Regeneration, rewilding, repossession or reconciliation? Ecological restoration and the politics of decolonisation in Western Australia
Yann Toussaint (University of Western Australia)
Paper short abstract:
Following WWI and WWII Australia recruited ex-soldiers to ‘settle’ land with little regard for Indigenous traditional owners of that land nor for its fragile ecology. This paper examines the significance of recent attempts to ‘regenerate’ former farmland for settler-descendents, traditional owners and others.
Paper long abstract:
Following WWI and WWII the Western Australian government sought to rehabilitate former combatants from Britain and elsewhere by allocating land for farming. This 'soldier settlement' scheme aimed to clear 'a million acres a year' in order to boost the Australian economy and to rapidly increase the population with the goal of establishing 'a bold yeomanry' capable of defending the country in the event of future conflicts. This was done with little regard for the Indigenous traditional owners of the land nor for its fragile ecology. Within a generation much of this land was regarded as too marginal to cultivate; in some cases those advocating extensive revegetation were those very farmers who had been involved in land clearing. More recently, for many Australians, growing sympathy towards Indigenous Australians' prior claims to 'country' finds expression in what anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has termed 'decolonisation'; a process of historical re-examination and social, cultural, political and ecological regeneration. Sensitive engagement with decolonisation may offer settler-descended Australians the potential to atone for environmental damage and Indigenous dispossession while simultaneously realizing a form of 'custodial belonging' akin to that of the Indigenous traditional owners of the land. Yet such discourses, often suggesting personal, spiritual or cultural renewal alongside ecological restoration, also risk reproducing ongoing processes of appropriation and dispossession. Building on non-representational theory and inquiries into 'performing nature' this paper draws on ethnographic research conducted in the south-west of Western Australia to examine the cultural dimensions and restorative potential of recent attempts to 'regenerate' former farmland.