Decolonising solidarity: how to not be accidentally annoying and racist when working with Indigenous people

Aboriginal people are at the forefront of many environmental campaigns around Australia. However, managing the relationship with environmental allies can become a struggle in itself. In her new book Decolonizing Solidarity, Clare Land explores the dynamics between these two groups who together could become a more powerful force.

Recent protests from a subset of AFL fans and a handful of retired non-Aboriginal sportsmen that the anti-Adam Goodes booing is not racist has had me thinking how something very similar has been known to play out between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal activists, including some environmental activists/campaigners.

Aboriginal people are at the forefront of many land-protection campaigns around Australia. At times they have issued direct calls to environmental activists to support them in their attempts to resist the plans of pushy miners or property developers.

However, managing the relationship with supporters can itself be a huge and exhausting task. This is because although many supporters have the best intentions, some may lack the background knowledge required to form successful alliances with Aboriginal people. Many do not seek alliances with Aboriginal people, and the relevance of such alliances might not be immediately obvious.

The roots of the tensions between Aboriginal people and some environmental activists may be that these potential supporters come to the relationship through an interest that is primarily environmental. Aboriginal people who belong to the area may be seen as an unexpected element, even an impediment to the business of protecting a certain species or habitat. The idea that Aboriginal people would claim a right to have a say over the campaign and its tactics can be confronting to some.

This is frustrating for many politically active Aboriginal people because they have had these arguments over and over again since the 1960s. In a discussion of several campaigns he’d been involved in, Gary Foley wrote that this felt like "having to re-invent the wheel for each new generation of non-Koori supporters".

I have just spent several years looking into relationships between Aboriginal people from the south east Australian land rights movement and their supporters. The results of this research are about to be published in a book, Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles. The research was inspired by Foley’s frustration about having to deal with these recurrent tensions within campaigns.

In the Mirrar people’s campaign against the Jabiluka uranium mine in the late 1990s I saw first-hand that when it was suggested that members of Jabiluka Action Group (Melbourne) were acting racist, they protested extremely strongly. The conversation didn’t progress very far.

I observed another unsatisfying outcome unfold during the Black GST’s Stolenwealth Games Campaign in 2006. The campaign centred around a convergence of Aboriginal people and supporters at King’s Domain in central Melbourne, when supporters were asked to support during the day but not camp over at night, many immediately quit the campaign.

It seemed to me that when Aboriginal people attempted to shape the mode of their supporters’ work, this was often rejected. However, this is not always the case. Robbie Thorpe – who campaigned with environmental activists in the Goolengook struggle – has suggested that ferals are often the quickest to come to terms with the sort of politics he speaks. It is quite interesting to ponder why this would be so.

Decolonizing Solidarity is intended to be thought-provoking and ultimately supportive of people’s struggles against greed and exploitation. I’m looking forward to hearing what greenies think of the book.

About the author

Clare Land is a non-Aboriginal person living on Kulin nation land. She has been an active supporter of Aboriginal struggles since 1998 and, with Robbie Thorpe (Gunai/Maar), a broadcaster on 3CR since 2004. She was a participant in the Jabiluka blockade, the Irati Wanti campaign, the Black GST and has worked for ANTaR Victoria.

Gasland Refugees: right or left it's all bad gas

Author Peter Ralph who identifies as a political conservative would have laughed if you'd told him five years ago he'd end up writing an exposé on unconventional gas. Gasland Refugees is now hot off the press and Peter isn't at all amused by the damage being done in Queensland and New South Wales.

In mid 2010, while plotting my next novel I stumbled across a paper about unconventional gas by Dalby Lawyer Peter Shannon. To paraphrase, it stated that Queensland landowners were virtually without rights if a coal seam gas miner, armed with an exploration licence, wanted to sink wells on their properties.

Prior to this I was a chartered accountant and public company CEO. Unlike Alan Jones, I do not have the profile of someone who would vehemently oppose the exploitation and development of unconventional gas.

I had to pinch myself when I read that farmers and graziers who had put years into developing their properties could be forced to give coal seam gas miners access. I then discovered that the landowners only owned the part of their properties above the surface and that the crown, in Australia’s case the State, owned what was below. This inequity, inherited from the dark ages of the United Kingdom, is what enables exploration licences to be issued.

I then watched the superb US documentary Split Estate that exposed the American experience. Around this time Gasland was released in Australia. This documentary is a graphic portrayal of the damage that coal seam gas and shale miners have wreaked in the USA. Such was the apathy and lack of knowledge, I was the total audience at the first showing at Nova cinema in Melbourne. I’m pleased to say that the community has come a long way since then. Dayne Pratzky’s recently released documentary Frackman has been showing to packed houses.

I had visited the beautiful Hunter Valley in NSW many times and was shocked to find that coal seam gas mining was taking place there. John Thomson, then CEO of The Hunter Valley Protection Alliance, told me that before coming to the Hunter Valley I should go to the Darling Downs.

I subsequently travelled to the Darling Downs many times and met and became friends with Drew Hutton, President of Lock the Gate, Dayne Pratzky, aka Frackman, and prominent protector, Brian Monk. Their assistance was invaluable and I got to meet farmers, landowners and townsfolk, almost unanimously opposed to what the unconventional gas miners were doing.

Chinchilla and the residential estates of Tara on the Darling Downs have the greatest concentration of coal seam gas wells in Australia. The size of these developments is on an unimaginable scale, and QGC’s huge Kenya operation contains gas wells, offices, accommodation, compressor stations, a reverse osmosis plant and three enormous evaporation ponds.

These ponds have been illegal in Queensland for years but a change of name to holding ponds seems to have satisfied those who pass themselves off as regulators. The largest Kenya pond measures a mammoth 1600 by 900 metres, almost four hundred acres!

With drilling and fracking, there is always the possibility of aquifer contamination, and there has been at least one known occurrence of this in Queensland. There are countless instances of farmers’ formerly pristine bore water either becoming undrinkable or totally depleted. Such is the contamination that many bores contain methane and are easily ignitable.

Children swimming in dams in the Tara estates have found their bodies and faces covered in ugly, weeping red welts. Air pollution is another major problem and respiratory problems, nausea, fainting spells, pins and needles, rashes on the body, and frequent nosebleeds are common to Tara residents. Farmers are concerned about soil pollution and despite years of research, there is still no solution or use for the huge piles of salt produced by this process. As if this wasn’t enough, there is noise pollution, and the whirr of compressors twenty-four hours a day.

Ian MacFarlane, Minister for Industry & Science, claims that Queensland farmers are enamoured with Coal Seam Gas and that 4,000 have signed land access agreements with the miners. What he fails to account for is the number conned and lied to, to induce their signatures. The Lloyds of Chinchilla signed three agreements over their 7,500 acre Chinchilla property. By the time the miners are finished they will have 50 wells, and 40 kilometres of gravel access roads and underground pipelines on their property.

In the words of Katie Lloyd, “some of these people were ruthless; they made some outlandish statements”. As far as she and her husband Scott are concerned they wish they’d never set eyes on the gas companies. So much for being enamoured.

Victoria Switzer from Dimock, Pennsylvania put it eloquently when she said, “it was a beautiful fall day and I was sitting on the steps of the trailer dreaming about what a wonderful life I had. And this man appeared, friendly, with a twinkle in his eye and he said, 'beautiful day isn’t it?' And I said, 'yes, it is'. And I like to say that was the last honest thing I heard from a gas man”.

Amazingly, despite producing fifteen times its annual domestic gas needs, Queensland is facing shortages and BHP managers are talking about piping gas from the Bass Strait to Queensland. This anomaly comes about because the four consortia operating in Gladstone are 83% foreign owned and nearly 100% of the LNG they produce will be shipped to China, Japan and South East Asia.

We are the only country in the world that has outsourced its energy security to foreigners. So what will those living in eastern states of Australia get out of this huge foreign investment? Gas shortages and increased energy bills.

When I started writing my novel Dirty Fracking Business, John Thomson told me that I would become hooked on the inequities of coal seam gas and that all decent people, once exposed, did. I silently scoffed at his suggestion but he was right and it became the first cause I’ve been associated with.

I’ve since met hundreds of people like me who say they had no intention of getting involved but once they found out how bad it was, they had no choice. Many of these people now devote countless hours to opposing coal seam gas miners and supporting farmers and the environment.

In 2010, if someone had of said to me, you’ll become so hooked that you’ll write an exposé on unconventional gas, I would have laughed at them. Gasland Refugees is that exposé.

Land rights, the environment and the unfair treatment of landowners remain huge issues in Australia while the mining of coal seam gas puts at risk our air, water and food security. These issues transcend politics and Greens, farmers and graziers. Those to the right, find themselves unlikely allies in the fight against coal seam gas.

  • To read Ralph and Tara Meixsell's esposé of the unconventional gas industry in Australia, go to Amazon and enter Gasland Refugees.
  • To find out how you can get involved in the campaign against unconventional gas in your state, visit Lock the Gate
  • To see Frackman and find out how to move your money out of unconventional gas, visit Frackman.

About the author

Peter is a former CEO of a heavy transport equipment company and prior to that an accountant. He now writes white collar crime thrillers and is spreading the word about the environmental and human impacts of unconventional gas.

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