Meet Dr. Anne Poelina: The Nyikina Traditional Custodian Advocating For Economic Sustainability

I don't think "idle hands" or "idle mind" are in Dr. Anne Poelina's vocabulary. Wielding a Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Master of Education, Master of Arts, PhD in Philosophy and completing a second PhD (Health Science), she is a force to be reckoned with. It feels like she constantly is working on something, wearing so many different hats, but when I mentioned this to her, she simply replied "I do what I do, it is my destiny." After hearing her story, you realise it truly is.

Life in Kimberly

Dr. Poelina grew up in the Kimberly region of Western Australia as "ngajanoo Yimardoowarra marnin", which, translated from the Nyikina language, means "a woman who belongs to the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River)." Generations of her family have dedicated themselves to the pastoral industry, "overseeing and managing other Aboriginal people who were involved in shepherding, mustering, shearing, wool-scouring, cooking, housework, carting, blacksmithing, pit-sawing, and fencing". She said it was during this upbringing when she learned about generations of her family being enslaved, dispossessed, deported, and murdered.

"My memories are etched in the stories of how my family became part of the workforce vital to run those stations," she explained. "But when those enslaved to work demanded equal wages, they were driven out to local towns and cast away from our River Country. With unemployment rife in the towns in the late 1960s and 1970s, some took the opportunity to work on development schemes, such as the Camballin irrigation project, or for the Agricultural Protection Board."

But still, her people suffered. "They witnessed the failures of poorly designed development schemes, or worse, became victims of unconscionable work practices which saw many Aboriginal men die or suffer ongoing, intergenerational health issues." Today, the community struggles with cattle industry leaders looking to harvest water from the Fitzroy river.

Martuwarra and Green Economies

So it's no surprise that Dr Poelina advocates for green industries - she, along with others of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council, took part in workshopping and reviewing Professor Jeff Connor's 2019 report Environmental, cultural and social capital as a core asset for the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River) and its people, with the Pew Charitable Trust. It focuses on the Kimberly region and makes two essential arguments: local irrigation projects are not as profitable as one might believe, and that focusing on Aboriginal-led projects already in place, have higher returns in investments and regional job growth. It also explores the added eco-benefits of Aboriginal-led enterprises (such as carbon farming, food production, tourism, traditional medicine, education, and arts & culture) over unsuccessful irrigation ones.

Using the report, and collaborating with national and international experts, Dr. Poelina continues to advocate for green industries by publishing papers, keynoting presentations at conferences, and producing plays, songs and ceremonies highlighting her people's experiences and stories. She and other Traditional Custodians are also currently working to have the Fitzroy River, which was listed as an Australian National Heritage site in 2011, inducted as a World Heritage site.

In 2016, six Traditional Owner nations signed the Fitzroy River Declaration, vowing to work together to protect the region. "It is globally unique and belongs to all of us to share," she exclaimed. They are also utilising social media and other digital platforms to propel their advocacy further by launching a website and running a Facebook page, which allies can go to in the meantime.

So how can people use this report to advocate for greener jobs in their own community?

Dr. Poelina suggested engaging with Indigenous people, no matter where one lives and works. "It is my belief that when we share our world views and wisdom, we can begin to deal with the complexity of climate chaos, and recognise the sacredness of our nation. We all need to work collaboratively to right size our nation and planet, and sustain humanity and rights of nature to thrive now and into the future."

She explained good governance is also key. "Our work must combine multiple sciences, diverse cultures, and arts. We need to find ways to work together to transition from the old economies to the new, which we are framing as the 'forever industries' (culture and science economies, renewable energy as obtainable 'Green Economies')."

And morality comes into play too. "The notion of the 'greater good' needs to be expanded to include Australia's original people, as Traditional Owners of these resources who continue to manage our diverse estates, and have done so since the beginning of time."

It's worth noting that many Indigenous communities around the globe have been tracking climate change for thousands of years through storytelling. According to Smithsonian Magazine, one Aboriginal community has a story which describes a time when northeastern Australia's shoreline reached all the way to the Great Barrier Reef, and a river flowed into the sea at what is now Fitzroy Island. Researchers have proven that these stories, which have been passed down through oral storytelling, art, song and dance, match up to ecological events noted by scientists.

Due to Indigenous groups' special relationship with the earth, many have expressed the importance of protecting Indigenous communities globally. And as news concerning environmental issues like climate change increases, it's becoming clear that the world at large needs to support Indigenous conservation projects for widespread well-being.

Words for the future

Yet sadly, it still feels like environmentalists face obstacles everyday. I asked Dr. Poelina how she manages to not get discouraged, and her words of wisdom were full of inspiration:

"I am born into this role...I exist in a world of complexity, changing rules/laws, policies, systemic racism, structural violence, invasive and exploitative investment and development," she continued. "Against this is the backdrop, the elephant in the room: climate change. This global phenomenon brought on by greed and destruction is spiralling towards climate chaos, and we have a moment in our time to give our planet and humanity and climate a chance."

You can follow Dr. Anne Poelina's work here.

Written by Danielle Schmidt

Danielle Schmidt is a California-based film producer and freelance writer passionate about increasing climate literacy and its coverage in the media. She is a past recipient of the Center for Asian American Media's Student Film Award, and has worked in the TV/Film industry for over eight years. She is currently developing a documentary following eight different walks of life navigating the climate movement during this heightened era.

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