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.

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