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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 5 (1998)
Cultural Landscapes and Environmental Values (1997), by Veronica Strang,
Oxford ; New York : Berg, 1997. xiv, 309 pp.
Reviewed by Shelley Greer, School of Anthropology & Archaeology, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland Australia.
In this work, Strang examines concepts
of "landscape" and "environment", comparing the perspectives
of Aboriginal people and pastoralists living in the Mitchell River catchment
of Cape York Peninsula. She does this by referring to the history of this
part of Cape York, the "landscapes of the past"; by describing
the contemporary cultural landscapes of both groups and the way in which
they describe and organize space, and by undertaking a comparison of the
values invested in land through education, representations and cosmology.
The concept of comparing the values
of these two groups is extremely interesting and timely, given the current
debate in Australia surrounding Native Title. Strang's study is all the
more relevant as the geographic area she has chosen for her study borders
the traditional lands of the Wik people whose Native Title claim has served,
after Mabo, as the test case for Native Title through both the legal and
Strang makes several important points.
First, she convincingly makes the point that concepts such as "landscape"
and "environment" are culturally constructed and that this obviously
affects the "value" of these. In this regard, Strang's findings
resonate with other work in Cape York that critiques the notion of `heritage'
in terms of indigenous perspectives of landscape (S. Greer 1995). Perspectives
such as these are particularly important in areas like Cape York which
are often constructed as "untouched environments" and therefore
subject to a range of legislative requirements. Strang's work challenges
contemporary management practice which tends to view the environment as
an objective (scientific) reality which has "natural" and "cultural"
values. As Strang points out, "value" is embedded within the
cultural construction. Furthermore, there is a perception that "natural
resources" (at least) can be objectively quantified and on this basis,
given value. This quantification of the environment is based on scientific
values that are, of course, drawn from a particular cultural construction.
In addition, there has been a tendency to conflate Aboriginal values with
those of environmentalists without recognition that although there may
well be some common ground, they are usually drawn from different cultural
In her description and analysis
of the pastoralist group in the Mitchell River catchment, Strang makes
the distinction between those who have had long-term associations with
the region and those that are employees of absentee landowners. The latter
are characterized as highly mobile, staying in the region for relatively
short periods and having a tendency to be focused on the primary economic
activity, i.e. grazing cattle:
In Strang's analysis, the short-term,
transient pastoralists appear to outnumber those who have long-term ties
to the land. Again, this is an important point in terms of the debate
surrounding Native Title. For many nonindigenous Australians, the Native
Title debate is about differing relations to land. Whereas some nonindigenous
interests in land (e.g., mining) can be characterized as overtly economic,
there is a perception that those of pastoralists are less clearly economic
and tempered by their relationship with land. As one of the long-term
Although I am not suggesting that
the long-term pastoralists have the same attachment to land as Aboriginal
people, there is clearly a difference within the pastoral group. Of particular
importance in terms of the public debate surrounding Native Title is the
fact that within this area, the majority of pastoralists do not have long-term
ties with the land.
One of the difficulties I have with
Strang's work is that she does not make enough of these differences within
the pastoralists' group. She often cites a particular long-term pastoralist
whose values express a deeper relationship with the land that goes beyond
economic function. For example:
Although she does draw a distinction
between long- and short-term pastoralists, her conclusions regarding 'values'
are more related to the latter group. I feel that the differences within
the pastoralists' group could have been drawn more finely and wonder what
effect this might have had on the conclusions which, as the title suggests
relate to the `uncommon ground' between the two groups.
Related to this, the analysis of
Aboriginal constructions of environment and landscape is developed on
the basis of a considerable amount of ethnographic examination. The Aboriginal
people of west coast Cape York have had, as Strang herself points out,
a long history of anthropological investigation, which began in the 1920s
and 1930s, and was followed by a number of doctoral studies in the 1970s
and 1980s. There is a rich body of ethnographic information that backgrounds
Strang's own study and from which a detailed picture of the relationship
between people, cosmology, and land can be drawn. In contrast, there has
been little work of a similar nature (apart from Strang's) undertaken
amongst the pastoralists. Given this, the comparison between the two groups
is somewhat problematic. For example, Strang refers to differences in
the way in which Aboriginal people and pastoralists have named the country.
On the one hand, there is a wealth of information related to the way in
which Aboriginal people name their country, and place names "...refer
to related ancestral stories, and thus to the clans who own that country"
(p. 219). In contrast, the meaning and stories behind European names (which
obviously could paint a picture of European relationships to land, e.g.
"Labour-in-Vain Yard, Mistake Dam and Broken Dray Creek...Dinner
camp, Monday's Yard...Revolver Dam, Whisky Lagoon" (p. 218) are lost.
Strang states that the loss of this information is at least partly related
to the mobility of the Europeans in this region. It seems possible however
that much of the information that is deemed to be lost might resurface
if the pastoralist group was subjected to a similarly long history of
investigation. It may be that the apparent absence of European relationships
that go beyond economic function is rather related to current access to
In the section that contrasts Aboriginal
cosmology with that of the pastoralists, Strang refers to overarching
frameworks such as Christianity, Science, Rationalism, etc. to explain
the pastoralists' perspective. I do not deny that these underlie the perspectives
of the pastoralists, however a more detailed explanation of the way in
which these are located and played out amongst the pastoralist groups
would have presented a more informed picture. There is a shift in the
scale of the analysis which may be related to the degree to which we know
and understand each group. This raises another issue, the extent to which
"understanding" is assumed when there is a perception of "common
ground" between researcher and those researched (i.e., Strang and
the pastoralists). Strang does not appear to have been completely successful
in disentangling notions of "self" and "other" in
relation to the pastoralist group.
In spite of these reservations,
I believe that Strang's work is an important pioneering study. She has
identified that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Cape York have
different similtaneous constructions of the environment in which they
live and operate. Her study addresses issues that underlie Native Title,
which is one of the most significant political and social debates that
has engaged Australians this century. One of the major contributions of
Strang's work is that she has reconstructed the comparative study within
a frame of contemporary social issues.