, in patterns which defy being transcended. That is, if you accept real culture, (eg every indigenous culture), rather than trying to apply the word culture to the mainstream Euro-centric world. You may find that it is a world which is defined by everybody who loves that world, having been attempting to defy, and transcend, their own cultural origins. That old world which Satan defines, is really not able to be also defined as culture.

    As for the whole debate about words, and who defined what word usage patterns, I agree that the Reconciliation process is still today far too much bogged down by interruptions to the processes of working towards mutually agreeable definition. I once sat briefly among some Rosicrucians, who were attempting to define that the Reconciliation idea is a permanent failure, only because Aboriginal Australia would not buy their projections of what words might be construed to mean. It is their loss, and our Reconciliation will still be real.

    I don’t particularly either believe that Aboriginal Australians need to do “outreach” with non-Aboriginal Australians, but I have met a few white fellows who were exhausted by how many times they had tried to engage with Aboriginal Australia, and had just become the brunt of the worst hatred of white folk. I believe that us white folk, all of us, need to cop that hatred, whenever it had been caused by the abuse of black folk by whites; but I happen to be very resilient to being hated, and can accept being hated without bearing any grudges, which is probably why I am one of the whites who is signed into Treaty. Not because anybody else connected with Treaty might hate me, but because being connected with Treaty attracts hate from a wide variety of sources.

    It is a difficult skill to accomodate, being hated without hating anybody back, but those of us who are good at it, have to be at the forefront of any decent social change for the better. The environment movement have often enough been inclusive of real racists, that is true, but to the best of my witness, they are doing a decent job of confronting their sacred cows in the main, and most environmentalists have been very careful not to co-opt Aboriginal culture.

  4. Rebekah Copas said, on March 1, 2009 at 1:35 am

    A funny example of an environmentalist having a “disconnected illusory framework” happened to my witness yesterday evening.

    My immediate next door neighbour, inadvertently revealed to me, that she was simultaneously trying to promote the belief that I am at fault towards her for having poisoned my front lawn, (since now the soil is not acceptable for the formal definition of having an organic garden in it until after about five years), and that I am also at fault towards her for having put the welfare of plants before the welfare of children, absurdly.

    Clearly we all have to agree, that if environmentalists, or Land Rights activists, or anybody, pursue their goals by using the faults of others to excuse their own behaviour, that they might inadvertently become causal to to those faults in others, and so their methodology is working against their own cause. If my neighbour was to have pursued evoking worth in her own individual reputation for attaining good environmental outcomes, at the expense of me and my reputation, she could be proven to be having an overall detrimental effect on the environment. However, the correct way to analyse the story, and every similar story, is for her to notice that in my every endeavour in my garden, or about sustaining the natural environment, I could be doing better and so must work to improve my efforts, and then also, in respect of how I engage with children, my every effort might be able to be improved upon.

    The point of noticing fault, is not to blame it, but to prevent the fault by noticing reason to improve.

    Environmentalists, like any of us, simply need bear that in mind.

    There are stories in most cultures which teach the same thing. Like one about a man who has to get a boulder to the top of a hill, but as soon as he takes his hands away from the boulder, it rolls down.

  5. scott said, on March 3, 2009 at 7:04 am

    you make some very interested and valid points John but I question the idea that ‘Environmentalism tends to subscribe to the notion that the natural habitat of the human species is towns and cities, this is our territory and we should stay out of the territories of the other species.’

    the environmentalism that i’m familiar with does not subsribe to the city as natural but rather to the city as a means of living that we have constructed.

    i may just have a narrow view of environmentalism perhaps you could shed light on the tendencies you’ve noticed.

  6. John T. said, on March 3, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Hello Scott,

    That comment is not so much about the nature of the city, except that it is a place different from the bush environment. The bush is a place to be protected from human impact, which is the basis of most green land management policies. We live somewhere else, in a different habitat, natural or otherwise.

    A core green principle is to tread lightly on the earth, to leave a small footprint. I say this idea is rubbish. Never in the history of humanity, or in the history of any other species of plant or animal, has there been a low impact existence. Ecology and evolution are the interplay, the relationships between the high impact organisms.

    With this in mind, perhaps we can see that the Australian bush has evolved by way of huge impact from the human species (as well as all the others). Fire, seed propogation, composting, waterway maintenence – and yes tilling the land, an important thing that women do with their digging sticks while collecting lizards, grubs and root vegetables.

    The bush and humans evolved as one ecology, to that extent it can also be said that the bush is also ” a means of living that we (humans) have constructed.” but it is a very different one to a city or town.

    As an example, this clash of perspectives – to protect the bush or live in it – has arisen in the debate in Queensland about the wild rivers legislation where the Wilderness society has been in conflict with Cape York traditional owners as to what the bush actually is, is it a pristine wilderness with no human impact or is it the traditional land of Aboriginal people who want to use it for their own economic and residential developments.

    Rift widens between Cape York traditional owners and green movement
    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2007/s2017181.htm

    Tension mounts over Cape York heritage listing
    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2008/s2386857.htm

  7. scott said, on March 10, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    hey john,

    when you explain it like that it makes perfect sense. and I couldn’t agree more. the city constructs a lost ideal of wilderness to make up for the site of concrete around it. it’s a whitefella idea that is so disrespectful to the history and culture of the land that it’s lamentable that it exists. how can you know for sure that no one has been here in the last 60 000+ years?

    In regards to the Wilderness Society and its conflict with cape York you can add the Queensland Governments and its attempts to shut down and reduce the size of mona mona community, turning 1500 hectares of the 1600 hectare lease into a Park.

    As if people are separate to the land, as if the two have never existed in cohabitiation.

  8. johan hendrick said, on May 6, 2009 at 10:01 am

    We are a part of the land..[just like our arm is a part of our body]

    terra nullious is revealed as the absurdity it allways was ,

    in support of previous postings i offer gen 1;28…and god blessed them..and god said unto them , be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth ,and subdue it…[not vacate it, not murder or poisen it…but to subdue it to sustain the life god alone gives to live

    gen 1 ; 29… and god said behold , i have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree,…;to you it shall be meat

    in exodus we see a burning bush that sets the people free..[and brings the law’s[commandment]s
    in issiah we hear of smoking flax he refuses to quench
    lest we forget the lord looked through pillar of fire

    anyhow it is not an easy thing to resolve ,for fire can be descriptive of the strongest of passions, thus often used to symbolise god..[the wrath of god is compared to a fire ps,18;8]
    we need urgently to make the peace with our creator and his creation, the treaty circles seem a logical way to fullfill the commands ..[that we love god by loving neighbour]..perhaps we need a fire healing circle.. but first we need heal ourselves

    [pain is no friend] ..i guess we all figure that out in the end

  9. brendan said, on September 9, 2010 at 9:08 am

    @John T: I understand alot of what you are saying, and I believe your stance against the ‘pristine’ nature ideology of environmentalism is correct. I believe you are correct in the assertion that industrial capitalism in now the greatest threat to our survival as a species. I wholeheartedly endorse your call to do away with the idea that their has been any form of simple, obvious, linear progress “from living in the bush in a savage and unsophisticated consciousness, through the epoch of barbarism into civilised society”. That so called civilsed society still has this simplistic and overly-abstract view ingrained in it, and the utter callousness with which this notion of progress has been deployed to justify genocides, is proof that, as Walter Benjamin said, behind every artefact of ‘civilisation’ lies equal barbarity.
    Nonetheless, I feel it is imperative to object to what is necessarily implied by the idea of a sudden and dramatic return to the more elemental and integrated economies which you place prior to feudalism. That is to say, the potentially genocidal indifference to the fact that a massive population all around the globe (all of whom you imperiously dismiss as not having real cultures) depend on the surpluses produced by industrial technologies to live. True, they generally in degraded conditions, but that is not the direct result of the technologies, but of who controls them and the surpluses they produce. The idea of return implies the eradication of all those who have come to be because of what has come since. This, along with the fact that you could said to be touting an unproblematic idealisation of these original economies which does them as much as a disservice as the ideal of ‘pristine wilderness’ does the ecosystem, is my objection. However, it does not end the engagement the thoughts you have presented here, which are profound, requires.

    What is fundamental here is the idea of reintegrating the ‘artificially’ separated worlds of, precisely, the ‘artificial’ and the ‘natural’. As in the communist manifesto: “gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.” Only, the presumption that this would have to come about through increased industrialisation would have to be dropped and replaced by the necessity of a complete reinvention of the meaning of industry based on a full accounting for the complexity of its role in the ecology. This complex role, while it has given arise in this current form, to the delusion that human and nature and separate, is not one that has not itsel ‘co-evolved’ however: the break in the early agricultures in Europe, the Middle East and Asia which lead increasingly to the development of the technologically mediated world, was not a conscious decision, but one forced on populations by ecological events. The adaptation was made in the face of the threat of starvation otherwise as sudden climactic changes made old forms of life and economy impossible. It was not pleasant, and it was not a pre-programmed advance. But it was not simply cultural. It was not predicated on a ‘false idea’ of nature. It produced that false idea. Similiarly, the industrial world was also not one option of many consciously chosen by a whole population – it evolved from pressures inherent in the structure of the society – and the ecology (taking on a more and more global dimension). It should also be noted that already, much ‘wildlife’ are in fact urban creatures, urban ecologies are real and precarious and precious… and on a larger scale, the industrial transformation has been so massive that the ecosystems that exist today, have adapted to such a different set of conditions, that to suddenly and radically remove that industrial super-structure would be to cause them to collapse.

    So, what needs to happen is to radically alter this structure, to change its blindness – which certainly means involving in a fundamental way those indigenous peoples who, globally, can attest to – while recognising the fact that to decry it utterly, to destroy it utterly, could easily result in massive starvation. We need some instrumental rationality to plan production and distribution justly and with ecologically sound practices, and we need a renewed interaction with nature, a spiritual renewal and paradigm from the sources before the ‘separation’ and colonisation of nature. We need to learn how to create amongst nature without violently disrupting it and there is an unrecognised wealth of Aboriginal sovereign knowledge in this country which already hold the pattern for this. Equally, we need to allow nature to spill into our cities. Plants can grow even on the walls of our tallest skyscrapers. Food can be grown, organically and hydroponically, in old multi-level car-parks. Everything can sing with life. The world we hate can be redeemed.


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