Human nature: Protecting Indigenous resource rights in remote Australia

Dr. Marcus Barber spent a year living in a tent, tore his knee in a footy match, chopped up a pelican for dinner and directed an impromptu documentary, all in support of Indigenous water rights. Here the environmental anthropologist with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, shares the challenges, lessons and life-changing experiences of more than 15 years working in Indigenous natural and cultural resource management.

“For the first time in my life, I faced this big fork in the road – a point of ‘no going back.’ I asked myself, ‘If I don’t take the harder road, will I die wondering if I should have?’”

Having fallen in love with the coastal environment growing up on Australia’s Great Ocean Road, Marcus has been intrigued by the sea since childhood. At university he did a double degree in arts and science, followed by honours research in marine biology. But only when choosing a PhD project did he decide to make people part of his life’s work.

Barber weighed up a ‘safer’ research project on recreational fishing against an Indigenous sea rights case in remote northern Australia, in a discipline he’d never studied: anthropology. The unknown won.

“I had to write every word of my field notes on the basis that it might be subpoenaed in court.”

Barber spent 18 months living and working with an indigenous community of about 100 people in Blue Mud Bay, roughly 200 kilometres south of the mining town of Nhulunbuy in Australia’s Northern Territory. In a 12-month hunting and fishing survey, he gathered data on how and where people used land and sea resources, building evidence that directly supported the community’s legal claim for rights to the intertidal zone – rights which were ultimately granted by the High Court of Australia.

Local people fishing in Blue Mud Bay. 

Local people fishing in Blue Mud Bay.

“I was treasurer of the Marine Conservation Society and involved in a marine conservation radio program. Two years later I’m standing in a hunting dinghy watching a harpooned dugong drowning so it could be eaten. And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, this would make a great photo…’”

Despite working 14-hour days in the tropics and living 12 months in a tent, the physical demands of Barber’s research were nothing compared to the challenges of building relationships.

“There was time early on when the community leader shot a pelican, tossed it to me and said, “Right, you cut it up.” So I’m sitting there with a fishing knife thinking, “How the hell am I going to chop up a pelican?””

But when community elders tested Barber, he kept an open mind. “Aboriginal people have encountered a lot of European Australians and people from overseas who are environmentally-minded but who are uncertain, even squeamish, about the earthy realities of living life in those contexts. I was living amongst people for whom hunting is an integral part of caring for their country.”

Barber also recognised where he needed to initiate relationships. An AFL football player, he played full-forward to connect with the community’s shyer boys – absorbing his resulting knee reconstruction as part of the cost of real engagement.

“If you take community engagement seriously, you can end up doing interesting things that might be off the books.”

In a project that was originally meant to produce a report to government, Barber’s consultations with community members led to the production of three collaborative films. These include the 20-minute documentary which explores the social benefits of Indigenous ranger programs.

Barber explains that being open to opportunities is fundamental to successful community engagement, but it can take some convincing to bring outside institutions on board with local community research preferences.

“The most critical thing to learn is to approach things with an open mind, a flexible attitude and a concern for what local people might get out of a circumstance – not arrive with an agenda.”

Part of successful community engagement is being willing to learn things that you weren’t expecting to learn, do things outside your comfort zone and have your world views challenged, describes Barber. “You might feel uncomfortable because of your experience or the way you’ve been brought up, but that doesn’t mean that what’s going on isn’t really important locally.”

The way Indigenous communities think about managing their ‘country’ can’t always be captured in conservation goals, he explains, or even in terms of social, economic and environmental outcomes. But these communities have managed landscapes for millennia and their actions are guided by very significant and immediate needs. 

“An immediate environmental outcome may be achievable quickly, but isn’t necessarily going to be sustainable,” says Barber. “It may be far better to achieve it slowly, in ways that enable people to continue generating that outcome long afterwards.”

“One of the principles of field anthropology is that you’ve got to be somewhere for a long time if you want to have any real understanding. But that is a very inefficient process in the era of big data and smartphones.”

The larger the geographic scale, the more groups, institutions and interactions involved and the shorter the time frame, the less likely you are to understand the relationship between Indigenous communities and landscapes.

Barber stresses that it’s important to be comfortable as you learn, without being arrogant or insensitive. “Asking lots of questions as a newbie is usually considered rude – especially about important things. The more appropriate course is to be patient – to wait until one has earned an opportunity to be told.”

Barber cutting bark in Blue Mud Bay to be used for a bark painting.

Barber cutting bark in Blue Mud Bay to be used for a bark painting.

“When you’re down a dirt road a long way from anywhere and it’s just you and a group of local people, institutional guidelines are sometimes not much help.”

According to Barber, keen judgment is often just as important as formal processes for guiding interactions with Indigenous communities. Experienced practitioners know that following an identical, inflexible step-by-step process won’t always create the best engagement outcomes. For example, if a regional authority is not well-respected by a community, connecting with a local corporation might be a better approach.

“There are opportunities for people who are committed and who are there for the right reasons to make a contribution.”

In addition to research, there are plenty of other pathways to contribute to Indigenous conservation, including staff for Australia’s Indigenous ranger programs. These jobs are typically remote and physically demanding, says Barber, but are fascinating and rewarding. Besides people with conservation training, these jobs can also appeal to former pastoralists, fishers, military veterans and others with remote logistics training and transferrable skills. The larger Indigenous organisations also take on student volunteers.

Private companies with a corporate social responsibility focus may also hire employees with experience in Indigenous programs that provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits. 

“If you try to force Indigenous knowledge to do the same things as western science, you will end up in all sorts of tangles. And the danger is that it then ends up being dismissed as mumbo-jumbo, as meaningless, inadequate or inaccurate.”

One of the greatest values of Indigenous knowledge, says Barber, is how it expresses human relationships with the world.

“If you try to document indigenous knowledge in purely scientific terms – only asking what ‘facts’ are known, you’re misunderstanding what that knowledge is for. It’s for informing human lives in particular places in the world, for making them meaningful, healthy, sustainable, practical, and beautiful. This world view doesn’t march to the same beat but has an intellectual rigor, purpose and logic to it that has a long tradition and is not to be dismissed lightly.”

Learn more about Dr. Marcus Berber’s work.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Policy Advocate