Owning the Future: An Interview with Melissa George


As a traditional owner of her Aboriginal country, Melissa George has some suggestions for those in Australia concerned about the environment.

Melissa George is Wulgurukaba, her clan is Nwalgibain, and her language group is Wulguru. She works to secure the recognition of indigenous rights and interests in environmental and natural resource management—locally, nationally, and internationally. She is a member of the Sea Forum Working Group (made up of traditional owner groups who wish to negotiate co-management of sea country) and contributes to the Cooperative Research Center for the Reef. George is also a member of the Australian government’s Indigenous Advisory Committee for Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation.

In October, indigenous representatives from around the world will attend the first International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Australia. The congress is the result of dedicated people like George and organizations like the World Conservation Union and the World Commission on Protected Areas, who have joined together to facilitate the exchange of ideas, shape policy, and guide research on the effective management of marine resources.

Antasia Azure interviewed Melissa George, an Aboriginal traditional owner of the greater Townsville region of the Great Barrier Reef and Magnetic Island, Australia, in August 2004 while conducting independent research on the relationship the Australian Aborigines have with their country. George, 34, speaks about the struggle of her Aboriginal clan to gain recognition of their inherent right to own and manage their traditional land and sea country.

As a traditional owner, what do you consider your obligation to country today?

My obligation to country is to stir up the government as much as I possibly can for good outcomes. The days of being passive and waiting for things to change have gone. People of my generation recognize that the only way we can have some level of opportunity to do things on country is to play the game the way the whitefellas in the government play. For example, it is very important to be able to meet with the Parks Department and understand how the department operates. Our older people may not have a handle on English. When talking to elders about policies and statutory requirements, it is the young people who must explain. We have it ingrained in us from a very young age that if we want to do something for our people, we need to educate ourselves, then get out there and do what we think is best and what our old people tell us to do. I learned at a very young age and I feel it is my obligation to ensure that things are going to be better for my children and grandchildren in years to come. I do not want my children to be going to meetings when they are 50, which is happening to elders now. I started going to meetings with my mother when I was five. When I was 10, my mother and I were talking about issues relating to country. At meetings with the government today we are talking about the same issues, 30 years later.

How can negotiating parties who hold conflicting ideas work toward an agreement on how country should be managed?

In the protected area context of Queensland there needs to be a shift in the way the bureaucracy views Aboriginal land management. There need to be management boards made up of traditional owners and government departments. If traditional owners were the majority on management boards, we could make decisions together for country with the support of the government departments.

Is institutional racism a problem?

We have encountered racism within institutions like the Parks Department. Its legislation has effectively ensured difficulty for traditional owners to negotiate agreements with it, while claiming that it is the Native Title Act that restricts it.

It sounds like negotiations become a power struggle with a government fearful of relinquishing control.

Negotiations are definitely a power struggle with bureaucrats who, at the end of the day, do not actually have a vested interest in outcomes. I find it quite laughable when I sit down listening to bureaucrats arguing a point with me about my country because as bureaucrats they can actually get another job and move away, but I, as a traditional owner, cannot walk away from my country. Every decision that I make on behalf of my people is going to have some future effect, good or bad.

What do you hope to achieve by negotiating a formal land management agreement with the government?

Foremost for our elders is recognition that this land is our country. Our old people want the public to recognize that we are from Magnetic Island Country. Our parents and grandparents went through a lot of discrimination and racism when the first settlers came to Townsville. We want the broader community to recognize that our people were forcibly removed off country. For instance, my mother was moved to Palm Island, one of the roughest places because it was initially a penal settlement. It became the worst dumping ground for blackfellas in Queensland. Aborigines from very different clan groups were thrown together on one isolated island. To end conflict, our people were flogged. Aboriginal clans across Australia have their own sets of tribal laws and beliefs and obligations to country.

For traditional owner groups who have very specific obligations to country, how helpful are land management agreements?

If traditional owners can negotiate and get an outcome they want, agreements are helpful. From the perspective of protecting country, agreements on land use and protected areas are good tools because they give traditional owners the ability to manage resources and ensure a permanent presence on country. There are other mechanisms in place that can get people out on country. Government programs that make use of the unemployed to work for community are pretty shoddy, but they could be used to get our people back to country and involved in management.

When do land management agreements fail?

In some situations the specific agency we are dealing with has different ideas on how country should be managed, and that is always going to be a difficulty. The Parks Department manages protected areas for conservation alone, without any understanding of the broader implications for traditional owners—for us to actually get back to country, be involved in the management of it, be able to continue with our cultural practice, and where traditional owners have not had the opportunity to carry out their culture, to revitalize that culture again. The Parks Department finds it very difficult to accept that there are major social and economic implications in managing country.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, run by the Commonwealth Government, recently implemented a Revised Zoning Plan for managing access and resource use in the Great Barrier Reef. What role did your people play in making changes around Magnetic Island?

I think the rezoning idea is good. We do need some sort of representative area of protection across an area as big as the Great Barrier Reef. There’s no question about that. Unfortunately, our wishes to extend green zones [marine national park zones] around Magnetic Island were not taken into consideration. We do have one area in the northwestern part of the island that is a terrestrial and marine park, but the area has not been given a conservation classification that would ensure protection of cultural sites. Because of where our country is located—Magnetic Island is a popular island in the Great Barrier Reef, and Townsville is one of the major regional centers in Queensland—there is a lot of political pressure on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority from powerful professional and recreational fishing groups and the tourism industry. When weighing up the politics of who should have more of a say about managing access and resource use in the area, other representative groups got more recognition than we as traditional owners did, and that was a bit disappointing.

What are the biggest areas of contention between traditional owners and the Reef Authority?

The areas of contention are where tourists and recreational fishers should and should not be allowed to go in order to protect cultural sites of significance. A lot of people say commercial fishing is the worst, but commercial fishers have been pretty much put through the sieve and have been made to be responsible to sustainable resource use with catch size, quotas, and limited access. Recreational fishers are not made to act responsibly. Above all, traditional hunting has always been a major area of contention in the Great Barrier Reef.

What is your opinion on the current debate about traditional hunters over-harvesting certain marine species, such as green turtles and dugongs [sea cows]?

There is no question that over-harvesting exists in some areas and that there needs to be a real change in attitude as to how we define harvesting. We are starting to talk about over-harvesting as human-induced mortality, which Aboriginal communities are starting to recognize. Rather than pointing the finger, the government could be working with communities to develop strategies that suit that community. If the government comes with a management plan and says this is how you are going to manage this resource, it is not going to happen. Plans and strategies need to be developed from the ground up, and until that takes place, I do not think that over-harvesting issues will be resolved.

Does your clan’s definition of sustainability differ from that of the Australian government’s?

It is very difficult to determine what sustainability is when there are so many other impacts. This includes poaching by other indigenous peoples who are not traditional owners yet hunt turtles and dugongs on our clan’s country in order to feed their families. Using turtles as an example, my people do not hunt turtles because we know of all of the other incidences of mortality. As traditional owners we decided some time ago that we would only hunt turtles for an extreme or set purpose—for instance, if one of our elders passed away or when one of us marries. Often traditional owners cannot get a handle on what sustainability is when we have not been given the information on turtle populations. If we were informed of the numbers of turtles in our sea country, we would then be able to make informed decisions on what our harvest rate should be. We need this kind of support. Jobs for indigenous people could include taking population counts, name tagging, and turtle research. This type of broad-scale investment in monitoring is important for marine species sustainability. Does it make sense to have erratic monitoring programs up and down the coast when we might get a figure from up the coast and a figure from down the coast, but [no figures] on migratory patterns?

Another impact on turtle populations is the number of boat strikes on turtles and net entanglement. There is a huge amount of boat use on our sea country. If we were to develop a turtle management strategy, we would include a marine transit lane where boats must keep to a particular lane and speed. At the moment there are not many transit lanes, and this is one area where we could educate the broader community. We would ensure that there would be a major education campaign for the public.

What are public perceptions of Aboriginal land and sea management?

There was a public perception when we first lodged a Native title claim that we were going to stick a six-foot cyclone fence around the national park, which makes up 75 percent of Magnetic Island, thereby denying all access to non-indigenous residents and tourists. Realistically, I would ensure that priority be given to managing cultural sites within the national park, a World Heritage-protected estate. For instance, native flora needs to be protected and non-native flora managed.

Also, in Queensland some thought needs to be given to a fee charged for entry to Magnetic Island’s national park. It will be difficult in the first instance, but it has been done on the Great Barrier Reef with the introduction of the Marine Park Activities Use Fee for all who visit the marine park. There is no reason why the government cannot charge an entry fee for Magnetic Island because all visitors have to come over on the ferry boat or car barge for which they willingly pay, even if one dollar is added to a ferry ticket. The ferry had over one million passengers last year who were not locals. That is $1 million straight into park management.

It could be said that the average non-indigenous Australian believes that if land were given back to the Aboriginal people, they would be incapable of taking care of it. Aborigines are often viewed as welfare dependents and alcoholics who do not even follow their own traditional ways any more. What is your response to this view of your people?

Well, in some instances this is true, but not every blackfella that lives in a community is like that. If a young person lives in a community where 90 percent are welfare-dependent, he or she may not have the opportunity to be taught tradition and culture, but there is always the opportunity for teaching to start. Our economic well-being has always come from our care of country. There is a big question in Queensland and across the whole of northern Australia as to whether caring for country is a real form of economic development. I say yes, most definitely. Our business is caring for country: healthy people equals healthy country. Rather than attempting to mainstream people into how to build a community, there needs to be an attempt to recognize and accept that some communities operate the way they do because that is how their cultural and social structure existed initially. Maybe all the other whitefellas’ vision is on the top—the drugs, domestic violence, and welfare dependency—but there is always an opportunity to turn that around. A lot of us think that mainstreaming is not necessarily the way to go.

The term “capacity building” is used a lot when referring to what Aboriginal communities need. What do you believe would be the best approach to build up a community’s capacity to be economically self-sustainable?

First, there needs to be recognition that when people talk about capacity-building it does not just take place with one party. As a traditional owner I believe there is a lot of capacity that needs to be developed in government, conservation movements, and the broader community. There is limited understanding in government and public sectors about what it means to be a traditional owner and how traditional owners have over time played an important role in the conservation of particular species. In government the capacity of bureaucrats to know how to deal with blackfellas needs to be built because most of them do not have a clue. When negotiating a specific issue, it is very difficult to deal with people who do not have a clue where traditional owners are coming from. Our old people always ask me: “Why do we always have to build our capacity? It is up to the other fellas to do it as well.”

Within our own communities, building the capacity to care for country will require individualized training at a community level. Many communities are so different from others that a large percentage of individual communities will have very specific training needs. We can do it on a case-by-case basis by developing skill audits and by working out what training needs to be provided. There is a lack of understanding within the black community about how whitefellas manage country. Someone within government needs to take the bull by the horns and say: “This is the way we can have indigenous skill levels built to the whitefellas’ capacity for land management.”

Is it fair to say that many Aborigines aspire to return to their traditional role of guardianship of the land and that payment for their work of environmental care provides economic stability for their community?

Yes. We are now living in an era where our government and the world are extremely security conscious. Many communities are located at Australia’s northern borders, strategic entry points critical to Australia’s security. The people that live in these communities are the ones who, if Australia is invaded, are going to experience the worst of the attack. There is no recognition given that our people could perform defense duties for Australia. We could be doing the job of quarantine services and customs as well as maintaining a management regime over country. Why the federal government does not utilize the benefits of our continued presence on country—and in doing so, increase the number of votes in northern Australia — does not make sense.

Do your clan members who no longer live on country want to come back to live on their land?

A majority of them do want to return to country, but the older ones want to live out their lives where they are. They have spent a lot of their lives not living on country and they are pretty much set in their ways. Even still, they have always come home and as they are getting older they want to come home for a last visit. I also have grandfathers who lived in the Northern Territory and Western Australia for over 20 years who, because they feel weak and know their time is almost up, want to come home. They want to die on country.

How would you feel if you had to leave your country and live in the Australian capital of Canberra?

I want to live on my country. I do not want to be in a position where I have got to move to Canberra. In the last three years, traditional owner groups have quite successfully achieved outcomes [from where they are in rural areas]. I have worked with a lot of Aborigines across Australia. Together we have been able to achieve a hell of a lot and live on country. A couple of times a year we meet and work out together the next step for us as indigenous Australians, but we all go back to where we come from. Our people need to go back and live on country. It gives us strength because we gain a strong sense of identity, who we really are, from living and caring for our land and sea country. Living on country contributes to the debate. It also ensures that we know and speak the wishes of our people because we go back to answer to country and community, not back to an empty office removed from the issues we debate.

With support from Yale University, anthropologist Antasia Azure has conducted independent research on the relationship between Australian Aborigines and sustainable land practices in Australia.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: