Human Rights, Colonisation and Destruction of Country

When the British invaded Indigenous country in the late eighteenth century, which they claimed — illegally — and renamed ‘Australia’, they were enacting an expansionist tradition of human and ecological genocide which had begun with European powers invading the Americas 300 years earlier. This attempt at total conquest resulted in the deaths of many millions of Indigenous people and the destruction of physical, spiritual and cultural environments. Any discussion and analysis of climate change today must include an investigation of colonial history and its devastating impact on Indigenous nations. One of the ironies of Imperial expansion, dependent on extreme levels of institutional violence, is that this damage to human and nonhuman life is now visiting the global community with increasingly indiscriminate ferocity.

The issue of climate change is clearly an issue of social justice and human rights. We know that communities across the globe, particularly Indigenous nations, have, historically, produced the smallest of carbon footprint. We also know that Indigenous communities, and the poor more generally, face immediate and damaging impacts of climate change, such as the devastation caused by extreme weather events (which, as they increase in frequency will become the norm rather than extreme). In Australia, many Indigenous communities already suffer inadequate infrastructure. When a flood, cyclone or bushfire impacts on an Indigenous community, the ability to repair or replace damaged utilities is fraught with problems (not to mention institutional neglect). The utilities, housing, and education and health facilities already in place are often inadequate and beyond repair following a weather event. It is likely, therefore, that in future, governments will increasingly attempt to force community closures rather than support the rights of Indigenous people to remain on country.

I have no desire to exploit the revelations of the torture of young people in detention in the Northern Territory, exposed by the 4 Corners program this week. (That it was a shock to many people is itself a stain on the nation). Nor do I wish to distract attention from the immediate issues we must deal with on this issue; the immediate release of young people from institutions of harm, ensuring that those responsible for this violence, both the perpetrators and responsible political leaders are made fully accountable, and that the closing down of prisons that incarcerate the young is a priority.

But there is a link between histories of brutality, the colonial psyche and violence enacted against ecology and country. White Australia needs to finally accept that attempts to destroy Indigenous society, which include murder, the rape of women and girls, the killing of children and the overt destruction of country are not random events, nor historically-speaking, the actions of depraved individuals (a term often used to ignore the realities of societal violence). Colonial society set out to destroy all in its path. It was, and remains a practice infecting the nation with the pathology of an extermination complex supported by a reasoning reliant on the cruelty offered by the ‘inevitability of conquest’ thesis, selective amnesia and an inability to contemplate genuine remorse and responsibility.

The cruelties underpinning colonisation extend to the detention and imprisonment of refugees and asylum-seekers, and a supportive culture of orchestrated fear, repeatedly stage-managed by successive Australian governments and an enthusiastic and compliant media. The environmental destruction of Indigenous country is central to the violence enacted against people. All must be conquered in the name of colonisation; land, ecology and species. White Australia has a love/hate relationship with country; hating that which cannot be controlled and managed, yet expressing love for a landscape remade in the image of the coloniser.

My work is partly concerned with the potential in bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together; to fully value and respect the vital ecological knowledge held in Indigenous communities and consider the remarkable possibilities of sharing such knowledge in the wider community. It is a difficult task; one that must overcome more than 200 years of violence and abuse. Indigenous people are suspicious, at best, about sharing such knowledge. Some are already invested in collaborative projects, while others remain oppositional; rightly so.

If people feel there is no link between the levels of violence against young Indigenous people in Australia, and any potential for working cooperatively to tackle climate change, please think again. The consequences of what has been exposed this week will be far reaching. The damage done to our young people will impact also on the damage done to the potential offered by relationships of trust. We can continue to live in a violent society, which by its nature isolates us from each other. Or we can confront and do all that we can to dismantle this terrible legacy. But we cannot do both.