Please join us for an Environmental Forum with Dr. Jessica Weir, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.
Dr. Weir has formed and maintained research collaborations with Indigenous peoples on land and water management issues for almost twenty years. She has published extensively on social-environmental justice issues, examining not just how values interrelate, but how they are categorized, including a reworking of the foundational subject/object domains in the social and natural sciences.
With the cultural and political resurgence of Indigenous peoples globally, and global alarm about environmental issues, there has been a burgeoning of contexts for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and institutions to form environmental collaborations. However, these are fundamentally challenged by whether they are meaningful or not for Indigenous people. Many Indigenous scholars have critiqued environmental management collaborations for: compounding unjust power arrangements that deny and displace Indigenous peoples’ territorial and governance authority; and, perpetuating discriminatory epistemological assumptions that dismiss, ridicule and fetishize Indigenous peoples’ knowledge. I present on how these two matters are being grappled with through a government land management and natural hazard initiative to conduct Indigenous peoples’ ‘cultural burns’. This is a very different context to cool burns conducted by Indigenous ranger groups on their land holdings in ‘remote’ areas. Instead, these cultural burns are conducted by Indigenous people working as Parks and Conservation staff on government owned land in none less than the national capital of Australia. This program is changing why land is burned, by whom, how, where and when; but, it is not without its shortcomings. As the collaborative practice finds ways to address fraught and misunderstood matters, new matters become surfaced and outstanding matters become clearer. Significantly, very few of the Indigenous staff are Ngunnawal – the traditional custodians of the Australian Capital Territory – and this has highlighted the commonalities and divergences of differently positioned Indigenous peoples. My results show that both the successes and problematics of the cultural burning program stress the importance of supporting Indigenous peoples’ governance. This is a critical movement away from the ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ focus of many environmental collaborations, and will necessarily involve a greater sharing of power and resources. The findings are of broad relevance for diverse people wishing to better navigate intercultural matters of knowledge and authority in collaborative contexts. This candid illustration is supported by a research partnership with Parks and Conservation that has prioritised co-design and co-authorship with Indigenous peoples, and is part of a larger project across southern Australia.