colonialism

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Again and Again: Settler-colonial extractivism and the Juukan Gorge inquiry’s interim report

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/12/2020 - 3:01am in

‘Never Again’ will we see the destruction of sites of such extraordinary antiquity and cultural significance as those at Juukan Gorge. So insists the Hon. Warren Entsch MP in his emotionally charged foreword to the interim report  of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia’s inquiry into Rio Tinto’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old habitation sites belonging to the Puutu, Kunti, Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples. There is no reason to believe that this is anything other than heartfelt. Indeed, we believe that most Australians would ‘never again’ want to see Australia’s version in 2020 of the destruction of the unique Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001.

But there is little in this interim report, hyperbole aside, that fills us with any confidence that such destruction will not occur again. This is because such destruction is structurally embedded in the settler-colonial extractive logic on which the Australian nation was founded and on which it continues to prosper. Emblematic of this, the country’s only broadsheet newspaper, The Australian, reported on the release of these preliminary findings and recommendations on page 5, while on its front page it noted that China’s 2020 trade hit list excludes iron-ore exports, valued at $84.8 billion, that are almost exclusively sourced from the Pilbara region.

Coverage in the Australian Financial Review predictably focused on the negative economic implications of the inquiry’s recommendations. WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith, a member of the joint committee, lamented that the report’s recommendation of a stay on the destruction of sites as allowed under section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) would ‘be a handbrake on the resources sector’. Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group weighed in, as did Western Australia’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, both suggesting, in similar terms, that such a stay would not be a ‘practical solution’.

‘Never again’ is a catchcry that First Nations people in Australia have heard on many occasions: never again will we tolerate stolen generations, as child removal accelerates; never again will there be deaths in custody, as numbers in incarceration grow; never again will wages be stolen, as remote-living Indigenous unemployed people are subject to modern slavery-like conditions; never again will there be rationing of food, as the parliament debates and then passes punitive and racially targeted income-management measures; never again to unacceptable socioeconomic disparities that successive governments have failed to address in the past decade or more. History is replete with fine intentions and many ‘never agains’, articulated with great sincerity by politicians to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia.

Much of the interim report, along with the media coverage that has followed its release, focuses on the particulars of Rio Tinto’s appalling corporate culture, actions and attempted cover-ups. Incrementally and systematically, the report moves from the particulars of Juukan Gorge and Rio Tinto up the responsibility food chain to the deficient Aboriginal Heritage Act (under protracted review), to the broader Western Australian experience of extraction and environmental and cultural-site destruction irrespective of the wishes of traditional owners; to the experience only briefly alluded to beyond Western Australia; to the apex Commonwealth laws—a tripartite layered set of legal arrangements covering Indigenous heritage: the ineffectual Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) (currently under review); the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act) that has remained largely dormant during the Juukan debacle; and the overriding Native Title Act 1993 that was carefully designed to ensure that holders of native-title rights and interests are rendered impotent to oppose mineral extraction. This impotence is evident even on lands where native-title holders are vested with so-called exclusive possession, since this ironically excludes possession of minerals reserved for the Crown. Hence the mining activity that accesses subsurface deposits and inevitably destroys the sentient ancestral landscape—open-cut mining has been described by a Yolngu elder in the Gove region as being the equivalent of running a grader across the flesh on one’s body, demonstrated graphically by running the fingernails across the chest.

The report’s language is stronger than many and its consideration of the need for the provision of free, prior and informed consent to Indigenous owners is commendable in intent. This might well reflect the composition of the joint committee, which includes several members who have championed Indigenous rights on many occasions. Yet ultimately the recommendations to date contain very little that might move settler-colonial Australia towards the report’s stated, titular intention, ‘Never Again’. Instead, it issues words of ‘strong encouragement’ and polite requests for voluntary improvements to a set of agencies antithetical to the Indigenous interests they are now being ‘encouraged’ to protect: from Rio Tinto to other mining companies in the Pilbara, all the way through to the WA government (whose coffers, it must be noted once again, are quite literally filled with royalties from those very same companies), to a federal government that has consistently and persistently participated in and benefited from ongoing processes of invasion and dispossession.

The interim report quickly summarises the legal and administrative shortcomings of the EPBC Act and the ATSIHP Act and identifies the main role of the Native Title Act in heritage protection as arising through agreement making. This is because holders and claimants of native title are only vested with a ‘right to negotiate’ over extraction, with no right to veto. The extent of the bias inherent in this agreement-making process is revealed in the interim report: just three of 163 so-called ‘future act’ applications have been successfully opposed in Western Australia under native-title law. Even this is superior to the protection afforded to Indigenous owners under the prevailing WA legislation: of the 463 applications lodged by mining companies to legally destroy sites of significance under section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act since 2010, not one has been rejected. The latter statistic is not mentioned in the interim report.

By focusing on the particulars of Juukan Gorge and Rio Tinto, the interim report is looking to apply a sticking plaster when serious suturing is required. It is recommended first and foremost that Rio Tinto negotiate a restitution package with the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge, the PKKP peoples, for the destruction of the site, and that the obliterated habitation shelters be reconstructed. The latter is a preposterous idea. Even if such high-tech ‘plastic surgery’ were possible, post-dynamite obliteration would result in a bizarre Disney-style avoidance of re-colonial reality.

The interim ‘Never Again’ report was completed seven months after the Juukan Gorge destruction, after what an Aboriginal friend from the region described as ‘the bombing’. The committee now has an unspecified deadline in 2021 by which to further expose the systemic problems in the current native-title system. These are manifest at Fortescue’s Solomon Hub, where extraction of iron ore continues unabated, even after the High Court of Australia affirmed that this was occurring counter to the law and in the face of sustained and strident opposition from native-title holders, without consent, and without any agreement in place. Even should the proposed ‘voluntary moratorium’ on new section 18 applications and reassessments of existing approvals invited by the inquiry be taken up by mining companies (many of which have already indicated their opposition to these non-binding recommendations), there is nothing in the interim report that deals substantively with literally hundreds of existing section 18 approvals.

Is it possible for representatives of the Diceyan Australian parliament, established by invader constitutional fiat that asserts its own sovereign powers (including to own and extract mineral wealth in corporate and national interests), to adequately represent pre-existing sovereign interests? Can the settler state’s parliament ever deliver the radical reform needed to ensure Australia’s compliance with internationally agreed standards for self-determination as articulated in key articles in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Australian government belatedly endorsed? These are difficult questions requiring definitive answers, not polite words of encouragement or invitation. Otherwise, if native title is successfully determined in Australian law while the land remains available for mineral prospection, nothing will ensure ‘never again’. As it stands, it seems the First Nations of Australia will be left with another empty promise that governments and mining companies, together so invested in their ongoing dispossession, will act in good faith to ‘protect’ them and their heritage. Surely nobody can reasonably believe this by now.

There are competing, arguably irreconcilable logics at play here, one dominant, one subordinate: will the Australian settler state ever willingly engage in its own recalibration? Ensuring ‘never again’ will require a new logic, one that overturns the prioritisation of rampant mineral extraction (be it iron ore, gas or coal) irrespective of any economic gains and ensures that corporations that transgress non-negotiable heritage protocols are punished with the automatic loss of their licence to operate—not merely socially, but legally as well. This will require an Australian state that properly prioritises the Indigenous interest over the so-called ‘national interest’, although we might once again emphasise that settler-colonial Australia’s continuing reliance on mineral extraction and its contribution to anthropogenic climate change is antithetical to the human (and indeed non-human) interest overall. Sadly, nothing in living memory suggests that any government is up to embracing such a challenge.


Fracking on Trial in the Northern Territory

Lauren Mellor, 19 Nov 2020

As carbon dioxide in our atmosphere pushes 410 parts per million, fuelling a dangerous climate emergency, the world simply cannot afford to let the Northern Territory become the fossil-fuel industry’s next fracking frontier.

How Should We Acknowledge the Sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 09/12/2020 - 11:00pm in

Photo Credit: Margarita Young/Shutterstock It has become fashionable for some academics at some universities in North America to place at...

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Can White Jews Still Be White if They’re Reviled By White Supremacists?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 09/12/2020 - 7:45am in

Under Trump’s presidency there has been a rise in high profile anti-Jewish incidents. Perhaps because...

Migration as a Claim for Reparations

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 07/12/2020 - 11:00pm in

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Racially, the Palestinians May Be the Real Jews

In his piece critiquing the article by Catherine Heszer, professor of Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the Jewish Chronicle, Tony Greenstein argues very strongly that biologically it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are descended from the people of ancient Israel. Heszer had claimed that Israel isn’t a colonialist state and that it is simply the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland. Greenstein disputes this, citing Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, who believes that European Jews are really the descendants of converts to Judaism. He also cites studies, including articles published in extreme right-wing settler magazines, that the Palestinians are descended from the peoples of ancient Israel and Judea. Greenstein writes

Let us leave aside the fact, as Tel Aviv University Professor Shlomo Sand has shown in The Myth of the Jewish Nation that there never was a Jewish exile from Palestine. The idea that rights deriving from where one’s ancestors lived 3,000 years ago trumping those who live there today is a product of Western Colonialism and Orientalism. The same myths of a 1,000 year Reich justified Hitler’s colonisation of  Eastern Europe and the expulsion of its inhabitants.

But in reality not even this is true. Jews from Europe and America had no physical connection whatsoever with Palestine or Israel.  Their only claim is that they profess a religion whose centre is Jerusalem. That does not confer any material rights over those living there.

The Jews who left Judea and Palestine over 2,000 years ago did so because the land would not support them. Palestine saw many peoples, among whom were the Hebrews, wander over the area. The idea that this gives people who are Jewish and living in London the right to displace the indigenous population is a fascist idea.  SOAS should not be in the business of propagating racial myths.

2,000 years ago a million Jews were living in Alexandria alone as well as other Hellenised cities such as Antioch and Seleucia. According to Jewish historian Salo Baron there was an explosion of Jews in the Middle East at the time owing to massive proselytising. He suggests there were 8 million Jews living in the Middle East. Sand suggests half that number. The Jews, like the Phoenicians before them, became a trading people.

The pastoralist Jews who remained in Palestine after the destruction of the second temple either converted to Christianity or remained speaking Aramaic. With the Arab invasion they largely converted to Islam whilst continuing to speak Aramaic, a biblical form of Hebrew.

The irony, as Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and its second President Yitzhak ben Zvi accepted, is that the Palestinians, not the Jewish settlers, are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. [see e.g. Dov Ivri’s Most Palestinians Are Descendants Of Jews]. Ben Gurion even sent Moshe Dayan with a rabbi to convert the Bedouin!

In Jewish-Roots Arabs in Israel in the far-Right settler news agency Arutz Sheva, Tzvi MiSinai claimed that ‘Up to 85 percent of Arabs in greater Israel stem from Jewish ancestors, it is estimated’. The article describes how

‘One Arab says his father told him the secret of his family’s Jewishness on his deathbed, while another one, on the backdrop of a photo of the saintly Cabalistic sage Rabbi Abuchatzeira on his wall, says their roots have been known in his family for generations. Wrapping what apparently used to be kosher tefillin on his arm, he says, “My father used to do this, and he taught us to do it whenever someone was sick or in trouble.”

The myth of a Jewish ‘exile’ from Palestine and the idea of their ‘return’ is a Christian racial myth born of colonialism’s desire to establish a friendly settler state adjacent to the Suez Canal. That is why the first western Zionists were Evangelical Christians like Lord Palmerstone and Shaftesbury and also why the vast majority of western Jews were hostile to Zionism when it began.  Because if Jews belonged in Palestine they didn’t belong in England.

See: If SOAS Cares For Its Reputation It Should Send Racist Professor Heszer, Head of the Jewish Studies Centre, on an Unpaid Vacation to learn what Zionism means for the Palestinians – Tony Greenstein

Sand’s is an extreme view. I’ve also come across the argument that European Jews were the descendants of Jewish merchants rather than political exiles. The impression I had of Israelite history was that after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt in the 2nd century AD, the Jews were forcibly expelled from Jerusalem. This became a Roman colonial city and the Temple desecrated and dedicated to Zeus. The Jewish religious leadership moved to Galilee, which thus became the centre of the Jewish faith. However, there were still Jewish communities in Israel. I believe that there was conflict between Jews and Christians and Jewish revolts against Roman imperial persecution when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

It also would not surprise me in the slightest if genetics showed that the majority of Palestinians were descended from the ancient Israelites. Archaeologists and geneticists have been studying the genetic makeup of the British people since the 1980s. This has overturned some of the traditional views about the origin of the English. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the English are descended from Germanic invaders, the Angles, Saxon and Jutes, who conquered the country from across the North Sea in the 5th-7th centuries AD. But genetic studies of the modern English doesn’t show a comprehensive replacement of the existing Romano-British population. Furthermore, recent archaeological studies of migration period human remains have shown that the vast majority of the skeletons of people buried with Anglo-Saxon grave goods were from people, who had been brought up in this country. There were very few continental invaders. It now appears that instead of a full-scale invasion and replacement of the indigenous population, the conquest simply consisted of the Romano-Brits and their leaders adopting continental Germanic customs and language in a rejection of Roman identity as Roman rule collapsed.

Genetic studies also show that there was no replacement of the indigenous British population. It now appears that the British, including the English, are largely descended from the Bronze Age population of the British Isles and Ireland. At the level, the English are genetically the same as the Irish. When this was revealed to one Irish personality on TV a few years ago, he remarked that it must be galling for the English to find that they’re the same as the peeps of the Emerald Isle. Well, at one time, when the Irish really were looked down upon and there were crazy racial hierarchies being devised to show how they and the Blacks were at the bottom of human evolution, perhaps. But not now, when so much British popular culture comes from Ireland.

My guess is that the racial history of Palestine is pretty similar. I doubt that there was any replacement of the indigenous Jewish population. Many of them would have converted to Christianity. I’ve seen it estimated that about a third of the Jewish people would have converted to Christianity during the late Roman Empire. These were Greek-speaking Jews, whose conversion was assisted through theirs and the Christians’ use of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament/ Hebrew Bible. The remaining Jews probably did speak Aramaic. It was the popular language of the Jewish people at the time of Christ. It’s the language of the Targums, paraphrases of the Hebrew scriptures to help people, who couldn’t understand Hebrew, and the Talmud, the compilation of the rabbinical oral law and the debates and opinions of the sages. I also think that Aramaic would have been the language of some Christians as well. Syriac, the language of some eastern Orthodox Christians in Lebanon and Syria, developed from the form of Aramaic spoken by those communities in the fourth century AD.

As for the Arab conquest and the adoption of Arab culture, this seems to be the result of a conscious policy by the caliph Mu’awiya in the 8th century AD. The Arabs were a tiny minority amongst the subject peoples of the new Islamic empire, who had retained their languages and customs. Greek continued to be used as the language of the imperial civil service in the western half of the empire. Mu’awiya was afraid that the Muslim Arabs would lose their ethnic identity through being absorbed by the non-Muslim population, so that their only distinction between them and the peoples they ruled would be their Islamic faith. He therefore passed a series of legislation designed to strengthen Arab ethnic identity, such as changing the language of the civil service to Arabic. This set in motion the process of Arabization which saw the majority of the population of that part of the Roman Empire adopt the Arabic language, culture and Islam.

I’m not sure about Sand’s argument that European Jews are descendants of proselytes and aren’t racially Jewish. That’s an extreme view. But Greenstein’s right about the size of the Jewish population of the Roman Empire. It may have been as large as 8 per cent and there were huge synagogues in places like Alexandria and Sardinia.

I therefore consider it highly likely that the vast majority of Palestinians are descended from the Jewish people of ancient Israel and Judea. I’m also not surprised that many Muslim Palestinians have more recent Jewish ancestry. There were large Jewish communities in Palestine before the establishment of the state of Israel, and many Jews preferred to live under Muslim rule as there wasn’t the restrictions there they faced in Christendom.

From the genetic perspective, they’re probably as Jewish as the Israelis, and so from that perspective also have an absolute right to remain on their ancestral lands against the attempts to expel and cleanse them by the Israeli state.

Anti-Semitism, Colonialism and Zionism

I’m not surprised that the Blairites and ultra-Zionist fanatics wanted to purge Tony Greenstein from the Labour party, as they have done with so many other entirely decent people. Greenstein is, like Moshe Machover, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi and Jackie Walker, an anti-Zionist Jew. Which means he’s a danger to the British political and media establishment, which wishes to define British Jewry exclusively in terms of support for Israel. Or rather more narrowly, support for the current viciously racist Israeli administration. Left-wing Zionists, who also believe that the Palestinians should be treated decently and with dignity, have also suffered anti-Semitic vilification and abuse if they dare to protest against Netanyahu’s government. Jews like Greenstein, Machover, Walker and Wimborne-Idrissi are a threat to this, because they show that support for Israel is not a necessary or integral part of Jewish identity. Indeed, as David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialist Group has pointed out, Zionism was until recent decades very much a minority position among European Jews.

But Tony Greenstein has also argued very powerfully on his blog that Zionism has also been a real threat to Jews. In his view, it is an internalisation of gentile anti-Semitism, with which it has collaborated, including in the mass murder of Jews, such as in the Holocaust, by real anti-Semites. And he has supported this with a wealth of quotes from Zionism’s founders and leaders, like Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion. Here are a few more I found about Zionism’s relationship to anti-Semitism and colonialism in an article Greenstein put up on the 3rd November 2020, about a Zoom conversation he and Machover were due to have the next day about Zionism, and whether it was inevitable ‘it would create an apartheid monstrosity in Palestine’.

One is from Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi party’s ideologue and author of The Myth of the 20th Century. In 1919 he wrote

‘Zionism must be vigorously supported in order to encourage a significant number of German Jews to leave for Palestine or other destinations [Francis Nicosia, The Third Reich and the Palestine Question, p.25].

He also quotes Sir Samuel Montagu, MP for Whitechapel from 1885-1900, and the only member of Balfour’s cabinet to oppose the infamous Declaration in support of a Jewish state in Palestine. Montagu said of Zionism

 ‘Is it not… a suspicious fact that those who have no love for the Jews, and those who are pronounced anti-Semites, all seem to  welcome the Zionist proposals and aspiration.?’[Sir Samuel Montagu, The Dangers of Zionism]

The Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, in his book 10 Myths about Israel, also points out that, far from being a pro-Jewish stance, Zionism in the 19th and early 20th centuries was associated with anti-Semitism. So much so that one German nobleman, whom Herzl approached for support in the 1920s, told him that he had previously not come forward to add his support because he didn’t want people to think that he was a Jew-hater.

Contemporary supporters of Israel deny that it’s a colonial state. For them it is simply the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. But Herzl explicitly described his project of creating a Jewish state as colonial in a letter to that arch-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes:

“You are being invited to help make history…it doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen but Jews… How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial… I want you … to put the stamp of your authority on the Zionist plan and to make the following declaration to a few people who swear by you: I, Rhodes have examined this plan and found it correct and practicable. It is a plan full of culture, excellent for the group of people for whom it is directly designed, and quite good for England, for Greater Britain….”

As for the danger Zionism has presented to Jews. Rudolf Vrba, one of only four people to have escaped from Auschwitz, believed that Zionism had actively assisted the Nazis’ horrific campaign of extermination:

“The Zionist movement of Europe played a very important role in the mass extermination of Jews. Indeed, I believe that without the cooperation of Zionists it would have been a much more difficult task….”

See: Tony Greenstein’s Blog: ZIONISM – What it is and Why it is Important? Zoom Meeting with Moshe Machover and Tony Greenstein (azvsas.blogspot.com)

In another post published on the 10th October 2020 attacking the SOAS’s head of Jewish studies, Professor Heszer for her piece in the Jewish Chronicle denying Israel’s colonialist origins, there are a few more revealing quotations. One of these is from a letter from William Stanley Shaw, the head of the British Brothers’ League, an anti-Semitic organisation set up to oppose eastern European Jewish immigration, to the Jewish Chronicle in 1901

“I am a firm believer in the Zionist movement, which the British Brothers League will do much incidentally to foster. The return of the Jews to Palestine is one of the most striking signs of the times…. All students of prophecy are watching the manifold signs of the times with almost breathless interest.”

As for Balfour, he was a racist, who refused to give the vote to Black South Africans because they weren’t the equal of Whites, and who told Chaim Weizmann that he also shared the ‘anti-Semitic postulates’ of Wagner’s widow, Cosima. What is astonishing is that Weizmann assured him that the Zionists also shared these views saying that he had

pointed out that we, too… had drawn attention to the fact that Germans of the Mosaic persuasion were an undesirable and demoralizing phenomenon…’ [Leonard Stein, The Balfour Declaration p.154].

If SOAS Cares For Its Reputation It Should Send Racist Professor Heszer, Head of the Jewish Studies Centre, on an Unpaid Vacation to learn what Zionism means for the Palestinians – Tony Greenstein

I think the emphasis in these quotes is Greenstein’s, rather than in the original text.

These quotes clearly show that the criticisms of Israel and the Zionist movement by people like Tony Greenstein and the others are historically justified, as is their opposition against Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians. These views do not make anyone an anti-Semite. My own preferred view is that anti-Semitism is simply hatred of Jews as Jews, and that no state or ideology should be beyond debate and criticism. This includes Israel and Zionism. The Jews have a history of debate, and there have always been a wide range of views about the nature of Judaism. I’ve come across the adage, ‘Two Jews, three opinions’. British Jewry is also diverse with a range of differing views on Israel. But this debate is being shut down and a form of sectarianism promoted instead, which tries to present the British Jewish community as consisting almost solely of the United Synagogue and its institutions, the Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbinate. As Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi has pointed out in her video with Double Down News, ‘The Wrong Kind of Jew’, this is very much what anti-Semites and racists have done to their victims: present them as a monolithic community.

It is disgusting and reprehensible that all of British Jewry is not represented in this debate by the political and media establishment, and that people, who hold entirely reasonable opinions critical of Israel are being vilified, harassed and purged as the very things they are not, racists and anti-Semites. The Labour party should be a place where issues like Zionism and the maltreatment of the Palestinians can be reasonably discussed and differing viewpoints held.

To stop this and demand absolute support for Israel is an attack on democracy, free speech, and proper historical debate. It is unacceptable, just as it is unacceptable that decent anti-racists, both Jewish and gentile, should be purged for holding these views.

Justice Beyond Recognition: What Djab Wurrung Trees Tell Us

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/11/2020 - 3:03am in

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colonialism

On 26 October 2020, the Victorian state government chopped down the culturally significant Directions Tree as a part of the controversial Western Highway upgrade. The magnificent yellow box tree, situated in Western Victoria, held immense cultural and spiritual significance for Djab Wurrung people and was estimated to have been 350 years old. The destruction of the tree coincided with the easing of lockdown restrictions in the state capital, Melbourne. While a part of Victoria rejoiced in its renewed freedom, the actions of the state government appeared ill-conceived, as they inflicted great sorrow on a community that had steadfastly protested the desecration and destruction of the sacred trees for over two and a half years. In a year that also saw the shocking destruction of Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto, the state government’s actions appeared wilfully callous.

The issue of Aboriginal heritage in this case is more contentious than it may at first  appear. The Djab Wurrung Heritage Embassy was established in 2018 to fight for the protection of the heritage area, more specifically the culturally significant ‘birthing trees’, that came under threat from the ambitious Western Highway project that aimed to connect Melbourne and Adelaide. The $672 million highway project hoped to duplicate a 12.5-kilometre stretch of the road and required the removal of about 3000 trees. The state government had defended the project, arguing that the initiative would reduce travel time and improve safety along that stretch of road. 

The project has been fraught with disagreement since its inception, especially concerning the extent of cultural-heritage protection. The long and convoluted history of approvals for the project began with a primary signing off on the site from Martang, the Aboriginal party then registered to have the legal authority to speak for the traditional owners. Subsequently, the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC) and the Djab Wurrung Heritage Embassy negotiated to save sixteen more cultural trees. EMAC was given the legal authority as a registered party to speak for the traditional owners in 2020

Meanwhile, the Djab Wurrung Heritage Embassy applied for Commonwealth protection of the trees affected by the highway project under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (Cth; ATSIHP). Eventually, the Commonwealth government rejected the application. The only success the Djab Wurrung Heritage Embassy enjoyed was when the Federal Court set aside the minister’s decision not to make a declaration under sections10 and 12 of the ATSIHP, protecting the birthing trees based on legal error in the ministerial assessment. The court had demanded that the minister reconsider her decision in light of the wider interpretation of the ATSIHP, considering evidence that related not just to individual trees but  to the heritage area as a whole. However, the minister refused the protection in the second instance and approved the project. The tortuous history of the negotiation culminated in the destruction of the Directions Tree this year, as the registered Aboriginal party did not find this particular tree to have any cultural significance. 

The fundamental questions raised during the protracted trajectory of Djab Wurrung resistance to the destruction of the sacred tree rest on who has the right to speak for the community. Hard on the heels of this development will be the question of why Aboriginal communities should be cornered into homogeneity and consensus in articulating their concerns, an undue burden not shared elsewhere in the settler nation. A substantial number of Djab Wurrung people had considered the tree to be culturally significant. They did not see the registered Aboriginal party as representing their views. Consequently, the community has endured immense grief resulting from the severance of cultural and spiritual ties that were etched and embodied in the tree. While defending the actions of the government, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews dismissed the objections to the destruction of the tree on the grounds that the state had undertaken a ‘consultation process’ and the traditional owners had approved of the decision. By constructing the registered Aboriginal party as a single authoritative voice to speak for the traditional owners, the alleged ‘due process’ through consultation erased the multiplicity of voices that make up Indigenous ways of life. It also left a void in a more fundamental question: where was the ‘free, prior and informed consent’? Although ‘free, prior and informed consent’ has been a well-established principle under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it is yet to find its feet among the domestic legislations in Australia.

A wealth of scholarship, including that of Glen Coulthard and Audra Simpson, provides a critique of flawed notions of legal recognition within settler-colonial legality and liberal constitutions. The politics of recognition and reconciliation lean on limiting the question of Indigenous rights to cultural differences, thereby eliding the questions of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. The rights framework in settler-colonial nations, especially in Australia, has been designed to allow the flourishing of ongoing settler colonialism at the expense of the flourishing of indigeneity. Tellingly, as Australia continues to grapple with the question of a constitutional voice for the First Nations, the heritage laws appear to be designed to mitigate the possibility of litigation rather than to protect Aboriginal heritage or provide a genuine avenue for First Nations peoples to contest their grievances. The existing consultation structures and facilitating laws do not take into account the asymmetric power relations between the First Nations and settler-colonial legal formations. This added displacement of Aboriginal people from the power to make democratic choices is at the heart of what Senator Lidia Thorpe has called ‘manufactured consent’

Djab Wurrung sacred tree destruction mirrors the recent case of Gomeroi people fighting to protect their heritage in New South Wales. Dolly Talbott, a Gomeroi woman and a member of the Gomeroi Traditional Custodians group (GTC), sought judicial review of decisions made by the Minister for the Environment that constituted a refusal to make a declaration under section 10 of theATSIHP. The heritage areas over which declarations were sought were close to the site of the proposed Shenhua coal mine, newly approved by the minister. Among other things, when refusing to make the declaration the minister had considered that the social and economic benefits that would flow from the mine to the local community outweighed Aboriginal heritage concerns. Similar arguments of social and economic benefits have been made in the case of the Western Highway upgrade. There is a pattern of pointing to benefits elsewhere as a good reason for allowing the destruction of heritage and the denial of Indigenous rights, not only Australia but in other jurisdictions as well. By making a cost-benefit analysis of developmental or extractive issues, the state has created a nebulous territory of citizenship divided along the lines of capital and race. In this territory, First Nations must either exist or vanish; neither option allows for a just environment in which they may thrive as ‘citizens’.

The imposed structures of governance that do not enable self-determination, the land rights that do not address the longue durée of dispossession and erasure, and an absence of reconciliation processes to interrogate the accumulated pain of First Nations over the years have come together in the Djab Wurrung episode. Systematic overwriting of one form of injustice with another reiterates the claim that settler law is not on the side of the First Nations. The innate unfairness in the system begets greater injustice by weighing economic interests against Indigenous rights that are incommensurable. While the Juukan Gorge destruction differs from the destruction of the Directions Tree in many ways, both instances raise the question: will justice ever be on the side of First Nations? The moment has arrived where we feel compelled to answer this question. Such an answer must come from a substantive reform of existing legal structures, including making provisions for a robust First Nations constitutional voice. Australia knows where to look in that case. 


For Djab Wurrung trees and country

Melinda Hinkson, 5 Nov 2020

In nearly all cases where states require associations of traditional connection to be publicly performed in order to be recognised, the persons called upon and authorised to perform them have had their associations fractured by colonial dispossession.

Talking Afropean

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/11/2020 - 5:45pm in

Talking Afropean: Johny Pitts in conversation with Elleke Boehmer and Simukai Chigudu about his award-winning book. TORCH Goes Digital! presents a series of weekly live events Big Tent - Live Events!. Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the future Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities.

This Writers Make Worlds and TORCH panel discussion features the author Johny Pitts in conversation about his ground-breaking travelogue Afropean, his 2019 notes on a journey around contemporary Black Europe.

Johny Pitts will explore together with Oxford academics Simukai Chigudu and Elleke Boehmer questions of black history, hidden archives, decolonization and community, and what it is to be black in Europe today. Hailed as a work that reframes Europe, Afropean was the 2020 winner of the Jhalak Prize.

Biographies:

Johny Pitts is a writer, photographer and broadcast journalist, and the author of Afropean (2019). His work exploring African-European identity has received numerous awards, including a Decibel Penguin Prize and the Jhalak Prize. He has contributed words and images to the Guardian, the New Statesman and the New York Times.

Elleke Boehmer is a writer, historian, and critic. She is Professor of World Literature at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her most recent books are Postcolonial Poetics (2018) and To the Volcano (2019). She is currently on a British Academy Senior Research Fellowship working on a project called ‘Southern Imagining’.

Simukai Chigudu is Associate Professor of African Politics and Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford. Simukai is interested in the social politics of inequality in Africa and his first book The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe came out in 2020. Prior to joining the academy, Simukai was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service.

Talking Afropean (Transcript)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/11/2020 - 5:45pm in

Talking Afropean: Johny Pitts in conversation with Elleke Boehmer and Simukai Chigudu about his award-winning book. TORCH Goes Digital! presents a series of weekly live events Big Tent - Live Events!. Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the future Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities.

This Writers Make Worlds and TORCH panel discussion features the author Johny Pitts in conversation about his ground-breaking travelogue Afropean, his 2019 notes on a journey around contemporary Black Europe.

Johny Pitts will explore together with Oxford academics Simukai Chigudu and Elleke Boehmer questions of black history, hidden archives, decolonization and community, and what it is to be black in Europe today. Hailed as a work that reframes Europe, Afropean was the 2020 winner of the Jhalak Prize.

Biographies:

Johny Pitts is a writer, photographer and broadcast journalist, and the author of Afropean (2019). His work exploring African-European identity has received numerous awards, including a Decibel Penguin Prize and the Jhalak Prize. He has contributed words and images to the Guardian, the New Statesman and the New York Times.

Elleke Boehmer is a writer, historian, and critic. She is Professor of World Literature at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her most recent books are Postcolonial Poetics (2018) and To the Volcano (2019). She is currently on a British Academy Senior Research Fellowship working on a project called ‘Southern Imagining’.

Simukai Chigudu is Associate Professor of African Politics and Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford. Simukai is interested in the social politics of inequality in Africa and his first book The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe came out in 2020. Prior to joining the academy, Simukai was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service.

Fire in the Hold

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/11/2020 - 3:14pm in


Inasmuch as the end of the world already feels imminent — we are, after all, staring down mass racial injustice, environmental catastrophe, and a global pandemic — vague gestures toward a radical restructuring of society without even a basic blueprint feel, if not incomplete, indicative of a failure of imagination.

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