Murray River Country

Late night Live with Phillip Adams (ABC)

In researching her book Murray River Country, Jessica Weir spent a lot of time talking to the traditional owners of the southern Murray-Darling basin area.

Jessica writes: "In modern thinking, Aboriginal peoples' stories are a narrative that is spiritual or traditional, and the nation-building narrative is one of economic growth or development. From the modern-thinkers' perspective these narratives cannot co-exist: one must be sacrificed for the other.......this way of thinking is false, and, critically, disables our responses to the ecological devastation we now face in the Murray-Darling basin."

Audio: Phillip Adams interviews Dr Jessica K. Weir mp3


An ecological dialogue with traditional owners
By Jessica K. Weir
Published by Aboriginal Studies Press, September 2009, $34.95

"Murray River Country speaks to the potential for creating a new dialogue between the First Nations and new Australians in coming to terms with and understanding each other. This dialogue is reliant on being honest to the devastation past theories have had on our water and the river system and in changing false concepts and practices, as this is essential for not only the continuance of the Murray River system but of life itself."
- Monica Morgan, Yorta Yorta Woman

The crisis of the Murray Darling River system, Australia’s agricultural heartland, is in the media almost daily, however this is the first detailed evaluation that brings Indigenous voices into the debate. In MURRAY RIVER COUNTRY Jessica Weir challenges us to move beyond the current arguments and inaction to create strategies for change that incorporate both western and Indigenous knowledge traditions.

This timely book demands that something fundamental changes in our water philosophies. After all, if we’ve been managing the Murray River water, how did we get into such an unmanageable state? Weir also demands that in looking to the future of the way we are to live, we open the discussion to the past.

Research for the book began in 2003, when Weir attended meetings with the Murray-Darling Basin traditional owners who have formed an alliance: the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN). She details the development of Indigenous engagement with the future of these vital river systems.

Weir reveals how including Indigenous knowledge traditions can be part of building a more ethical relationship with water in Australia, and that ecology and the economy cannot continue in an oppositional relationship.

Her inclusion of the intimate stories of love and loss of the river country’s first nations people brings a unique and poignant perspective to an argument usually framed as one of economics, agriculture and states’ rights. In MURRAY RIVER COUNTRY they share their profound understanding of what we are all losing.

Dr Jessica Weir is a Research Fellow in the Native Title Research Unit at AIATSIS. She is a geographer whose research focuses on ecological and social issues in Australia, particularly water and ecological devastation. With ten years experience working in native title research, she has also worked in the non-government sector with local communities on environment and livelihood issues in Bangladesh and Thailand. She is a member of the Ecological Humanities, a group who foster research that traverses the great divides between the sciences and the humanities, including theories, research and methodologies on the artificial separation of nature/culture.

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How Indigenous wisdom can save the Murray Darling Basin

Margaret Simons writes a book review on 'Murray River Country' by Jessica Weir

Margaret Simons | | 2nd October, 2009

Jessica K. Weir: Murray River Country — An Ecological Dialogue With Traditional Owners. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780855756789. Online

The task Weir has set herself in this book is to explain how one of the most pressing ecological crises facing Australia — the decline of the Murray-Darling Basin — might be better understood if we attempt a synthesis between the points of view of the traditional owners and the 'modern' engineers for whom the river system is most often conceived as a giant piece of plumbing. Weir includes in her book a fascinating Murray Darling Basin Commission diagram in which the river system is depicted as little more than a set of pipes and valves.

Modernism, in Weir's lexicon, describes 'a type of thinking that separates the world into binaries that are placed in oppositional relationships'. Thus, the economic importance of the engineering works along the Murray River is opposed to the ecological and cultural values of the waterway, and understandings of rivers that are to do with more than mega litres and dollars.

What Weir attempts is to convince the reader that the different values we set on a river need not be opposed — that the view of the traditional owners for a healthy river can potentially bring the economics and the ecology into alignment.

Her sources include the bureaucrats and engineers of the Murray Darling Basin Commission on the one side, and on the other the traditional owners who have formed an alliance, the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) to assert their role in decisions concerning water management.

Weir has set herself a big task. The Murray Darling Basin remains the food basket of the nation, and a big earner of export dollars. Only last week I was in the town of Griffith, a town where, thanks to water brought from the Snowy Mountains scheme, it is still possible to believe in the potent narrative of gardens in the desert. It is no coincidence that the town takes its name from a former NSW Minister for Public works, or that its chief public monument is to the Dethridge wheel — an invention used to meter irrigation water usage. Engineering is the dreaming story of so much of white settlement in Australia.

Yet downstream, the narrative of gardens in the desert is, basically, over. In South Australia and western Victoria, fruit trees are dying, grape vines are being ploughed up and a whole constellation of towns are facing the fact that there may be no future for the industries that have supported them since before the First World War.

Weir does a good job of painting the crisis facing the river — waters that were once clear that are now dangerous to the touch, fish that were once a staple food source that are now dangerous to eat, and a Coorong that is now saltier than the sea.

Against this background it is easy to be convinced that the engineers have failed, and are now, as Weir puts it, 'kept busy devising more and more elaborate ways to address the devastation' while the system is still based on an unsustainable level of extraction of water for irrigation.

But what is to be done? The people who rely on irrigation are real communities, real people. They can't simply depart, even if they wished to do so. As well, we all depend on their ability to grow food. As a Murray Darling Basin farmer of my acquaintance put it recently, 'Once people thought that growing food was a good thing to do. Now it feels as though they think it isn't.'

How can Indigenous people indicate a way forward? Weir describes the ways in which MLDRIN has asserted its different point of view in the context of negotiations with the 'modernists' of water management. A 2007 agreement contained two principles that emphasised both western science and Indigenous knowledge:

'That Indigenous science and Western science each have their own value and role in caring for country. That knowledge and management work together — caring for country creates new knowledge and knowledge helps us better care for country.'

In terms of practical solutions, the result is an advocacy for 'cultural flows' or an allocation of water for the sake of a river system that is conceived as much more than a piece of engineering. The term 'cultural flows' is a compromise by Indigenous people, a term designed to speak to policy makers accustomed to talking about 'environmental flows'. The idea, though, is more than that implied by environmental flows. Cultural water flows would be used for whatever purposes the Indigenous nations saw fit, but in their understanding, any such purpose would necessarily also bring environmental benefits. While the language has been adopted to speak to the 'moderns' in the Indigenous understanding, the purposes are not opposed but connected.

'The cultural flow is not a competition for water,' says Weir. 'It is a philosophical change in water management that respects a living world within which our lives are embedded in ethical relationships of care.'

Weir attempts a great deal, and mostly succeeds. Her book could easily disappear either into academic theorising on the one hand, or feel-good political correctness on the other. Her work is saved from these fates by intellectual rigour combined with good writing and a solid grounding in a real, urgent, and quite possibly insoluble problem.

She offers no easy answers. Clearly, there are none. But Weir's work amounts to a critique of the linear idea of progress. As such, it offers some insights into where we might go from here.

Margaret Simons is a freelance journalist and author. She wrote The Meeting of the Waters (Hachette Livre, 2003) which was an expose of the Hindmarsh Island bridge affair.