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Understanding Indigenous enterprise on Palm Island: Is resilience more than a metaphor?

Erin Bohensky (paper co-authored by Yiheyis Maru, James Butler, Thomas Stevens, and Kostas Alexandridis), 10 November 2009

ERIN BOHENSKY: Good afternoon everyone, thanks for that introduction, and thanks for making that link to Palm Island from the last talk, as I’m not sure there’s going to be that much else that this talk has in common with some of the previous ones. But I think as Andrew mentioned, there’s been a really impressive diversity of talks in this conference, and I thank the organisers for that.

I’ll get started. This is a collaborative presentation, a collaborative work, and in fact we have six authors. I originally didn’t put the sixth on – she’s a member of the Palm Island community – as I wasn’t sure she was going to participate, but she has agreed. And I also note that this is a work in progress and it’s evolving, so these are just some ideas that we’ve had and are going to be developing further.

Okay, so, I’m going to talk a little bit about resilience. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with this term, for different reasons perhaps. It’s become something of a buzzword along the lines of ‘sustainability’. And I think it’s interesting to see how it’s currently being discussed in different forms of public discourse, and particularly in relation to Indigenous society in Australia. So, I’ve just pulled up a couple of recent media articles where resilience has made an appearance, to look at what is being said and how it’s being used.

[shows article] In one – and I won’t read it all for you, I’ll let you do that – but I’ll just note here that this is discussing resilience of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and customs. Very much about maintaining cultural identity, keeping cultural identity intact and even thriving in the face of detrimental government intervention. And here it’s about the resilience of, I guess, the Indigenous people and culture.

[shows second article] In this one, the author is discussing resilience in relation to children and health, and it’s very much about persevering despite suffering at the individual level. [shows third article] Here, this is from the Weekend Australian a weekend or two ago, and this was about the Northern Territory. This was about the idea that resilience is about autonomy and control and the ability to actually create and perpetuate the conditions that confer resilience at a community level. So, there’s a bit of diversity in how it’s being used, but I think they all kind of say similar things.

Now, I’m going to jump a bit to talk about this body of scientific theory called resilience theory, and this actually has sought to go beyond the metaphor and actually look at resilience as a measurable property of systems, and look at questions such as, what makes a system resilient, and how would we actually know if a system is resilient or not? When does it lose resilience? How are we going to identify those changes?

Resilience theory seeks to understand the source and role of change, particularly the kind of change that is transforming in adaptive systems. And this comes from the work of ecologists back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, but it’s more recently been applied to social systems and in a range of different types of systems and in different disciplines, including anthropology and archaeology.

Now, the centrepiece of resilience theory is its adaptive cycle that looks like a figure of eight. I won’t go into all the details of this, but essentially we can just think about a cycle that systems go through. It’s a cyclical change that has different phases; systems tend to become increasingly complex and rigid as they go through this cycle, and it’s not necessarily repetitive. It’s possible to exit that cycle and actually transform into something new.

Now again, this was originally devised for ecosystems, but we can think about how this might work for social systems as well. And it has had particular appeal in anthropology, especially in long term studies of prehistoric societies that have actually completed a whole cycle or more, whereas in a lot of modern societies they actually haven’t gone through those phases yet, and perhaps they never will.

There are four key features of resilience theory. One is that change is neither continuous nor gradual and it’s not consistently chaotic. It’s episodic, it happens unexpectedly, at different rates, at different times. And if we think about spatial scale, patterns and processes are patchy and discontinuous at all scales.

Ecosystems do not have a single equilibrium, but multiple equilibria that define functionally different states. There are destabilising forces; these can be important for maintaining diversity, flexibility and opportunity, and stabilising forces are important in maintaining productivity, fixed capital and social memory. So again, we can think of social systems as well.

Policy is a management that appl[ies] fixed rules for achieving constant yields or very specific goals that don’t pay attention to scale or changing context and, I would also add, culture, mainly to systems that increasingly lose resilience.

Okay, bringing this to Indigenous communities, resilience theory over the last five [years], or probably more like a decade, has been applied to the study of Indigenous communities for a couple of reasons. One is to better understand these communities from a systems perspective in light of some of the major changes that they are undergoing and to identify possible solutions to deal with these changes. A lot of the work has come out of Canada. And also to better understand how relevant resilience theory is as an extension of an ecological theory to Indigenous communities. As I’ve mentioned, there’s some evidence from long-term studies of societies, particularly anthropology, but less from contemporary studies of societies.

Some of the work that’s looked at resilience in Indigenous communities has suggested that local communities with strong connections to place and culturally embedded practices for managing ecosystems – passing knowledge down through generations – can be viewed as coupled, social ecological systems. Fikret Berkes and co authors have written a lot about the James Bay Cree in Canada and how they’ve managed, through processes of feedback that have allowed them to know when they need to make a change in a management practice. This coupling is a key source of resilience for these communities. It enables adaptation to change and buffering against disturbance.

Another idea that I’d like to just talk about for a moment is basins of attraction. As I mentioned as one of those key features, systems have multiple configurations, multiple equilibria that we can think of. They can function as basins of attraction. So you might get stuck in one of these basins with strong feedbacks that keep you in that state. A system moves from one basin of attraction to another, when a critical threshold is passed. And it can be very difficult to exit that basin that you’re in and enter a new one when that happens.

So, just to give you an illustration [shows image], that might look something like this. What they call on the left-hand side is the ball and cup model, where there’s this ball operating or rolling around on the surface and it can get stuck in one of these cups where it can’t get out again. And we can think about that if we look at the middle picture of the phase space. If you’re going on that A-trajectory and you get wound up in that, it’s like a spiral. Very hard to get onto the B-trajectory once you’re there.

Okay, if we bring this to a real world example, we can think of two different states for a lake; and this is an example from Northern Highlands in Wisconsin where they looked at future scenarios representing these two different alternative basins of attraction. On the one hand, you’ve got this very pristine ecosystem – you’ve got your trophic levels, your top predators are intact, there’s low levels of recreation, low levels of human impact; and then on the other hand you might have a very polluted, a very impacted lake. Okay, so that’s an example of what those basins of attraction might be.

Well, does this resilience metaphor have limits? When we think about these concepts, what about communities that though they may have once fit the descriptions of closely connected, connected to place, connected to ecosystems, culturally embedded practices, what if those communities have changed such that those practices and connections are no longer intact? Once they’re de coupled from ecosystems, can they be re coupled; and maybe we should ask the question, do they even want to be – is that an appropriate goal?

Many Indigenous communities today can be said to be maladaptive basins of attraction due in part to changing external circumstances. And these might include political change, policy change, economic change, threats to culture and identity, loss of language and knowledge, environmental change, declines in wellbeing. And sometimes we talk about poverty traps as an example of that, where it’s very difficult to get out of that situation.

Jumping now to the research that I’m undertaking now, this is part of a broader program of research that CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] is undertaking on Indigenous livelihoods that began in 2008. And our main objective is to really understand what enables or constrains the long-term viability of livelihood options for Indigenous communities based on natural resources. We’re looking at ten or more – I’m not sure of the exact number at the moment – case studies of Indigenous natural resource-based enterprises in Australia, and there are a couple in Papua New Guinea as well.

This research is not exclusively based or informed by a resilience framework, that’s just one of several that are being explored and that’s one that I’m interested in. And my interest in particular in exploring resilience ideas in one of these case studies is to investigate the applicability of resilience as a theoretical framework and a set of tools, given the focus on building scientific research capacity in communities in which we work. So, are these actually tools that might be useful to the communities in which we’re working? And also to further develop or modify resilience theory so that it can be better used to understand change in an Indigenous community, and also recognise that it might have limitations.

Okay, Palm Island. As most of you probably know, it’s in North Queensland, 65 kilometres north-west of Townsville. The population, I’ve heard figures from anywhere between 3000 and 5000; there is quite a bit of movement on and off the island. There are at least 45 language groups – I’ve heard higher numbers as well. And there is a traditional owner group, the Manbarra, and there is also a group [called] the Bwgcolman community; Barbara Watson in her PhD thesis in 1993 wrote about this process of becoming Bwgcolman and developing a new identity for Palm Island for these many different groups.

[shows image] Okay, the map on the right is just of the recognised cultural heritage body of the Manbarra people, and that consists of various different islands of which the largest is Great Palm, and that’s usually what we mean when we say Palm Island.

Okay, thinking back to these resilience ideas again, Palm Island is often portrayed as maladaptive. Here’s just a recent quote from the Townsville Bulletin, where MP [Member of Parliament] Peter Lindsay said, ‘The no job, no house policy should be applied to Palm Island. This is a community with no industry, no agriculture and an unemployment rate of about 90 per cent. It’s an economically unsustainable place to live.’

A resilience perspective would probably do a couple of things, but would seek solutions that can move Palm and other Indigenous communities into more sustainable system configurations. One way to do this is through locally initiated, owned and managed enterprises.

So, our research questions were essentially, what are the community’s beliefs, attitudes, visions and aspirations towards future livelihood options, acknowledging that livelihoods are situated within this bigger systems context that includes ecological, cultural, social, political and economic dimensions? We’re interested in looking at what are the enabling factors and constraints on alternative livelihood enterprises for the community, and ultimately how the learning from this case study might inform a culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable model of Indigenous enterprise development, if such a model is possible.

Our methods included literature review; broad consultation with the community as well as others that had a role in the sponge farm, which I’ll talk about in a moment; semi structured interviews; participatory photographic surveys, in which we gave cameras to community members and asked them to capture images of what was important to them about their lives on Palm Island. And what we haven’t done yet, but will, are some scenario envisioning processes to collectively explore future pathways together and some of the implications.

The sponge farm aquaculture project was identified by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, several years back, and local partners as a site for trialling sponge farm operations. It is intended to be a community-owned and operated project by the Coolgaree CDEP [Community Development Employment Projects] and involves the growing, harvesting and marketing of sponges. It’s demonstrated to have minimal ecological impact and a recognised market that’s been based on feasibility studies and a business model. And in 2005, an Indigenous land use agreement was signed, which paved the way for going ahead with this aquaculture project.

There are numerous spin-off benefits from this of skills development, connecting community with sea country, developing local knowledge and raising awareness in the community, as well as cultivating a sense of stewardship and pride in the marine ecosystem, as well as in having a community business.

There was a lot of excitement about this sponge farm; [shows article] this was an article in the Australian Geographic about how they were training the divers, guys that were previously unemployed and were very, very keen about getting in the water and helping to set up the sponge farm. Unfortunately, despite about ten years in development, the sponge farm has not proceeded beyond its experimental phase and training and faces significant obstacles. The reasons given for this are varied and multifaceted, and I’ll go into that a little bit.

Some preliminary insights from our research were that there are significant institutional, legislative and financial constraints. Palm Island is in the Great Barrier Reef Marine National Park and is subject to a much higher level of legislative requirements than it would have been otherwise. All of this requires more studies and of course more financial resources.

There are, of course, legacy effects of past policy, and these constrain some of the current actions and it also breeds widespread mistrust. I’m finding that political motivations are constantly questioned of other community members as well as non Indigenous actors.

The economic model of the sponge farm is based on a sort of mainstream economic model and could be inconsistent with some of the culture of non work on Palm Island; although I think that’s possibly questionable.

Identity, jealousy and infighting have also been mentioned a lot. The value of diversity of the many different people in the community ebbs and flows; sometimes it works to Palm’s advantage as a whole and sometimes it doesn’t. It seems that community cohesion, which could possibly be a source of resilience, seems to be latent and activated in times of crisis. People really came together, for example, around the death in custody and the riots that followed in 2005.

So, just thinking a bit about what this means for Indigenous enterprise, it must be situated within and understood in the broader context of life on Palm, when you start thinking about values, traditions, beliefs, aspirations as well as the institutional framework and external drivers of change. One limitation of the sponge farm again is its basis in externally initiated ideas and a business model that have kind of been passed on, and the need to play by the rules in more powerful federal and state agencies such as the Marine Park Authority and the Department of [the Environment,] Water, Heritage and the Arts. Even so, it could create options, adaptive capacity, and allow social ecological feedbacks to be built through regular interaction and monitoring of sea country, and instill these values of ownership and pride as well as raise awareness and education, all of which would contribute to building resilience.

So, is resilience more than a metaphor? Some concepts of resilience theory seem to apply, such as this episodic change – it’s not continuous, it’s not smooth – and this concept of a cycle where the effects of the past certainly are constraining some of the current perceptions and options.

And what’s less clear is that Palm is stuck in a basin of attraction. It seems to be in this reorganising or growth phase of the adaptive cycle, where there’s high potential and flexibility for different things to happen, for different trajectories to take hold.

So, there are some remaining questions that we’d like to explore. Can resilience be built in, and resilience that is desirable? It’s not always the desirable condition. What do we want from resilience anyway? And of course, what might Palm Islanders want from it? Should we be asking the resilience of whom for whom? Whose resilience is important? Whose matters? And is it resilience that we are talking about, or persistence? That’s a question that has been raised by some of the Indigenous community members themselves. How much can a society change and still be considered resilient?

So, our next steps will be data collection that will continue over the next six months or possibly longer, through additional interviews, this photo survey, and we also want to collect some historical photos to elicit some perceptions of change since the past. And then we’ll do a scenario building and training exercise to identify and explore some alternative pathways for the sponge farm, and possibly other future livelihood options, and see if these might be consistent with that basin of attraction metaphor.

And that’s all I have to say. I’d just like to acknowledge the members of the Palm Island community and other individuals who have participated in this research. Thank you. [applause]

IAN: Yes. Thanks very much. I see the system model still has some life in it. I didn’t really think it did anymore, so that was interesting for a start. My first thought about your talk about the resilience model was, why are basins of attraction bad? And the answer seems to be, because in your model a system needs to constantly change to constantly changing external circumstances.

The coelacanth comes to mind. The coelacanth has been the same form for many, many millions of years down in the deep oceans, presumably simply because conditions aren’t changing very much. So, it’s perfectly adaptive, but it hasn’t changed at all, at least not significantly, for many millions of years. So, there’s a question there. So, you’re presupposing constantly changing external circumstances, which in turn presupposes a system boundary, of course, which can be problematic.

But, I wondered what the conditions for something being a ‘system’ are? What makes it systematic? Is it that the connections need to be sufficient for some kind of continuity? Or what? Or is it that what happens in the system conforms to preset goals, which seems to be the case in your case study? That’s what defines the system, is the preset goals that something gives it. And provided what people do meets the goals, then you’ve got a system. If they don’t, you haven’t, you’ve got some chaos. So, those are the kind of thoughts that come to mind about the utility of the model there.

ERIN BOHENSKY: Shall I respond? Thanks, that’s excellent feedback. First of all about the basins of attraction and are they bad: those two pictures I had of the two lakes, we might say that top upper left one is good, but of course, it depends who you are. If you’re an industrial polluter you might prefer the other one.

IAN: That tests one’s goals.

ERIN BOHENSKY: Yes, yes. It is that ‘preserving future options’, so preserving sources of novelty and innovation, those are the important things. If your so-called good basin of attraction allows you to do that, then that’s fine, so that you can change when change is necessary.

What makes something a system? That’s a good one. I’m talking about Palm Island as a system, but I would say there are multiple levels within that. Obviously, there are subsystems, there are different components, there are different people, different parts of the community, different groups. That’s always a question when you’re looking at things like that. What are your goals and at what scale, if you like, what level? Is it for the whole island? For the community? For this group? For this group? For this individual? I think there are collective goals that the community is striving for. What I am often hearing is that they have the same goals, but the difference is in how they think they’re going to get there or how they want to get there.

IAN: [inaudible]

ERIN BOHENSKY: Right. Of course, those can change.

MODERATOR: Systems all need agents and feedback groups. In your social systemic model, one of the issues that arises immediately is about who were the agents and what kind of feedback are they really about, if you’re going to use the systemic model or approach. Within 10 seconds, can you say who are the agents for dynamism within that system? So, you seem to be implying it’s the state, essentially. Because of the dysfunctionality of the whole community in a sense, and the incapacity in a way for it to have genuine agency, then it’s got to be external somehow. So, the systemic model starts to break down a bit when you start to say that.

ERIN BOHENSKY: Yes. I would say it’s not just the state. It’s not just external. It’s the local council, it’s families. I didn’t talk about that very much.

MODERATOR: So your project is going to identity those kinds of dynamic elements?


WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Hello. You actually just started going on to what I was going to ask, and that is how the attitude[s] of Palm Island people go towards what research you’ve done at the moment. Because Palm Island is one of those Aboriginal communities in Queensland that is constantly being referenced, sourced, analysed by the Queensland Government as examples of what Aboriginal communities can and can’t – and usually can’t – do. And that attitude constantly feeds back to Palm Island because of the way they are being represented in media, and just general policy towards them. How does that attitude then fold through now, when we start talking about Indigenous enterprise and autonomy?

And I reference particularly the Arts Queensland conference that they had in 2001, 2002, where they talked about Palm Island, and the fact that their attitude was towards industry in a very traditional framework of what work is versus tourism and eco tourism, and the Aboriginal experience that the tourists wanted when they came to Australia. And the fact that Palm Island was registered as a place that would not be able to develop that, even though they had the cultural relationships and base cultural information and knowledge that they could have shared and could have developed into that area, and sustain themselves as a culture and community that way.

But they weren’t pushed into that area, and basically were sort of told, without being told straight up, that they wouldn’t go that way because of their particular community attitude, which was dictated by sort of government policy at that time. How is their attitude now, is what I’m asking?

ERIN BOHENSKY: Okay. The attitude towards the research: when we started engaging with them it was pretty much through Coolgaree CDEP, who had given a presentation on the sponge farm, which was already happening when we got involved. The proposal was to look at some of the questions – like beliefs, attitudes towards it – and understand better what people aspire to. In terms of tourism, most people seem supportive of some kind of tourism, but very sort of low impact, and again, community owned. If that was what your question was?

Date published: 27 August 2010