Abstract

The protection of natural rivers and watersheds face important concerns related to environmental (in)justice and (in)equity. Using the Queensland Wild Rivers Act as a case study, we advocate that ethical water governance attends to multiple and diverse values, specifically in ways that: (i) locate them within stakeholders' claims of inequality that emerge from a given or practiced water ethic; and (ii) historicize and understand them as resonating or reflecting natural resource management frameworks that have led to structural injustices. This approach, combined with adaptive co-governance, can contribute to more inclusive water ethics and even support reflexive spaces where radical change in social-ecological resource governance can be imagined.

Introduction

Human societies have an immense dependence on rivers – 0.0002% of Earth's total water (Shiklomanov, 1993) – for water, food, and livelihood. For example, over 45,000 large dams worldwide hold back in excess of 6,500 km3 of water for irrigation and domestic consumption from downstream areas (Vörösmarty et al., 2003; Nilsson et al., 2005; Biemans et al., 2011). Such dependence has led researchers to argue that rivers are perhaps the ‘most intensively used ecosystems on the planet’ (Boon, 2012: p. 5). The over-exploitation of rivers and the corresponding impacts have left less than 1% of rivers with ‘all or almost all of their natural values intact’ remaining (DERM, 2011: p. 2). It is through these arguments that scholars, policy-makers, and activists continue to advocate that ‘natural’ rivers and watersheds should be protected for ethical, scientific, cultural, esthetic, and ecological reasons (e.g., WWF, 2006; Brisbane Declaration, 2007; Getzner, 2014).

Rivers, and freshwater bodies in general, are not simply hydrological entities but socio-natural hybrids: water's availability, provision, and access are unevenly shaped in social-ecological systems by particular management ethics (Linton, 2014). In other words, water's presence, absence, and flows are not driven by neutral hydrological forces alone but governed by historical and contemporary social values, relations, and political interests (Budds & Hinojosa, 2012; Schmidt & Shrubsole, 2013; Jepson et al., 2017). In many ways then, the protection of ‘natural’ freshwater systems is both an ethical imperative and an ethical challenge, given that it involves complex trade-offs between competing values and interests – including what naturalness is, how it ought to be regulated, and whom it benefits (Wohl & Merritts, 2007; Fryirs & Brierley, 2009; Lavau, 2011; Neale, 2011).

In this paper, we draw on scholarship at the intersection of ethics and governance to consider what an ethical water governance could involve when seriously considering equity and justice as key objectives. To do so, we use an illustration of Queensland Wild Rivers Act (2005, ‘QWRA’) to showcase claims of (in)equity and broader environmental (in)justices connected to the construction and implementation of the Act. We use the broader lens of environmental ethics – the normative principles that underpin conservation strategies – as our investigative framework because it helps engage with the underlying values and moral obligations that shape how naturalness was defined, and how it was regulated by the QWRA (cf. Taylor, 1986). After articulating the corresponding support and contestation that followed the implementation of the QWRA, we diagnose the Act's key deficiencies and provide actionable lessons for how water governance can become more ethical by incorporating value pluralism in dynamic social-ecological systems.

Water ethics – a subfield of environmental ethics – is a fruitful lens to unpack the values behind water governance that drive or underline various outcomes, which often carry implications for both nature and humans (Doorn, 2013; Groenfeldt, 2013; Schmidt & Peppard, 2014; Ziegler & Groenfeldt, 2017). Following Groenfeldt & Schmidt (2013), the combined use of a social-ecological systems framework enables deeper understandings of how ethics (and corresponding regulations) affect linked social, cultural, and environmental outcomes, including for notions of equity and justice (cf. Berkes et al., 2003). While ‘equity’ is sometimes used vaguely or without a concrete definition, we align ourselves with Perreault (2014), who argues that while ‘equitable’ water governance attends to distributional and procedural issues of the present or the future (e.g., exposure to pollution), it falls short of contesting and reconciling the historical processes of exclusion and marginalization that foreground calls for fairness in the first place (Ingram et al., 2008). Such extensions to water ethics remain rare and represent an important avenue for future exploration, according to Doorn (2013) who suggests:

Although it is increasingly recognized that adequate governance of water requires that issues of ‘equity’ or ‘social justice’ are taken into account, political philosophers or applied ethicists have so far not or only barely been involved in the debate on water governance’ (p. 97).

Following Holifield (2001), Perreault (2014), and indigenous-focused scholarship (e.g., Mascarenhas, 2007; Whyte, 2011, 2013), we believe justice should be evaluated not merely under distributive and procedural inequities of the present, but also under a more comprehensive set of articulations where ethical values have collided with processes of structural disadvantage, and/or concerns over inter-generational fairness (cf. Schlosberg, 2004). Efforts to reconcile injustice may involve a multiplicity of different reparations that cater to the interests, values, and beliefs of diverse populations (Zwarteveen & Boelens, 2014; Harris et al., 2018; Paloniemi et al., 2018). Taking these points together, we believe a constructive and reflexive engagement with the diverse suites of environmental values as envisioned by different stakeholders can help water policy-makers avoid homogenous claims about water ethics and inform how different communities might see or experience these otherwise. Recalling Doorn (2013), such exploration is important because water governance has often overlooked questions of ethics and value pluralism, or at least failed to engage them in meaningful ways (see Ingram et al., 2008; Gerlak et al., 2011; Groenfeldt & Schmidt, 2013; Chief et al., 2016).

In sum, and learning from scholarship on the QWRA, this paper advocates that ethical water governance attends to multiple and diverse values, specifically in ways that: (i) locate them within stakeholders' claims of inequality that arise from a given water ethic; or (ii) historicize and understand them as resonating or reflecting natural resource management frameworks that have led to structural injustices (cf. Perreault, 2014). This approach, when combined with adaptive co-governance – or collective action through which management goals and means to achieve them are reconsidered and reconstituted under social-ecological change by citizens and the state (Cosens & Gunderson, 2018) – could reshape water ethics to support reflexive spaces where radical change in resource governance can be imagined. While value pluralism is critical in fostering more ethical governance (Fennell et al., 2008), we argue that different interests and values can be made actionable when policy-makers locate their origins within immediate inter-generational inequities, or within historicizing them within deeper structural and historical injustices. Following Ziegler & Groenfeldt (2017: p. 2), such an approach lends well to not only analyzing what is ‘good’ and ‘fair’ but extends water ethics into questioning and de-stabilizing policies and their underlying management ethics.

The section below provides an overview of the evolution of river catchment ethics to a broader notion of ‘socio-environmental’ ethics, consistent with the broader foundations of the QWRA. In the next section, we detail the ethics behind the QWRA and the resulting social (in)equities and (in)justices, using available public documentation. In the last section, we diagnose failures of the QWRA and provide avenues for how value pluralism can be incorporated to form a more ethical water governance. Our paper is intended for a readership at the intersection of water ethics and governance, who are concerned with equity and justice considerations.

Overview: past, present and future of watershed catchment ethics

Environmental (and water) ethics is concerned both with the value humans place on nature – be it intrinsic, consequentialist, theistic, or utilitarian – and the criteria that distinguish what is right and wrong in the ways we use and treat the environment (Armstrong, 2006; Attfield, 2014). While Australian environmentalism should be read through the country's historical social, economic, and political contexts, its overarching context was ‘progressivism’ – a reform movement in the USA under President Roosevelt that inspired environmental movements in Western Europe and the British dominions (see Hutton & Connors, 1999: p. 19). Under progressivism, environmental ethics has taken at least three general forms when applied to catchment management: preservation, utilitarian conservation, and ‘socio-environmental’ ethics – the latter inspired by approaches that seek not to exclude humans, but conserve the environment as an integrative, sustainable and just social-ecological system.

Some of the most recalled examples of early preservationism come from Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir. In 1908, Muir and the Sierra Club stood on the banks of the Tuolumne (California) asserting that damming the river ‘… would damage the divine order that God created and was maintaining in wild Nature’ (Williams, 2002: p. 172). For them, the use of these natural environments for religious transcendence, psycho-spirituality, and esthetic contemplation was morally superior to ‘the lumber barons, mineral kings, and captains of industry hell-bent upon little else than worshipping at the shrine of the Almighty Dollar …’ (Callicott, 1990: p. 150; Shugart, 2012). Howard Zahniser penned the US Wilderness Act under such premises and through them, saw the exclusion of human life and the curtailment, if not the elimination of resource extraction, to be necessary (cf. Cronon, 1995; Callicott, 1999; Harvey, 2005). These imaginations of wildness and naturalness were formative for the US Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968), which protected pristine and inaccessible rivers as ‘vestiges of primitive America’ (US Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WRSA), 1968: p. 2).

One of the earliest environmental movements in Australia (late-1800s) was utilitarian conservationism (Hutton & Connors, 1999). State developmentalism, according to Hutton & Connors (1999: p. 21, 59) gave rise to environmentalists and scientists ‘arguing for the economic usefulness of protecting birds, national efficiency goals for preserving our native forests, the recreational value of national parks …’. This resembled Pinchot's utilitarian conservation ethics in the United States – a response to preservationism and one that was predicated on equitable, efficient, and sustainable extraction of resources for the long-term benefit of societies (Callicott, 1990). Conservationism was at the time viewed as a careful and technical science of sustainable resource exploitation (Callicott, 1990; Hutton & Connors, 1999). It was after the 1920s in Australia that bushwalking, railway clubs, and wilderness preservation began to serve an important role in conservation campaigns in ways that resembled Muir's romanticism of a divine nature (Hutton & Connors, 1999). According to Vincent & Neale (2016: p. 18), this movement circulated problematic images of terra nullius (a people-less nature) and enrolled Aboriginal peoples' notions of sacredness as an argument for preservation. There are other ethics, such as intrinsic rights and value for non-human species to exist. However, according to Boon (2012), these have not garnered much respect in global river conservation agendas – a likely product of the prevailing anthropocentrism and benefit (material/non-material) that surrounds river systems. While scholars have criticized eco- and anthropocentric ethics as polarizing (Norton, 2005), privileging specific and selective human requirements over the environment is not an inherent component of either ethic.

Today, in water governance circles, an integrative socio-environmental ethic has emerged, predicated on more democratic decision-making, diverse value sets and interests, and recognizing the inherent dynamism within social-ecological systems that necessitates governance ethics to adapt, and reformulate themselves over time (e.g., Kingsford et al., 2011; Pahl-Wostl et al., 2011; Green et al., 2013; Groenfeldt & Schmidt, 2013). Of note here is the work of Postel & Richter (2003), who argue that ethical precepts for sustainable river management must also include water allocations for rivers and precaution for development with irreversible ecological consequences. Falkenmark & Folke (2002) argue for widening the ethical principles from catchment species to include human rights, international conventions, sustaining crucial ecological goods and services, and protecting ecosystem resilience (p. 1). The conservation of rivers not as social or ecological but social-ecological systems requires detailed attention to scale, flexibility, and change dynamics. Rivers, their catchments, and social and ecological structures, processes, and communities are naturally dynamic (Wohl & Merritts, 2007; Fryirs & Brierley, 2009). For example, communities depend on variation in environmental flows for specific cultural and spiritual ceremonies (Lokgariwar et al., 2014). Local groups also depend both on living creatures which are themselves adapted to ranges of variation, and on entire systems that could become less resilient to change if variation was removed (Holling & Meffe, 1996). These wider sets of ethical principles come to bear from a commitment to pluralism (cf. Norton, 2005).

Ignoring such broader principles has been shown to be consequential for river management programs. For example, Feldman (1995) finds that an undeveloped and healthy river was more serving to local residents than a hydropower project whose benefits would serve and be controlled by groups residing outside the community. On the Goulburn River (Australia), Lavau (2011) finds many ‘challenged the ecologists' version of what constitutes river health, and offered [alternative] accounts of naturalness’ (p. 50). Some versions included entanglements between livelihoods and naturalness (e.g., irrigation channels as natural habitats) and showcase how disagreements, even hostility, can emerge from narrow interpretation of environmental ethics (Lavau, 2011). Extending these debates, Whyte (2013) calls for justice-based approaches to support ‘systems of responsibility’ that matter to indigenous peoples, ranging from webs of inter-species relationships to government-to-government partnerships (Zwarteveen & Boelens, 2014). Along the lines of Merchant's (1997) ‘partnership ethic’ for catchment management, Norton (2005) advocates that a pluralist value system can help us engage in ‘cooperation and compromise’ by freeing us from the ‘dogmatism about the one right way to characterize environmental value’ (pp. 5–6). Diverse values, and how these are connected with social, cultural, and economic aspirations (Groenfeldt & Schmidt, 2013) should not be externalized but instead explored and understood to avoid imposing singular and selective interpretations of ethics on communities who might hold different values and interests say, over how naturalness should be protected.

The case of the Queensland Wild Rivers Act: ethics, equity, and justice

Turning our focus to the QWRA, we first describe its generic ends and means for achieving its legislated goal. We then highlight well-publicized perspectives from local groups, Aboriginal peoples, and Traditional Owners around how the QWRA contributed to specific justices and injustices. We conducted a desktop review of available information about the QWRA case and highlighted publicly prominent voices to illustrate the point that value pluralism is important in rethinking the ethics behind governance in the context of dynamic social-ecological systems. We focus on the Cape York1 region, showcasing a subset of perspectives around the QWRA that is exemplary of similarly diverse concerns and interests such legislation could raise elsewhere (cf. Holmes, 2011). While we relied heavily on published authors who have first-hand experience with this case – specifically, Altman, Neale, Slater, Langton, Jackson, Tan, and others – we incorporate a broader set of other secondary data sources into our case research, namely, public policy and legislative documents, including regulatory acts and implementation guidelines (DEHP, 2007, see Table 1 and Table S1; Table S1 is available with the online version of this paper), parliamentary reports (DERM, 2011), newspaper articles, and key stakeholder organizational policy positions (e.g., AgForce, 2018).

Table 1.

Natural values as defined by the QWRA in the DEHP (2007).

Hydrological processes Runoff, stream flow, aquifer recharge and spring discharge remains unimpeded 
Geomorphic processes Sediment movement remains unimpeded, resulting in stable beds and banks and sediment transport into estuaries, floodplains, and downstream ecosystems 
Water quality Sufficient in quality with respect to physical, chemical, and biological criteria in order to meet human and ecological needs 
Riparian function Riparian trees, shrubs, and sedges remain intact in order to stabilize stream banks and provide food and habitat for fauna 
Wildlife corridors Sufficient areas of natural habitat within and along the river system to allow fauna to migrate. This includes broader efforts to protect biodiversity and rare species, such as Pristis microdon (largetooth sawfish) and the Glyphis glyphis (speartooth shark) (Chin et al., 2012
Hydrological processes Runoff, stream flow, aquifer recharge and spring discharge remains unimpeded 
Geomorphic processes Sediment movement remains unimpeded, resulting in stable beds and banks and sediment transport into estuaries, floodplains, and downstream ecosystems 
Water quality Sufficient in quality with respect to physical, chemical, and biological criteria in order to meet human and ecological needs 
Riparian function Riparian trees, shrubs, and sedges remain intact in order to stabilize stream banks and provide food and habitat for fauna 
Wildlife corridors Sufficient areas of natural habitat within and along the river system to allow fauna to migrate. This includes broader efforts to protect biodiversity and rare species, such as Pristis microdon (largetooth sawfish) and the Glyphis glyphis (speartooth shark) (Chin et al., 2012

Source:DEHP (2007: pp. 1–2).

The purpose of the Queensland Wild Rivers Act (2005) 

In Australia, the social values and interests associated with unregulated and healthy rivers have both shifted and diversified over time wherein ecological, cultural, and esthetic values now compete with development-oriented interests (Jackson et al., 2008). In the early 1990s, the ‘Wild Rivers project’ emerged to identify Australia's wild rivers, develop voluntary management guidelines for their protection, and promote societal awareness over the conservation value for such rivers (see Stein et al., 1998, 2001). The later QWRA ‘preserve[d] the natural values of rivers that [had] all, or almost all, of their natural values intact’ (QWRA, 2005 (3); DEHP, 2007). Figure 1 shows the location of declared wild river areas in Queensland.

Fig. 1.

Map of designated Queensland wild river areas.

Fig. 1.

Map of designated Queensland wild river areas.

From our reading, the Act had a distinct eco-centric orientation. Based on holistic ecological theory and more-than-human value, it placed worth on ecosystems and their processes that sustain human and non-human life as an interconnected and interdependent whole (cf. Hettinger & Throop, 1999). Non-human life forms and spaces form an interdependent web of relationships with people, from which knowledge, stories, and relations emerge2 (Slater, 2013). Eco-centrism mandates, as the Act itself does, that human activities ‘should be sought only insofar as it does not infringe on the integrity of natural ecosystems’ (Hoffman & Sandelands, 2005: p. 144, after Egri & Pinfield, 1996). In other words, wildness is predicated on social-ecological effects and outcomes of specified natural values, and extends naturalness beyond a conventional esthetic, remote, and free-flowing characterization (DEHP, 2007). This social-ecological framework for the identification of wild rivers was consistent in the commissioned reports on the Wild Rivers Project (Stein et al., 1998). While wild rivers were defined as river systems not ‘significantly altered by modern or colonial society’, their identification in these earlier reports and frameworks did not include or reflect ‘issues of remoteness or aesthetic naturalness’ (Stein et al., 1998: p. 2) common in wilderness discourses and wild rivers legislation elsewhere (i.e., US WRSA, 1968). The protected natural values supportive of ecological health, recreational and cultural values, and low-impact economic activities are shown in Table 1.

These natural values were protected through catchment-wide land-use planning regulations, which served to assess the impacts of certain types of developments to maintain those natural values. The catchment-wide focus is a major step forward for Australian freshwater conservation because less than half of 1% of protected rivers under the National Reserve System reside within a protected drainage basin (Stein & Nevill, 2011).

Two distinct regulatory zones within a designated catchment, or ‘wild river area’, included the High Preservation Area (HPA) and the Preservation Area (PA) (see Figure 1). The HPA, restrictive for intensive development, can extend up to one lateral kilometre from the river channel and tributaries themselves, while the PA occupies the remainder of catchment area outside the HPA (DEHP, 2007). A watershed focus is advocated in river sciences as one means for protecting terrestrial and aquatic life-support functions that support social-ecological systems across different scales (e.g., Saunders et al., 2002; Allan, 2004). From a socio-hydrological perspective, Jackson & Palmer (2011) assert that a focus on protecting water as an isolated property in Australia is ‘… antithetical to the holistic quality of Indigenous environmental perceptions and discourse that consistently emphasise connectivity and relationships between features and components of the socio-ecological system’ (p. 4). Similarly, Langton (2002) articulates features and components of ‘waterscapes’ are not merely physical but spiritual, social, and jural through which formalized systems of knowledge and social institutions create and attach meaning (Jackson et al., 2012; Poirier & Schartmueller, 2012). These readings suggest, from a different set of perspectives, the importance of governance systems that adopt a more-than-river focus.

Existing development activities within designated watersheds were exempt from the requirements of the Act as were applications for development activities that were received but undecided upon before the declaration was made (DEHP, 2007). With respect to Native Title rights – a subject we return to in detail below – the Act could not ‘… [limit] a person's right to the exercise or enjoyment of native title’ (QWRA, 2005, Section 44(2)). Certain new applications for development could exist depending on their potential to adversely affect natural values of declared wild river areas. The ‘Wild Rivers Code’ functioned as the statutory instrument that determined, in coordination with other assessment agencies and legislative frameworks, whether or not certain development activities could exist within particular protective areas (refer to DEHP, 2007). The assessment of new development activities was coordinated through the Integrated Planning Act (Government of Queensland (GOQ), 1997), which enables statutory instruments, i.e., the Wild Rivers Code, to assess planning activities through local, regional, and state legislation and assessment agencies (DEHP, 2007). The Code assessed new development activities using 13 pieces of environmental and resource legislation, including the Fisheries Act, Environmental Protection Act, and the Water Act (GOQ, 1994a, 1994b, 2000), which together were designed to protect the natural values of a wild river (DEHP, 2007). Assessment agencies at local, regional, and state levels (e.g., Department of Natural Resources and Water, Environmental Protection Agency (state level), local government units) were assigned to assess specific development activity (e.g., agriculture, aquaculture, water taking, etc.) using the appropriate 13 legislations (see DEHP, 2007: p. 2). For example, the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries assessed aquaculture activities in designated wild river areas using the Fisheries Act (1994) (DEHP, 2007). As stated in the Code, some of these legislations prohibited new development in protective areas, while others imposed other restrictions, limitations, or assessment criteria based the Code to meet the goals of the QWRA (DEHP, 2007). Table S1, in the Supplementary material, provides a high-level synthesis of notable development regulations in protected areas, including relevant assessment legislation, and the required successful outcomes for permitted development to sustain the wild river's natural values. Below, we draw upon this table to highlight matters of (in)equities and (in)justices that flowed from the QWRA in the Cape York region.

(In)equity and (in)justice connected to the QWRA

A main overarching claim for some stakeholders was the QWRA focused on ecological health to such an extent that it proscribed certain new development activities available to marginalized peoples in remote locales. On the one hand, and despite a formal architecture mandating the inclusion of indigenous values and interests in watershed planning, including in designated wild river areas, effective engagement and the extent to which indigenous customary and economic interests could be accounted for and implemented has been regarded as inadequate (see Jackson et al., 2012; Poirier & Schartmueller, 2012; Tan & Jackson, 2013; Tan, 2016; Hemming et al., 2017; Lindsay, 2018). In fact, while the QWRA mandated community consultation and the means through which raised concerns were dealt with (Section 38(2)), communities did not have the right to veto (Altman, 2011), or opportunities to participate in the development of a more inclusive water ethic. Yet, on the other hand, between 2005 and 2010, the Government of Queensland reported, ‘no applications for development [had] been rejected and 141 [had] been approved’ in wild river areas (DERM, 2011: p. 11). Neale's work is formative in explaining such a tension, finding:

When development projects in the region struggle to meet planning requirements it is often due to the myriad of other applicable environmental regulations’ (Neale, 2012).

When critics of the Act appeared before the aforementioned inquiries to speak about forestalled developments, the cause was typically revealed to be rumour or another law. The controversial Act [QWRA] was almost never the culprit. Rather, as several Indigenous opponents to the Act attested, the entire planning regime was the most onerous obstacle to new developments, not only because it required significant resources to navigate, but, more fundamentally, because it regulated their ancestral ‘country’’ (Neale, 2016: p. 252).

Despite the actual, or material effects of the QWRA being somewhat unclear, we are not suggesting the Act did not impose restrictions or limitations on certain development (see Altman, 2011; Holmes, 2011; Jackson & Langton, 2011). More importantly, some assertions over the possible livelihood disadvantages resulting from the QWRA were observed by Neale (2016) to extend past the physical catchment itself and into engagements over structural disadvantages over broader forms of resource control and governance imposed on Aboriginal peoples by the colonial state. Such tensions build on the inadequacies of Native Title (1993, Cth) in Australia, which does not provide an underlying right to ‘title in land’, but rather a ‘bundle of rights’ consistent with the customary social-ecological uses of lands and waters by the specific indigenous group claiming title rights (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2005; Altman, 2014). In practice, rights have included usufruct (use) rights to hunt, fish, and gather in certain areas, to the right of exercise title rights on ‘non-exclusive’ (shared with others) and ‘exclusive’ (where land access is controlled) areas but not exclusive rights to commercially valuable resources (Altman, 2002, 2014; Australian Human Rights Commission, 2005; Weir & Duff, 2017). Figure 2 shows the native title holdings and indigenous land-use interests or agreements with government in northern Queensland and Cape York. As it relates to freshwater, Tan suggests Native Title allows ‘a limited, non-exclusive and non-commercial right to use water without the need for a license’ (Tan, 2016: p. 262, citing Gardner et al., 2009; Poirier & Schartmueller, 2012). Where momentum is building for re-considering and expanding the natures of Native Title to include both commercial and non-commercial rights (see Akiba v. Commonwealth, 2013; Australian Law Commission Review, 2015), the QWRA left customary rights intact but constructed additional regulatory challenges to using and developing lands and waters where Aboriginal peoples have long lived, stewarded, and cared for (Altman, 2011). Where ongoing debates encompassed land and resource ownership struggles, the Act relied both on commoditizing and exploiting wilderness by re-articulating and re-circulating the idea of a terra nullius and branding indigenous inhabitants as inherently interested in clean and green economies (see Neale, 2011). Certain groups, including the Cape York Land Council and the Balkanu Cape York Aboriginal Development Corporation, argued the QWRA continued processes of marginalizing indigenous communities through denying ownership and control over space and through regulations, narrowing the range of activities that certain communities aspired to engage and participate in (e.g., see Langton, 2009; Pearson, 2010; cf. Langton, 2013). For example, Noel Pearson stated:
Fig. 2.

Native Titles and indigenous land interests in Queensland.

Fig. 2.

Native Titles and indigenous land interests in Queensland.

The Wild Rivers Act strips indigenous people of the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development of their lands. Land and water and the right to ‘speak for country’ and to make decisions about country is at the core of Aboriginal tradition. Wild Rivers declarations substantially remove the rights of traditional owners to speak for their country and place this responsibility with government bureaucrats and lobby groups’ (cited in Slater, 2013: p. 766).

Such statements reflect and support Pearson's claim that the Act was a ‘new wave of colonialism’ (Owens & Wilson, 2010). Broadly, these concerns are lodged in a much more complex and historically produced context of marginalization, dispossession, and land grabbing and are inseparable from aspirational and capabilities-based claims of injustice (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008; United Nations, 2008; see Neale, 2016).

Elsewhere, AgForce, a special-interest organization for Queensland livestock and grain production advocated the application of the eco-centric ethic was unfair for agriculturalists in the context of adaptation to environmental and economic change. Of particular importance, where other relevant Acts (Table S1) placed restrictions on development, the Wild Rivers Code (DEHP, 2007) explicitly states, citing Section 42 of the QWRA (2005), that ‘New agricultural and animal husbandry activities as defined in the Wild Rivers Act are prohibited within a HPA’ (p. 6; also McLoughlin & Sinclair, 2009). Other legislation, like the amended Fisheries Act (1994, Section 76DA), restricted the development of new weirs, dams, or barriers within the HPA as one mechanism of agricultural adaptation (see Jackson & Langton, 2011). For AgForce, it appears these possible limitations generated both by the legislation itself and in combination with other relevant environmental legislation:

…[D]id not acknowledge responsible and ecologically sustainable development and so social and economic outcomes were ignored for the sake of a purely environment-preservation-focussed Act. It restricted the ability of producers to implement best practice land management, diversify their practices in response to future challenges, including changing climate and market factors, and created perverse pest and weed management outcomes’ (AgForce, 2018).

Largely, AgForce was concerned this institutional context, which restricted and limited particular activities for agriculturalists could undercut their capacity to adapt and self-organize in relation to complex climatological and market changes, both of which are widely recognized as an ongoing threat to Australian agribusiness. While this organization is one that has received heavy subsidies in the past from the State Government, their argument appears not in regards to structural injustices, but immediate and inter-generational disadvantages seen to emerge from the legislation.

Persistent opposition, particularly for designated areas in Cape York, led the Opposition Leader at the time (Tony Abbott) to propose the Wild Rivers Environmental Management Bill in 2010. The Bill required future designations to secure Traditional Owners' and Aboriginal peoples' prior consent to declare areas wild rivers (Altman, 2010; Slater, 2013). In doing so, it aimed to protect the rights of Traditional Owners within wild river areas ‘to own, use, develop and control that land …’ – a means of expanding indigenous land rights (see Altman, 2010: p. 2). However, it was not passed, in part because the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee was not convinced that the QWRA ‘substantially interfere[d] with the current or future development aspirations of Indigenous or other landowners in wild river areas’ (DERM, 2011: p. 5). Rather, they believed existing declarations would ‘have no impact as [inhabitants] already use the lands' resources in a sustainable way …’ and that the now possible economic opportunities remained ‘consistent with Traditional Owner aspirations for long-term sustainable development’ (DERM, 2011: p. 3, 24). While an incorrect generalization, this finding holds for certain other stakeholders including the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, and the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation (see DERM, 2011, pp. 24–26). These stakeholders narrated the Act as an act of justice because it supported land management practices and the development aspirations that followed from their governance models. Northern Kaanju families, for example, are Traditional Custodians3 of large stretches designated wild river areas, including the declared Archer and Wenlock areas (Claudie, 2011). David Claudie, leader of the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation that represents the interests of Traditional Custodians for the Northern Kaanju Ngaachi (traditional homeland or country), assertively stated to the Senate Inquiry into the Wild Rivers Bill, ‘Noel Pearson is not our representative and we can speak for ourselves’ (Claudie, 2011: p. 10). He emphasized:

The Wild Rivers Act is consistent with our homelands and economic development aspirations and in no way impedes our current or future plans for economic activities on our traditional lands … We have no plans for large-scale development because unsustainable practices are not allowed under the Indigenous governance and land management principles set down by our ancestors’ (Claudie, 2011: p. 8).

This position emerges from, as Claudie shares, the Northern Kaanju cosmology and governance, which informs ‘all aspects of Northern Kaanju relationships with Ngaachi including land tenure and ownership, land management practices and regimes …’ (Claudie, 2011: p. 4). In his report, he is articulating from this statement and that above, that indigenous governance and care for Country considerably shape broader social and economic goals and aspirations of communities within Ngaachi. The Act was thus held as a source of justice in the sense that it was supportive, or at least in alignment with indigenous governance practices and supporting ways of life that have been marginalized and actively eradicated in the past (cf. Slater, 2013). These collective claims and perspectives reflect what Holmes terms, a schism between ‘modernist/reformist/regionalist visions of Indigenous futures’ and ‘a more traditionalist/localist visions held by many community leaderships’ (Holmes, 2011: 53, also Altman, 2011). We now discuss the implications of these multiple narrations, contestations, and claims of (in)justice and (in)equity in the context of the water ethics literature. We build on our overview of social-ecological systems conservation and value pluralism by both diagnosing broader deficiencies with the QWRA and offering several insights for the water ethics and governance scholarship, where water-related policies and governance frameworks have often struggled to reconcile multiple forms, uses, and meanings of water (Armstrong, 2009; Lavau, 2011; Groenfeldt, 2013; Groenfeldt & Schmidt, 2013; Schmidt & Peppard, 2014).

Discussion: diagnosis and ways forward

Diagnosis

In June 2014, the Federal Court of Australia ruled that three wild river declarations in Cape York were ‘invalid and of no effect4' and shortly thereafter, the QWRA was repealed (Koowarta v. State of Queensland, 2014). The case was decided in favour of the claimants because the Minister did not take sufficient time to consider the submissions of multiple stakeholders (Koowarta v. State of Queensland, 2014). This decision was grounded in notions of procedural injustice and was not a question of the Act's inability to clarify and reconcile possible trade-offs between certain local and state interests over land control, regulation, and development – although self-determination for indigenous peoples was one prevailing and formative context under which the claim was launched and one that has a historical legacy in Cape York and Australia, more broadly (e.g., Mabo v. Queensland, 1992). Recalling Neale's (2016) findings, ‘… [The Act's] effects extended far beyond the regulation of land use within designated ‘wild river’ catchments. [It] was first a law but foremost an event that both revealed and altered the politics of development and indigeneity in Australia’ (p. 249). While the QWRA was accepted by several stakeholders in Cape York (and elsewhere in Western Queensland), it governed large socio-geographical areas where ‘economic hybridity’ and ‘interculturality’ of place are fundamental and hallmark characteristics (see Altman, 2011; Holmes, 2011). Ethical water governance demands practitioners to engage meaningfully with the multiplicity and diversity of values, interests, and aspirations held by different peoples. A central lesson here is that the QWRA is the inability of an ethic informed by a single view to be workable.

The case study demonstrates the need to identify and engage with multiple interests and values within specific historical and geographic contexts to enable more effective (and inclusive) freshwater planning outcomes and to facilitate people's ability to adapt to change over time. In other words, identifying values and interests, including those linked with inequalities, either immediate or inter-generational, and those embedded within broader structural and historical injustices should have been understood and engaged with in meaningful and productive ways. As seen from our case synthesis, the different values and interests around the QWRA ranged from being aligned with indigenous land management principles and responsibilities; being connected with the continued denial of Aboriginal ownership over resources and exclusion from resource-based ownership; and immediate and inter-generational inequities that could result from reduced abilities for agricultural and pastoral industries' long-standing capital investment to adapt to social-ecological and market changes. The challenge for practitioners involves locating the places from which such diverse values and interests emerge, including linking them with historical and contemporary struggles and claims, and using these as starting points to rethink water (and social-ecological) ethics. Building on Perreault (2014), considering values from this wider orientation – that is, not strictly linked to the existing (water) ethic at hand, but to long-standing resource management legacies – can enable a fundamental re-thinking of existing water governance plans, policies, or legislations that are in line with claims to reconcile broader structural injustices as well as current and future equity concerns. This is a much broader and critical process as compared to current practices (including QWRA) where colonial governments have reduced indigenous philosophies to meeting Western ‘cultural’ or ‘ecological’ needs, rather than recognizing how diverse indigenous knowledge systems, aspirations, and philosophies of being can be re-asserted through political and decision-making authority over their land and water (see Hemming et al., 2017). In this sense, such efforts extend the works from Gerlak et al. (2011), who argued for incorporating the principle of ‘hydrosolidarity’ – often understood as ‘equitable allocation of water resources’ – by arguing more ethical water governance extends beyond mere access to water resources and includes governing water environments more broadly. Such exercises are constructive for social-ecological systems thinking which has far too often assumed coherence and agreement in environmental planning, or failed to disrupt the historical production of systems and legacies of injustice (Olsson et al., 2015).

Ways forward

The road to a more ethical water governance begins by discovering different visions and imaginaries for water governance and in doing so connecting the management of social-ecological systems from multiple sets of peoples, organizations, and institutions (Pahl-Wostl et al., 2011; Garmestani & Benson, 2013). Democratizing governance allows social-ecological outcomes to be related and coupled with decision-making processes and their natures (Zwarteveen & Boelens, 2014, citing Schlosberg, 2004). These processes are poorly developed in Australia where top-down approaches by government agencies leave consultation and litigation as the premier forums of public participation (Hemming et al., 2017; Lindsay, 2018). As the QWRA showed, the ability to govern social-ecological systems in just and equitable ways is limited when environmental governance ethics are designed from the top and rely on mere consultation in terms of stakeholder engagement.

One way forward requires a more deliberate and strategic focus on relationship building, shared spaces, and explicit acknowledgement of power dynamics (Kingsford et al., 2011; Harmsworth et al., 2016; Tan, 2016; Cradock-Henry et al., 2017; Ayre et al., 2018). As one case, Harmsworth et al. (2016) examine shared and collaborative Crown-council (regional and district) – Māori (iwi/hapū) decision-making in freshwater management in New Zealand. Rather than singular top-down driven freshwater ethics, Te Ao Māori (Māori worldview) and mātauranga Māori (knowledge systems) are increasingly being used in defining Māori values and interests in water management, and in guiding ‘correct’ (tika) meaningful and long-lasting collaborative processes (e.g., customary protocols, behavior, and responsibilities) between the Crown and iwi/hapū (Māori groups) (Harmsworth et al., 2016). Their work suggests that freshwater co-governance can be most successful when indigenous (and other) groups are involved from the beginning and where understanding, respect, and acknowledgement of different perspectives, values, issues, and knowledge systems exists (Harmsworth et al., 2016). Where guiding knowledge and management frameworks do not exist, visioning and back-casting exercises are promising efforts in co-governance. Visioning allows for values to be elucidated and developed in open forums while back-casting, or identifying how such visions can be achieved or forwarded (Gleick, 1998), allows for the identification of a broader set of barriers within natural resource management policies and laws. Such values and interests should also be iteratively revisited over time because the complexity of both social and natural dynamics precludes the ability of particular ethical stances to permanently govern social-ecological systems (Kingsford et al., 2011; Cradock-Henry et al., 2017).

Adaptive water governance needs to fundamentally rethink how ideas of certainty and stationarity are embedded in water legislation (Green et al., 2013). Scholars, including Garmestani et al. (2013), Arnold & Gunderson (2013), and Garmestani & Allen (2014) have argued for ‘adaptive law’ given social values, livelihoods, the biophysical environment and their intimate connections are unstable and subject to change. Adaptive governance frames legislation as experimental: goals and regulations are co-constructed, results are monitored at different social-ecological scales, and information feeds back into revisiting values behind water ethics (Burdon, 2010; Green et al., 2013; Arnold & Gunderson, 2013; Garmestani & Allen, 2014; Farley, 2014). Fennell et al. (2008: p. 73) bring together ethics with collaborative and adaptive governance, arguing:

As a governance system, adaptive co-management provides a promising mechanism by which multiple perspectives (ethical triangulation) could be considered by many different actors. As participants discuss these fundamental ethical questions through meditative or reflective thinking, adaptive co-management becomes an agent of governance which is good, right, and authentic as well as an arena in which uncertainty can be embraced.’

We advocate for an adaptive co-governance ethical paradigm based on value pluralism to replace singular and top-down water ethics that govern social-ecological systems. This requires a stronger shift towards adaptive, or reflexive law, which is process-oriented and imposes procedural and organizational processes that allow re-conceptualizing, re-framing, and re-approaching complex social-ecological problems, rather than focusing only (singly determined) end-goals – such as how rivers ought to be valued and governed (Garmestani & Benson, 2013; Garmestani et al., 2013). These institutional processes, extending beyond introducing language in water laws alone, are essential where social-ecological systems, such as entire watersheds, readily experience change – incremental and transformative (Pahl-Wostl, 2009). Combined with open-ended and inclusive processes like visioning and back-casting, such processes are well positioned to unsettle and unbalance narrow imposed water ethics as well as broader resource governance ethics that define the scope through which water is managed.

Conclusions

A wide range of challenges and opportunities for water governance and environmental conservation exist, including resource access, self-determination, and recognition. Using the case of the QWRA as an illustration, we elaborated on the social (in)justice and (in)equity dimensions of this integrative conservation plan. While we are not at odds with the QWRA as a legal instrument, we argue the means through which regulations translated an eco-centric ethic into practice were tenuous. We argue that ethical water governance attends to a multiplicity and diversity of values. But the crux of our contribution lies in advocating that values can better inform a given water ethic when policy-makers locate them within the inequalities, either immediate or inter-generational, stemming from that practiced water ethic itself; or, when policy-makers connect and understand stakeholder values as being reflective of past resource management ethics and linked historical injustices. When combined with adaptive planning, such an approach could (i) enable water conservation plans to be re-shaped or re-affirmed in the present and future, or can (ii) develop a reflexive space where radical change in the broader resource governance of social-ecological systems can be imagined. In other words, for value pluralism to serve a role in ethical water governance, the QWRA case suggests multiple interests and values must be historicized, located, and situated such that both incremental and radical change to proposed water and broader resource plans can be articulated, revised, and adapted over time.

1

Cape York is a peninsular region in northern Queensland.

2

This can be referred to as a definition for Country, which Ganesharajah (2009), citing Garnett & Sithole (2007), articulates as: ‘Connection to land is achieved through very specific localised knowledge of a region's natural history that is coupled with complex layers of past personal and family experiences, and deeper connection to the past and therefore to Aboriginal identity via traditional stories and beliefs. This nexus between land and people is ongoing through hunting and gathering and simply being on ‘country’’ (p. 25).

3

Claudie (2011, p. 6) defines a Traditional Custodian as ‘an Indigenous person who is a direct descendant through their ancestral bloodline and according to the Indigenous governance of that certain area to the ancestors and Stories belonging to the certain area of lands and waters in question’. See also Edelman (2009).

4

The QWRA was replaced by the Regional Planning Interests Act and the Cape York Regional Plan.

5

Cape York is a peninsular region in northern Queensland.

6

This can be referred to as a definition for Country, which Ganesharajah (2009), citing Garnett & Sithole (2007), articulates as: “Connection to land is achieved through very specific localised knowledge of a region's natural history that is coupled with complex layers of past personal and family experiences, and deeper connection to the past and therefore to Aboriginal identity via traditional stories and beliefs. This nexus between land and people is ongoing through hunting and gathering and simply being on ‘country’” (p. 25).

7

Claudie (2011, p. 6) defines a Traditional Custodian as “an Indigenous person who is a direct descendant through their ancestral bloodline and according to the Indigenous governance of that certain area to the ancestors and Stories belonging to the certain area of lands and waters in question.” See also Edelman (2009).

8

The QWRA was replaced by the Regional Planning Interests Act and the Cape York Regional Plan4. The Cape York Regional Plan seeks to achieve a balance between environmental protection and economic prosperity. However, it has been broadly criticized for its top-down nature, consultative failures, and allowing unsustainable land clearance.

Acknowledgments

We thank the EDGES Research Collaborative, A. Echeverri, E. Papangelakis, M. Tadaki, L. Harris, K. Chan, J. Schmidt, and C. Lokgariwar for helpful feedback and commentary. Three anonymous reviewers greatly improved this manuscript.

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