Ecologies of Development on Groote Eylandt

By Tess Lea

© all rights reserved.

Where once Groote Eylandt was regarded in policy and media circles as a ‘resource-cursed’ island crippled by social problems, it has recently been rehabilitated to become a showcase of what can be achieved through partnerships between public, private and non-government organisations. The turnaround has been attributed to sound planning and policy intervention, led in the first instance by Warnindilyakwa community leaders. They recognised the profound harms of alcohol abuse and endemic welfare dependence as obstacles to the goals of poverty-reduction and life-improvement, and committed themselves to partnership efforts with government and industry.1

The Warnindilyakwa were among the first to commence high-level negotiations with the Australian government before the Northern Territory Emergency Response (‘the intervention’). They parleyed land access and title issues in exchange for co-investment in comprehensive models of social reform, spanning from town leasehold arrangements to early childhood, employment and enterprise projects (Anindilyakwa Land Council et al.). This followed a long tradition of locally-led initiatives and exploration of entrepreneurial opportunities, including trade with trepang fleets from south Sulawesi, when the uniquely ugly sea-slug delicacy was exchanged for sail cloth, metal tools and other commodities (Macknight; Sutherland).

This paper analyses the skilled layers of negotiation in play in the ongoing quest to reform Groote Eylandt (the work of future-securing being never complete). In order to do so, emphasis is put on local and institutional leadership. In the words of one local leader, describing the community’s work of the last decade, ‘we turned from a blood and tears to a business people’ (Personal interview with the author, July 2012). Yet the task I confront in this paper adds other layers of complexity to the question of policy reform, in an attempt to incorporate an ecological consideration of the forms and interests, paths and obstacles people have been navigating.2

I will argue that there is a particular need to grapple further with the political economy of social policy—its profit pursuits and vested interests—as well as its moralities, whilst insisting that policy efforts are also ecological, for mainly two reasons. First, the environments into which policy is directed have ecological specificities; and second, policy worlds are themselves ecological. Despite the generic language attending policy formulations, policy’s materialisations must be located somewhere.3 In the case of Groote Eylandt, that ‘somewhere’ is within the Gulf of Carpentaria, off the Arnhem Land Coast, in a hot humid climate. It is Australia’s third largest island, subject to cyclones and flooding of low-lying areas during the intense deluge of the monsoon period. It is also subject to the corrosions of air-borne salt, reverse leaching of metal pipes by the soft rain water, and rapid material decay from termites, fungus, rodents and other vermin, as well as the cracking, shrinkage, splitting, twisting and warping from drying and expanding with wet and dry conditions.

All this is not incidental to interventionary action but a necessary part of why interventionary action is required. However, policy programs are often conceptualised as if they are linear and entirely human-centric processes leading to an end point, a resolution, in which a bundle of services or goods or people are made available to address a problem. In fact, policy translations meet and are conjured by the kind of Ozymandian universe of Shelley’s famous sonnet, ‘Ozymandias’, which draws attention to the frailty of grand schemes in the face of larger forces, from sand and wind erosion to such human foibles as arrogance and forgetfulness. When policy ideas—let’s say an infrastructure program—become tangible, their manifestations likewise meet the complexities of a bio-cultural world. Groote Eylandt is a particular case in point, where bearings corrode with rust, roads subside, and infrastructure is expensive to maintain both because of the materials’ dynamic interplay with the environments, and the way that conceptualisation of this interaction only enters grand policy vocabularies tangentially, with words such as ‘sustainability’ or ‘remote area life’. For instance, new housing on Groote was part of the Strategic Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), itself a chequered multi-million dollar major capital works effort funded as part of ‘the intervention’.4 The seven key objectives around which SIHIP was designed speak of meeting residents’ needs and reducing overcrowding; of constructing ‘quality’ new homes and refurbishing to ‘appropriate standards’; of training local Indigenous people to ‘achieve a sustainable workforce’; and of deploying ‘management best practices’ for use in future programs.5 The SIHIP alliance team originally assigned to Groote was a consortium called Earth Connect. Earth Connect was keen to build kit houses to metropolitan Queensland designs, to be prefabricated on the mainland, freighted to their new location and assembled by local teams. The kit homes did not meet the National Indigenous Housing Guidelines (FAHCSIA 2007), and could not meet the reality of a monsoonal climate on an exposed and remote mining island with a monopoly barge service.

Long story short: a kit home company found itself needing to ‘stick build’—that is, design and construct houses on site—with disastrous consequences in the face of Groote’s socio-organic complexity. Over $28 million was spent without recovery, with nothing to show for it but six house footings that need to be bulldozed and a further five that need to be reconstructed. Following two years of detailed documentation and complaint by the Anindilyakwa Land Council, Earth Connect was sacked, claiming bureaucratic sabotage as they scuffled back to Queensland. Locals told me, ‘whaddya expect, that boss fella wore white shoes’ (Author field notes, May 2010).

For a few months back in 2010, behind a heavily barricaded building site, one could still see the abandoned new house footings standing sentinel to the always human-non-human circulations of capital and remedialism. Nearby lay a stack of wooden beams—lengths of glued laminated structural timber known as LVL—freighted all the way from New Zealand and left half-wrapped in orange plastic on ground worn down by the boots of many visitors. Ordinarily, these beams of engineered wood have the advantage over milled lumber of being much stronger, less likely to warp, twist, bow or shrink. They can even withstand extreme atmospheric conditions, shrinking and expanding in dynamic response to changing moisture gradients—just the thing for an island lashed by an annual monsoon one might think. There are just a few little catches. The beams cannot be left exposed to the elements but must be kept flat and well ventilated, dry and out of the sun, and elevated off the ground on level bearers. And the adhesive is particularly attractive to ants, with the LVL dubbed ‘Weet-Bix for termites’ by wisecracking islanders.

The eventual removal of Earth Connect and serial inquiries into the wider SIHIP program effectively cauterized information leakage about both topics: the problems have been rectified, the program is acquitted. These exonerations, like the original SIHIP objectives, do not pay attention to—and probably cannot notice—the thick organic material and semiotic processes that remain internal and external to policy. These sorts of occlusions help affirm a sense of policy coherency, where ‘unintended consequences’ can be blamed on lack of knowledge, insufficient governance processes and the like. Yet, while policy coherence can be semantically restored with impression management techniques, the blind-siding of wider socio-ecological considerations from all conceptualisations re-establishes the conditions for material failure and remedial circularity. Since it is interacting with socio-organic worlds, by definition what policy is addressing cannot be one-off. Implementing projects as if they have closure upon acquittal (and loss of media attention) help explain both the endurance of corrosive living conditions and how Indigenous people get to retain the tag of ‘dysfunctional’, rationalising in turn more interventions of the sort that are part architects of the identified disorders (Lea and Pholeros; Lea, Bureaucrats). As I have increasingly come to see it, the notion of ‘unintended effects’ presumes an originary logic and a domino effect flowing from policy citadels to fields of practice that bears no resemblance to everyday happenings on the ground.

I noted earlier that the second reason why policy is ecological relates to policy environments themselves. Policy is made in human environments that are themselves ecological; they are animated, networked, cyborgian, chaotic, dynamically interacting parts that involve emotive and sexualised human-animals, other organisms, and communities of the living and the non-living. After all, if they weren’t so diversely populated, they would lack any dramatic or comedic potential that television series from House, M.D. to The Wire are able to exploit. Policy ecologies are also self-sustaining and purposeful, acting with organic instincts of self-preservation. They disavow their self-interests with prose about building ‘stronger futures’ and assisting to provide ‘pathways towards employment’ through ‘capacity building’ and programs tailored to the needs of local communities (Wiegratz). This disavowal is assisted by the hopes that members of the public place in policy, as ultimate sites of benefaction.

This mix of self-preservation and statecraft takes me back to the political economy of policy. Rather than seeing Indigenous social policy exclusively in terms of expense, policy remedialism is also economically generative. It opens opportunities for forms of wage-attracting work in the slots made available by funding within Eurocentrically defined employment regimes, which tend disproportionately to benefit non-Indigenous people. And it inveigles Indigenous leaders and organisations into quasi-beneficial, unavoidable trade with the state which in turn fosters and sustains allied businesses: from freight and construction industry supply firms to consultants, service providers and academics (Ritter; Sullivan; Li).6 There are large economic circuits feeding off and into the ‘Indigenous industry’.

As David Graeber reminds us, ‘States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today’ (71). Yet it remains a habit of Australian Indigenous policy analysis to treat the interests of markets as if these are separate from the interests of Indigenous social policy, except either as sponsors or monsters. This in turn leaves aside the investments of the wider ‘mainstream’ community in the wealth to be generated from Indigenous lands (see also Lea et al.). Space does not allow a detailed genealogy here, as the links are not only complicated by the entanglements of settler colonial history, but also obscured by habits of mind which ensure Western professionals see the world in an anthropocentric, market-oriented way. Suffice to say, colonial dispossession remains a live process, not a past event (Wolfe).

Of course such co-dependencies are routinely omitted from key Indigenous social policy texts like the Council of Australian Government’s National Indigenous Reform Agreement or the Productivity Commission’s evaluations and reports. But these neutralisations are not simply discursive. They meet a failure to foreground the other agents (think fungi, critters, electricity, plastic, rust and metal, and fully visceral human animals) interacting within policy’s material manifestations on the ground when analysing how things work, why things fail and what ought to be done.

Instead, Indigenous people’s habits and the type of person needing to be capacitated (educated, law abiding, employed, housed) dominate the focus. These partitions might enable analysts more easily to discriminate good from bad types of policy implementation, in order to expose unachieved outcomes and unintended consequences, but we need to resist this kind of transcendental critique (Muecke). Evaluations are of course often useful but they also suggest a corrective teleology that once again positions ‘policy’ in an over-determined position of centrality. The entailments and entanglements not found in development artefacts nonetheless remain part of their conditions of possibility. Furthermore, I argue, they are necessary to be brought back into view in the ongoing project of making things better, or as Donna Haraway puts it, of ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway). Surfacing the complexities might make social policy formulations less resolute, but hopefully more ecologically true.

In what follows I invoke the work of Uexküll both in order to include other life-forms and to retain the idea that how we engage with our material environments places limits on our perceptual capacities (see also Eagleman). Uexküll’s work helps explain why ecologies are not usually thought about within social policy: being linear and blinkered is a conditioned effect of environments, institutional ecologies too. Uexküll’s humbling notions help prevent us from deciding too quickly what is cause and what is effect, what affects and what is affected. On Groote Eylandt, social policy not only enters the wild, it wends around a people who already see the organic written into the everyday: people for whom rocks listen (Povinelli).

As the site of one of the world’s largest mining operations, Groote Eylandt’s distinctive geography and socio-political history send out a challenge to understand development regimes ethologically, especially given the genuine urgency of the Warnindilyakwa to have state-community development partnerships confer their promised benefits on their remote and exposed archipelago. What follows is a necessarily tentative attempt to hold the ecological framing outlined above, beginning with the seabeds connecting the Groote archipelago, both source of contested mineral-rich sediments and metaphor for the complexities of policy analysis.

Groote Eylandt: The Site and its Life Forms
The fertile homelands of the Warnindilyakwa, an island of pandanus palms and fresh water streams cascading over multi-hued rocks, sits diagonally opposite Blue Mud Bay on the north-east Arnhem coast. Its deep blue coastal waters reflect the rich bedrock deposits of manganese platforming out beneath the tropical sea. Blue Mud Bay is site of the decision of the High Court of Australia that Indigenous traditional owners have exclusive rights to inter-tidal zones, extending for over 5,000 kilometres along the Northern Territory (NT) coastline. The court further determined that the NT Government does not have the power it had long been presuming to allow commercial fishing to take place within the zones’ turquoise waters.

As with the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (ALRA) vis-à-vis mining, commercial fishers now need to negotiate with Indigenous interests, a situation which offers the potential to yield substantial dividends for otherwise materially disadvantaged communities (O’Faircheallaigh). The huge tide ranges forced by low lying mangrove flats in this part of the world make ‘inter-tidal zones’ worth fighting over. Long before the Blue Mud Bay legal precedent, the tide at its farthest point on the cusp of returning—’karrabing’ in the Emiyenggal language of Aboriginal people west of Darwin—was for coastal Aboriginal people a zone of lively potentiality, not the low point of Western metaphor:

All kinds of potentialities spring forward. In the coastal region stretching from Nganthawudi to Bendjagoin, a deep karrabing opens a shorter passage between mainland and islands. In some places, reefs rise as the water recedes. A road is revealed.7

It all depends on how the land is being read, on what the revelation of soft sand and blue silt, tidal pools, scuttling crabs and sharp-shelled oysters is thought to be about, on the limits on what is available to be perceived. Jakob von Uexküll calls these different micro-realities ‘Umwelt’, a German word for environment. He referred to the ‘subjective universe meanings’ that lie within and between complex self-organised living systems, based on the subset of the world they are able to detect (Uexküll 29). In the Umwelt of the near-blind grazing dugong, for instance, the seagrass meadows between Groote Eylandt and Blue Mud Bay are fodder through which paths are carved, as stems and roots are torn from the mud by a strong muzzle in side-to-side sweeps. The vascular tissue within the stems of sea grass being macerated by dugongs is also self-contained, as ‘each Umwelt forms a closed unit in itself, which is governed, in all its parts, by the meaning it has for the subject’ (30). The stages on which each subject’s life-roles are played embrace wider or narrower spaces. The tide and weather determine which seagrass meadows the tropical dugong will graze. The Umwelt of the liberal settler might be widened by colonial finances and boats, yet narrowed by the foreignness of the locality and an ontology which opposes the organic to the inorganic, by a sensorium which cannot see a seabed or its constituent life-forms as subjects with their own universes.

When anthropologist Donald Thomson embarked on a roving commission from the Australian Government ‘to entrust’ some of north-east Arnhem Land’s natives in 1935, the tropical tides and soft blue mud near Groote trapped him for nearly seventeen hours (Thomson 1). In this meaning world, whites were trustworthy, blacks were not. Thompson had thought that his expedition should win over the fighting men of Blue Mud Bay before they ventured further north and so,

I decided at once to leave the boat and to go inland to their camp, to meet them in their own country away from my vessel. I was determined to show them this time that the white man was prepared to trust them. (1)

But the commission badly miscalculated the clutch of the low tide. And when they jumped out of their dinghy to free their little boat from the crocodile-infested waters, the mud was ‘too soft to give any foothold, and we sank up to our thighs and were still sinking, at the same time cutting our feet nastily on sharp shells embedded in the ooze’ (2). ‘Two natives from the shore’ made their way over to assist: ‘They were evidently experienced at walking over mud and appeared to have a technique of their own for doing it’ (3).

According to the light-footed Warnindilyawans, the mud slowed down the movement of ancestral beings crossing from the mainland to their island. Mud forces one ancestral being to discard the stones upon his back and cast aside children, creating landmarks as, now lightened, he moved on (Turner, Tradition 86). Mud stopped saw-fish, shovel-nosed shark and shark ray from continuing to cut sea channels across the waters, forcing shovel-nosed shark to carve an inland river instead (87).

Depending on the subject’s Umwelt, the inter-tidal zone has different kinds of property. It can grip an anthropologist in overnight abeyance. It can carry songlines across time and space. It can vest legal interests. It can shelter crocodiles, dugongs and turtles. It can be familiar ground for light feet. And further out to water, beyond the protections and potentialities of the lowest tide, the seabed can be dredged by miners. Yet this wider ecology of interests can only gain partial recognition in development plans which instead push for employment, training, housing and enterprise development of particular categorical kinds, authorised with tags like ‘meaningful’, ‘real’, ‘holistic’, ‘integrated’ and ‘coordinated’. Similarly missing from policy framings are any outlines of the broader political economy subtending Aboriginal circumstances and on Groote, the hidden role of the mine in helping create current circumstances.

The Mine
BHP Billiton’s Groote Eylandt Mining Company (known as GEMCO) owns the mining rights to the island’s high-grade manganese ore, extracted via open-cut strip-mining from its 84 square-kilometre mining lease. The first load was shipped out in 1966, when the archipelago was still under the administrations of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the Northern Territory Administration’s Welfare Branch. This powerful alliance could lock anthropologists out, as securely as it could orchestrate access to the manganese-rich mud.

The CMS had taken out permits both to prospect and to seek mining titles on the island in 1960 in response to growing interest from geologists, thus securing its key role in subsequent negotiations with BHP, exchanging its prospecting title for a 1.25 percent ad valorem8 royalty payment directed into a Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Trust Fund (Schultz et al.: 49-50). A second statutory royalty agreement was established between BHP and the Australian Government, whereby a separate ad valorem 2.5 percent was paid to the Aborigines Benefit Trust Fund (ABTF).9

It was in the aftermath of the new mining operation that the CMS, in conjunction with the Welfare Branch, refused access to anthropologist David Turner, who sought to return to the islands in 1974 to pursue a comprehensive study of Aboriginal music (Turner, Return). A decade or so later, chancing upon the now retired Assistant Director of Research within the Welfare Branch, Milliken, Turner learnt the political terms of his expulsion. ‘Groote was a sensitive area and the Aborigines’ response to the mining which had just begun there was being closely monitored’, the now candid Mr Milliken told him, while for their part, members of the Church Missionary Society ‘were adamant that we were not to return to Groote Eylandt because we were interfering with their missionizing efforts’ (17).

Today, visitors are given lessons in not interfering in the company’s extraction efforts immediately on arrival. As the crow flies, the mining pits operate closest to the former mission settlement of Angurugu, but are accessed via a well-maintained highway leading to and from Alyangula, the administrative, residential and recreational hub for a predominantly male and increasingly fly in, fly-out workforce that here as elsewhere impacts heavily on the social fabric of the community (see also Carrington et al. in this issue). The usual route in is by small aircraft, sharing the company of Indigenous residents, assorted government and other service personnel, visiting consultants and workers in high visibility industrial clothing. GEMCO not only owns the airport but asserts an unmistakable presence as one crosses—or waits to cross—a barricaded dirt road intersecting the drive into and out of the aerodrome, as giant dump trucks and hauling trains rumble past. I have never seen the mine itself.

GEMCO’s Groote operation accounts for more than 15 percent of the world’s high-grade manganese ore production, a market currently driven by China. The heavy element is indispensable to steel manufacturing, increasing its strength, resistance and machinability. It makes steel less brittle and prevents oxidation. Without it, steel fractures when it is hot-rolled or forged (Hoak). 90 percent of manganese is used in steelmaking processes, the rest for batteries, chemicals and aluminium cans.

In its report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, BHP Billiton boasts that owning their own port facilities and operating a simple, open-cut mining operation makes their Groote site one of the lowest-cost manganese ore producers in the world (BHP Billiton: 147). In 2007, the GEMCO operation was also listed as having a reserve life of 17 years. By 2011 the company had revised this down by a year, reporting a reserve life of only 12 years (BHP Billiton: 115). GEMCO is right now preparing for a final burst of extraction, aiming to pull out an extra 0.6 million tonnes per annum from the current 4.2 million by late 2013, upgrading their port facility, manganese processing plant and machinery.10

In all, GEMCO has nine mineral leases on the island, totalling 8,466 hectares, all of which came up for renewal in 2006. Unlike the deals struck with the Anglican church in the early 1960s, the 2006 negotiations permitting GEMCO to mine for a further 25 years were for the first time held directly with Traditional Owners (Anindilyakwa Land Council 23). GEMCO agreed to increase the number of Indigenous employees and is partnering with the Land Council in its wider social improvement efforts as part of the exchange, as part of future-proofing the island against the end of manganese.

Keith Cole, a self-published historian for the CMS, tells a neat story of the good relationships that were forged out of the early church agreements between miners and Aborigines (Cole 50). Yet others believe the mining largesse underwrote a ‘nightmare dreaming’ (Burgoyne in Rothwell) of spending sprees, drunken rampages, shootings and stabbings; of well-stocked armouries and bandits crashing around the island in readily replaceable ‘mutikas’; and of nefarious entrepreneurs cashing in on annual royalty payments in the balmy cool breezes of July. With mining came regular access to alcohol (Conigrave, Proude and d’Abbs 17) and the influx of a hard-working, hard-drinking and fist-ready labour force (Carrington, Hogg and McIntosh). The bucket bongs, party houses and neglect of kin that were blamed on mining largesse and welfare have since legitimised state interventions. But the party days of the Warnindilyakwa were not so different from the life of drinking, violence and entrapment modelled by the miners on Aboriginal land, a mirror image with the warping of unemployment as the seminal difference.

A different perspective again was generated within the projected geographies of bureaucratic imagination, built from the vibrant trade in officer-to-officer factoids. For the bureaucrat-professionals, beyond the pleasing allure of Alyangula’s green golf course, restaurants and licensed clubs, Groote’s Aboriginal towns—most especially Umbakumba—exemplified mayhem. Umbakumba School had lock-down shutters, the store wall-to-floor security meshes. Service providers did not want to work there and police evaded appeals for help. Even for the dedicated David Turner, when finally allowed to return in 1986, ‘things had not improved’:

The place was a rubbish tip. The few old men and women who were there in 1974 were now dead. People seemed to be drunk or recovering from drink most of the day and night. My heart sagged… (Turner, Return 44-5)

It has fallen to the Anindilyakwa Land Council to bear the weight of the state’s expectations to sort these legacies, using their royalty share of GEMCO’s substantial revenue flows. The fact that a large share of the ALC’s total resources stem from mining ‘has implications for their capacity to define a developmental path on behalf of their constituents’ (Levitus, 75) given the ‘enormous quantity’ of the ‘bundles of rights and benefits at stake’ (94). And since future-proofing the island is being undertaken as the end of GEMCO’s operation looms and policy has moved away from notions of self-determination and into a more coercive mode, the pressure to accede to statist policy logics has intensified. I referred earlier to the instrumentality of these conceptualisations of what an improved Aboriginal lifeworld should be with their heavy emphases on education, training and mainstream employment. In what follows, I introduce the threat of new seabed mining in the straits and briefly consider how warding off this potential massacre of Warnindilyakwan song lines and marine ecologies alike invites new entanglements.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place
If more mining was desired, there are more sources of manganese. The blue-grey shallow seabed surrounding the island gets its hues from the silver grey mineral in its filtrate—and it has prospectors interested. The ALC has had to join forces with the Northern Land Council to stop proposed seabed mining exploration along the coasts of the Top End, an alliance that comes ‘as the Territory sees a spike in the number of applications for exploration, with manganese exploration pegged for the coast along Arnhem Land and in the Gulf of Carpentaria’ (Latimer).

A start-up exploration company, Northern Manganese Limited, received approval from the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities for an Acoustic and Resistivity Sub-Bottom Profiling Survey of the Groote-mainland seabed.11 Using a technique similar to single beam echo sounders, these acoustic systems glean information on the layers beneath the shifting sediment-water interface. The acoustic profiling is a prequel to sea mining of the gullies of consolidated manganese that is thought to have deposited there during the Jurassic.

The High Court’s decision about inter-tidal zones does not protect the Groote archipelago seabeds with their ancient deposits—as Altman and Martin remind us, ‘restitution of land has come on the state’s terms and excludes ownership of minerals’ (Altman and Martin 1)—but a National Heritage ruling might. The ALC lodged a request for an emergency listing of the Anindilyakwa Sea Country with the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities on 11/11/11; Northern Manganese referred it to lawyers. A new anthropologist is working with Traditional Owners to document the song lines that cross the waters connecting the Warnindilyakwa to the mainland, working hard to transform cultural knowledge into forms of high-stake heritage-value (see also Muir in this issue).

They [the ALC] don’t have any title over the sea, so they don’t have a right to negotiate, but people felt really deeply about it because of all their dreaming tracks and how they sing for the dead and carry them through all those stories – it [mining proposals] was threatening all of that. There are some bad memories, certainly for the older people, of GEMCO and how that all began. And once [mining’s] started, it’s here for good, it doesn’t go away, the nightmare doesn’t end. (Personal interview with informant, Groote Eylandt, 17 March 2011)

At the eleventh hour, the seabed exploration was given a three-year stay of execution by the former Northern Territory Labor government. There is suspicion that the price tag for the temporary veto was that Groote must yield access to its waters for commercial and amateur fishing in perpetuity, effectively giving away the Blue Mud Bay decision, a pressure the recently elected Country Liberal Party are unlikely to relax. The lure to create such an exchange: some money to establish sustainable fishing enterprises with shared Indigenous benefits, including the continuation of prawn trawling, a dredging technology in its own right (Watling and Norse).

The stateless days of Groote are now considered a thing of the past. The tumult of Groote’s ‘resource curse’ (Weszkalnys) was settled with forceful alcohol restrictions—well before the federal government’s Northern Territory National Emergency Response—and sound forward planning, including steps taken by the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC) to future-proof the island against the imminent demise of the GEMCO mine. The ALC was among the first to sign up to former Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough’s services-and-infrastructure-for-land-title agreements; they mapped out one of the early (and few remaining) Regional Partnership Agreements; and over time they have invested in island enterprises, including the Dugong Beach Resort, art gallery, and their own civil and construction company as a subsidiary of Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island Enterprises (GEBIE), a royalty investment organisation owned by Traditional Owners. They have similarly restructured the education sector so that schools are more accountable for outcomes, paying for external reviews from royalty funds as well as facilitating training to employment schemes. GEBIE also co-funded the construction of a road linking Umbakumba to Angurugu and have co-invested in a health clinic in Umbakumba.

That Indigenous people must effectively pay for their own state services and for their better governance not only signals the sophisticated tactics demanded of community leadership. It also indirectly highlights the state’s underinvestment in services over the many years that it was simultaneously smoothing the path for mining and proclaiming mining’s powerful economic benefits (Levitus). In a very material sense, the pincer pressure of state-facilitated mining, combined with drastic service and infrastructure backlogs, heavily circumscribed Groote’s negotiating choices with state benefactors before policy talks ever commenced.

While the term ‘resource curse’ was not often heard in NT policy circles (but see Langton and Mazel), Groote has long been treated as if the boons of mining came to a people too immature to handle the largesse. Any corruption, social disarray, conflict and violence would be explained (away) as product of the removal of the disciplines of the missionaries, followed by the lethal addictions of welfare and royalties. In one and the same move, this compelling notion of an indigenously-inflected resource-curse ignores the wounds of mining as it cut into sacred song lines, and the labyrinthine ways that state-funded community initiatives would grow for a while, then about-turn, shape-shift or wither.

More productively for some, the notion of local incapacity leaves vacant the slot for expert external advice, a niche market that has been met by a plethora of consultants with quasi-academic and technocratic expertise, ex-bureaucrats and anthropologists among them, who construct models of exemplary governance and deploy methods of describing problems such that they can be resolved through the semantics of committee work—this being the Umwelt of development negotiators.

The ever-expanding library of documents on, for and about Indigenous people across regional and remote Australia can be, as the late Susan Leigh Star notes of many aspects of infrastructure, ‘singularly unexciting’ (377). She referred both to the infrastructure that lies beneath taken-for-granted functions—sewerage systems, pipes, quarries, plugs and cables—and the infrastructures that usher these into being: the emails, excel charts, reports, itinerary lists, accounts, scrolls. What could be added are the evaluations, development plans and policy manifestos—the ubiquitous grey literature of state and NGO transactional life.

Yet even if some feel as if such infrastructures are designed not to be read, they can be approached as cultural artefacts. Among other functions, their virtuality, density, unreadability and the time taken to coax them into being enables government to render itself both legible and invisible at the same time. Like carvings on a canoe prow, they mesmerise their potential enemies, their sheer bulk warding off any dormant criticism that promises are not being met, commitments are not being honoured, action is not being taken (Strathern).

Escaping the development framework and its semantic obligations is impossible. While we cannot explore here the full extent of the kaleidoscopic shape-shifting of both institutional artefacts and human faces within the endless attempts to coordinate, draft texts and have meetings with which contemporary Indigenous organisations must contend, let’s quickly note among other effects how it bites into time on country, into participating in ceremony, into negotiating with and supporting kin, into transmission of cultural knowledge to younger generations, into singing to ancestors, and into debating the pros and cons of policy initiatives with other clans in the archipelago and the mainland. The demand for consultation and inclusion is something of a Catch-22: the more someone is consulted and involved, the more they risk being outside their own social obligations and being in the world, associating with a state power source that is often contradictory to the power source that is of deeper legitimacy within the Umwelt of Warnindilyakwan kinsmen.

The Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island Regional Partnership Agreement (Anindilyakwa Land Council et al.) conjoins royalty investments from the ALC with government inputs to prioritise

Housing, health service delivery, education, business and enterprise development, community safety (including reduced substance abuse and increased police presence), governance and leadership training, early childhood, planning and infrastructure, youth, sport, recreation and the development of a strong partnership between industry, community and government.12

These inarguable headlines come with a specific frame of reference: improvements will come from restructuring in line with socio-technical development categories—from early childhood programs, to education, to training, to work, to aspirations of home-ownership and home-improvement. Training in school links to jobs in the mine. With the help of academic advice and consultancies, statistical collections, business management models, financial flows, and omnipresent common-sensical public sector orderings, the psychic, behavioural and economic determinants of Western cultural subjects are reductively simplified and confidently projected as universal models for meaning and worth in a life, presuming the categories through which such worthiness is engineered.

Improvement plans such as those found for Groote Eylandt belong to regimes of betterment which some might call ‘neo-liberalism’, meaning a mix of notions, but usually a sense that governments are promoting free market ideology, wherever social justice-oriented policy responses ought to be found. Such critiques suggest outsourcing and privatisation are the problem, and not a mining-fed, network-led, metropolitan life. In this article, I have tried to show this is not a story of Indigenous people being pitted against multinational capital in a straightforward David and Goliath battle staged in mining communities. Nor is a model of vertical development particularly useful or accurate.

My optimism about the possibilities for social policy is conditioned precisely because it can be forced to deliver promised houses, schools, clinics, civic order and rule of law. I have tried to understand this situation in less teleological and more ecological terms without losing a sense that the state is also Australia’s source for helping people live in better conditions. Among other things, mining offers a life of curious inter-connection within corporatised society, with its rapacious appetite and utter dependence on things and systems made from mineral-rich earth, eked out in the post-natural environment of men’s camps, mining towns, airports and no-frills licensed premises, emblemising the pharmacologically-altered, temporally-jagged human landscape we all now inhabit—albeit in a softened mirror image of the miner’s mode of being in the world.

At the same time, there is a need to respect that people genuinely want to summon new futures through such travelling models and value regimes of development and neo-liberal restructuring. Ecological accounts of the interactions and materialities at stake may help provide culverts out of the tributaries of bureaucratic imaginaries and the deeply embedded interests of capital that is social policy in the wild.

Tess Lea is a QEII Research Fellow in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. She is author of Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts (UNSW Press, 2008). Her current research explores the materialities of Indigenous social policy developments in regional and remote Australia.


An embryonic version of this paper was first presented at the ‘Songlines versus pipelines? Mining and tourism industries in remote Australia’ seminar organized by Professor Stephen Muecke and Dr Carsten Wergin at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, February 2012. I thank seminar participants for their valuable comments, AHR’s anonymous referees for their feedback, and AHR’s editors for their work in preparing this paper for publication. I also thank the Anindilyakwa Land Council for permission to undertake fieldwork on Groote Eylandt and the many people there who have shared their thoughts and stories with me over the past few years and who have facilitated my access to people, resources and ideas. This includes the Australian Research Council and the tax-paying public in whose name so much is done.


1 The Groote Eylandt and Milyakburra Liquor Management project also won national recognition at the 2008 Australian Crime and Violence Prevention Awards; see Accessed 15 May 2012.

2 Fieldwork informing this paper has been conducted since 2009 and spans from Groote Eylandt (in particular housing, mining and infrastructure ventures), the Northern Territory Department of Housing, Local Government and Regional Affairs in Darwin, to applied multi-media work with the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation (see in Darwin and Anson Bay at the mouth of the Daly River. My research is concerned with the question of what it takes to make improvement schemes work, what can be stacked against local efforts, and whether the seemingly inevitable obstacles of policy translation are indeed inevitable or if they are conditioned as part of the ongoing need for state intervention.

3 This is partially recognised in the new notion of place-based policy, on which see Sutherland.

4At one stage  SIHIP nearly brought down the Northern Territory Government through its serial mismanagement (Lea, ‘When Looking’).

5 See Accessed 9 Nov. 2012.

6 Of course these businesses likewise involve non-human entanglements (Latour).

7 Accessed 30 Nov. 2012.

8 An ad valorem royalty or value-based royalty is calculated as a proportion of the ‘royalty value’ of the mineral or property in question. It is a percentage on the value and not a fixed sum.

9 As Jon Altman explains, the monies directed into the Commonwealth’s ABTF were not repatriated back to Groote Eylandters until 1973, when part of the royalty (10% of the 2.5%) was redirected to the CMS established trust (Altman 476-7). The advent of Land Rights in 1974 saw the introduction of new requirements, including a role for Land Councils in negotiating Aboriginal rights to veto explorations (see also Levitus).

10 For information on GEMCO’s Groote Eylandt Expansion Project (GEEP) see Accessed 30 Nov. 2012.

11 As their website proclaims, ‘Northern Manganese Resources holds exploration rights for six tenements covering 1,723 km2 of shallow marine terrain and two islands near Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory of Australia. These tenements are located immediately adjacent to and contain the interpreted extensions of the world-class manganese deposits at Groote Eylandt currently being mined by Groote Eylandt Mining Company Pty Limited (GEMCO)’. Accessed 30 Nov. 2012.

12 Accessed 30 Nov. 2012. This plan links to a dense hinterland of other research reports and legal contracts, agreements and forms, each with a biography and a set of entailments, including the ‘blank-slating’ enabled by rendering past government planning decisions inaccessible within the aptly named ‘Iron Mountain’ document storage company.

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