"Shifting thinking from me to we"

Anne Paolina Image

As part of World Commons Week Dr Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Warrwa woman from the Kimberley region of Western Australia, delivered a keynote webinar entitled “Sharing the Commons of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Estate for our Greater Good.”

The webinar was organised by the newly formed Oceania Regional Chapter of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) involving Community Economies Research Network (CERN) member Mairi Gunn.

Poelina’s presentation included a screening of a video documentary “Our Shared and Common Future” which features the National Heritage Listed Martuwarra Fitzroy River, one of the world’s largest tide-dominated deltas in a wilderness setting, and highlights how Traditional Owners are working with scientists and other supporters to develop a conservation and management plan for the catchment that puts at its core the wellbeing of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River.

Poelina explained that the plan, which is due for release at the end of October 2020, is based on “earth-centred governance and Indigenous wisdom which emphasises law of the land, not of man.”

This law recognises rivers as living and active beings and uses legal pluralism to have rivers and other forms of country recognised as having a right to live, paralleling struggles of Indigenous people elsewhere including the Whanganui iwi of Aotearoa New Zealand who, through the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill, established that the Whanganui River has legal personhood.

One prompt for developing the Martuwarra Fitzroy River plan is the extensive development proposals (including for water extraction and fracking) that are currently being put forward that threaten the right to life of the river, a living force and living ancestral being for Kimberley Traditional Owners.

Looking to the future, Poelina emphasises the importance of “forever industries that take place on Indigenous lands through Indigenous hands.”

For Poelina, this means building on the diverse economies that exist in the Kimberley, and includes new economy initiatives, such as geo-heritage, ecotourism, renewable energy and bioprospecting, that are based on benefit-sharing with Indigenous people, opportunities for Indigenous young people, and valuing country and knowledge of country as a commons for all people.

The conservation and management plan to be released at the end of October has more on these economic initiatives.

Poelina emphasises that “this is an important time for shifting thinking from focusing on me and mine to focusing on we and ours, and an ethic of love and care is going to be crucial for building a coalition of hope and humanity.”

Poelina is an active Indigenous community leader, human and earth rights advocate, filmmaker and a respected academic researcher, with a Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Master of Education, Master of Arts (Indigenous Social Policy) and a Doctor of Philosophy (Health Science) with a thesis on ‘Cultural Determinants of Indigenous Health and Wellbeing.'

She is currently an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow with Notre Dame University and a Research Fellow with the Northern Australia Institute, Charles Darwin University, and about to submit her second PhD Thesis.

Jenny Cameron