Opinion

When North Meets South: Cross-Cultural Connection and the Importance of Integrating Indigenous Knowledge

Rebecca Lawrence reflects on a two week trip in May 2019 which brought a delegation of Sami Swedish Indigenous representatives to Australia. After presenting at the International Association of Impact Assessment conference, the group travelled from Minjerribah in Queensland down to Darug Country to meet with local Indigenous leaders.

Darug Country, Blue Mountains National Park. Image via Shutterstock: 74063413

Boarding schools for children, prohibition of language, dispossession of lands, accumulation of natural resources — these are the typical hallmarks of colonisation of Indigenous peoples’ territories. At a conference in Brisbane, Australia in April-May of this year,  followed by Indigenous workshops on a Quandamooka owned and run campsite on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) and on Darug Country at Yarramundi at the base of the Blue Mountains on the urban fringe of Sydney, a group of Indigenous people from around the world recently met to share their stories.

These were stories of colonisation, but also of resistance and their hopes for the future — the revitalisation of language, the activism of Indigenous youth and artists mobilising to protect culture and livelihoods, and the hard work of trying to stop resource developments on traditional lands, or at the very least, getting a fair deal out of the multinational corporations profiting from them.

A small group of non-Indigenous academics facilitated this Indigenous intercultural exchange and brought together several different Indigenous communities with whom we’ve worked for many years. Together with Swedish colleagues Kaisa Raitio, Christina Allard, Rasmus Kløcker Larsen, Ninis Rosqvist and myself (Rebecca Lawrence), and research funds from FORMAS and REXSAC, we funded a Sami delegation to travel to Brisbane Australia for the 2019 annual International Association of Impact Assessment. This delegation included Sami reindeer herders, Sami scholars, Sami youth, Sami activists and representatives from national Sami organisations. We were also joined by Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh, an Indigenous Australian representative from Cape York, where Rio Tinto’s bauxite mine impacts upon Indigenous livelihoods, land-uses and cultural heritage.

Sanna Vannar, Niila Inga, Stina Roos, Jonas Vannar, Jenny Wik-Karlsson, Anders-Erling Fjällås, Janni Klemensson Jannok, Anna-Maria Fjällström (with baby Saila), Kaisa Raitio, Christina Allard, Ninis Roskvist, and Rebecca Lawrence at IAIA, Brisbane, April, 2019.

Together, we ran a special paper session on “Integrating Indigenous Knowledges and Rights into impact assessment”. Twenty one presentations were made over two days, and the overwhelming majority of speakers were Indigenous people themselves. The commonalities between their experiences were striking: resource developments around the world are pushed through the planning process in the face of fierce community opposition; impact assessments are paid for by proponents and undertaken by consultants producing outputs in line with proponents’ interests, with little regard for Indigenous knowledges, rights and worldviews. All this takes place against the background of the cumulative impacts of colonisation, resource developments and climate change on Indigenous communities. This creates profound – and at times unbearable – pressures on Indigenous livelihoods, health and well-being. In short, if developments are to be assessed in a just fashion, impact assessments must be led and directed by Indigenous communities themselves, and with a deep engagement with Indigenous worldviews, such as the Indigenous led impact assessment undertaken by the Semisjaur Njarg Sami community in relation to the proposed Boliden copper mine in Northern Sweden.

But even the best impact assessment cannot stand in the place of a real recognition of Indigenous peoples’ right to say no to developments. In the absence of this recognition, Indigenous communities who oppose resource developments are faced with a tough dilemma: do they abscond the assessment process and place their resources, time and energies into protest, but risk not having any influence over the project’s formation and mitigation strategies if it goes ahead? Or, do they participate in the planning process, hoping to get the best out of a bad situation, but risk being co-opted along the way into a resource project that they never wanted?

And what of those Indigenous communities who support appropriate resource developments on their lands – how can they best maximise the economic benefits and minimise the negative social and environmental impacts when they are often forced to negotiate an impact benefit agreement before the impact assessment has even taken place? This reverse order of things makes it difficult, if not impossible, for fair negotiations to take place – how can communities negotiate leveraging benefits and mitigating impacts if the negotiations precede the impact assessment process itself? These were the complex questions that underpinned our two days of discussions around different planning and impact assessment regimes, and natural resource developments on traditional Indigenous territories around the world.

Indigenous delegates from Sápmi, Cape York and White Bear Nation with Quandamooka people on Minjerribah, May 2019

Post-conference, we travelled with a core group of Sami, Cape York and White Bear Nation Indigenous representatives to Minjerribah, a.k.a North Stradbroke Island, where we learnt about the Quandamooka peoples’ successful native title claim; the closure of sand mining on the island; and their transition to a post-mining economy by way of Quandamooka owned and managed tourism. We stayed at the beautiful Adder Rock camping ground owned and run by Quandamooka people and were privileged guests as we engaged in cultural activities with Quandamooka people.

After three days on Minjerribah we travelled further south to Darug Country, where we camped with Darug people at the beautiful Yarramundi and learnt of the revitalisation of language, dance and culture through culture camps, and collaborations with researchers at Macquarie University, including Marnie Graham and Sandie Suchet-Pearson. After another three days of bush camping, cultural teachings, and sharing stories around the camp-fire it was time to end our Australian tour with a bang at the iconic Opera Bar in Sydney, where we met with researchers, artists and activists from Sydney Environment Institute to discuss future international and inter-disciplinary collaborations, and how best to fund all our big ideas.


Rebecca Lawrence is a Key Researcher at the SEI and Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is also funded by the Norwegian Research Council for a project concerned with the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making.

Her comprehensive report, coauthored with Rasmus Kløcker Larsen, on the impacts of the Boliden Mine on Semisjaur Njarg Sami communities can be found here.