Contemporary Australian nrm as Nature/Culture Dichotomy Amnesia How Can We Do Politics of Nature without Politics or Nature?

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Contemporary Australian NRM as Nature/Culture Dichotomy Amnesia

How Can We Do Politics of Nature without Politics or Nature?

Helen Verran

School of Philosophy, University of Melbourne,
Australia (

For: 'Performing Nature at World's Ends'

Voksenåsen Kultur-og Konferansehotell

Department of Social Anthropology (SAI), University of Oslo, Norway.

August 29-31, 2007.


In this paper I first briefly chart the background to the 1997 launch of Australia's National Heritage Trust (NHT) as an NRM initiative. I argue that the NHT in particular and NRM in general embody a new order of government in Australia. In contrast to older orders of Australian government which emphasise (re)distribution and stabilizing, this new ordering project of government is regulatory in intent—seeking to regulate the working of the market. I claim that as an expression of a changed order of government in Australia, NRM exerts a powerful amnesic effect with respect to the nature/culture dichotomy. No longer is it the case that a (contestable) knowing of the 'objective' nature of Australia's territory is one moment of government linked (or not) to separate (contestable) moments of policy formation and implementation. In NRM, those dual moments of doing nature and doing society in government are replaced by a single moment: the working of a market around the (quantified) natural assets of each NRM Region.

Recognising NRM as (among other things) a new order of government which consigns both nature and politics to oblivion, I ask how we can do a politics of nature in this new era. In beginning to answer this question I explore how 'Sea-Country Plans' produced by Aboriginal Australian communities open up sites of contestation and resistance in the working of NRM and help us formulate new definitions of politics and nature.

NRM—natural resources management: the acronym seems to be encountered everywhere in contemporary Australian life. It conjures up a feel-good aspect of our anxious times carrying with it an optimistic sense that Australia is openly acknowledging the environmental and social damage that two hundred years of progress has wrought. Linking economic and environmental objectives, the NRM approach is widely seen as a new, more careful way to develop. Australia's 'new era' of NRM was boldly announced in January, 1997 when Australia's then newly installed conservative prime minister launched the National Heritage Trust.

• An afternoon documentary series on Australian national TV. The show features the Great Barrier Reef as a place that is as much about commerce (tourism) as it is about nature. Things are not going too well, the reefs are stressed from over-use and global warming. But help is at hand according to the TV programme, an NRM approach balances economic exploitation and conservation.

• A local government council in inner city Melbourne raises its rates and explains that some of the increased revenue will go towards restoring pockets of native habitat as part of its NRM plan to increase the natural asset value of the municipality. How could anyone oppose such a worthy intent?

How Now Gippy Cow? A State Government newsletter for Victoria's Gippsland dairy farmers announces that the dairy farmers of the region now have their own Natural Resources Action Plan: "The term natural resources is an interesting one as we often think of water and land as the natural resources we use as an industry. However, this plan expands the concept and includes people, and the industry itself as resources".1 Cows, people, places and economic organisation and the Victorian State Government all in it together.

Garma, Australia's most prestigious Indigenous arts festival held annually in north east Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory is attended by over a thousand Aborigines, dignitaries and tourists. In 2006 this arts festival was the occasion for the local Aboriginal Land Management NGO to launch its "Sea-Country Management Plan"2 amid ceremony and dance. This 'plan' explicitly articulates a Yolngu Aboriginal ideology of 'working country', at once recognising, challenging and resisting NRM's hegemony in contemporary Australia.

• "You've gotta worry about NRM, the way everything is reduced to the 'almighty dollar', but I reckon it's the only hope we've got. So many people are putting so much time and energy into this NRM work.... Well, it's working... Well, it bedda work... Well, we're stuffed if it doesn't."3 This statement was made by a middle aged man with a degree in forestry, an avowed environmental activist. He owns a small consultancy business and soon after he'd made that statement he admitted that he was "burnt out" from all the meetings and writing he'd done in helping to put together the first NRM Regional Strategy for north east Tasmania. When he made the statement he was gazing across the small property he and his wife (a nurse) own and on which they had built their mud brick house and were raising their two daughters. He was wearing rather faded but still startling orange overalls that had been issued to him when he worked for a large corporation in Tasmania's timber industry.

These glimpses of NRM in action show it as practical, technical, and hopeful. I am most moved by the final anecdote. I want to take the concerned, pragmatic, yet determined engagement of this man as emblematic of participation in contemporary natural resource management in Australia—including my involvement with NRM as a theorist. In seeking a basis for a generative critique of Australia's new era NRM, he inspires me to ask how we—the vast collective of practitioners of contemporary natural resource management, can do a grounded, canny and practical form of hope in the here and now, in the present, and also how we—critical theorists in the academy, can support and inspire that.4

How to critique Australia's new era of NRM in a responsible way respecting the dedicated work and good intentions of so many Australians? How to credit the foreboding lurks close beneath surface of the optimism that NRM projects engender? Crises hover suffocatingly close to NRM: continuing soil salination, irrevocable species loss, rapacious globalising multinational corporations, water shortage, diminishing levels of government services, climate change, to name just some of the dread. How to proceed so as to eschew the conventional critical move to deconstruct NRM as merely the creature of capital—to reveal it as really just old fashioned politics of class interests? How to contest the technical designs and practices that constitute NRM as a realpolitik of nature while recognising these grounded collective routines as an inventive politics expressing hope for futures different than pasts?

In this paper I first briefly chart the background to the 1997 launch of Australia's National Heritage Trust (NHT) as an NRM initiative. I argue that the NHT in particular and NRM in general embody a new order of government in Australia. In contrast to older orders of Australian government which emphasise (re)distribution and stabilizing, this new ordering project of government is regulatory in intent—seeking to regulate the working of the market.5 Seeing NRM as expressing a shifting order of government brings to the fore the ambitious but often overlooked programme of standardisation that lies at the core of NRM. We see the extent to which Australia is a "technological society" in the specific meanings of that phrase developed by Andrew Barry. Contemporary government, he notes, is not only about the relation between population and territory, but now also about managing complex zones of interaction of technical practices and devices. Claiming Australia as a technological society in this sense is pointing to the centrality of technology in the space of government.6

Going further, I claim that as an expression of a changed order of government in Australia, NRM exerts a powerful amnesic effect with respect to the nature/culture dichotomy. No longer is it the case that a (contestable) knowing of the objective nature of Australia's territory is one moment of government that can be set against separate (contestable) moments of policy formation and implementation. In that old vision government ordering stabilises Australia's productive capacity and (re)distributes the fruits of production; it is an ordering where the dichotomy between nature and culture is constitutive. In NRM those dual moments of doing nature and doing society in government are replaced by a single moment: the working of a market around the natural assets of each NRM Region. In this collapse of the old dichotomy both nature and politics are obliterated.

Recognising NRM as a new order of government which consigns both nature and politics to oblivion, I ask how we can do a politics of nature in this new era NRM. In beginning to answer this question I explore how 'Sea-Country Plans' produced by Aboriginal Australian communities open up sites of contestation and resistance in the working of NRM and help us formulate new definitions of politics and nature.

The Emergence of NRM in Contemporary Australia

This section of my paper presents a short history of NRM policies in Australia. I claim that beginning in the late 1980s, the ideology of ESD was one conduit by which government as regulatory ordering came to life in Australia. Since then NRM has emerged as something like a network of more-or-less independent regulatory agencies devoted to establishing correctives for 'market failure' with respect to the environment. Exemplifying this shift is the NHT, launched in January 1997 by a newly elected conservative federal government with an explicit neo-liberal economic agenda. The NHT was a central element in its environmental policy.

Caring for our environment is one of the greatest challenges facing Australians as we enter the 21st century.

To guarantee that new generations will be able to enjoy and benefit from our rich and unique natural heritage, we must take steps to preserve it and restore the balance where problems exist... We must reverse the harm already done, protect against further damage and manage our environment in a way which is permanently sustainable so that it can continue to support our communities and agricultural industries...

The Natural Heritage Trust represents the biggest financial commitment to environmental action by any federal government in Australia's history—$2.5 billion...

The Natural Heritage Trust represents a new era in environmental responsibility. The Howard Government has listened to the community's call for more money to go to sensible projects which really make a difference on the ground...

The Natural Heritage Trust is different to any other nationwide environmental plan because it is about action. No more unnecessary studies, no more talk. Action...

The Natural Heritage Trust is a partnership of Australians. It combines the knowledge and resources of scientists, farmers, Aboriginal people, community and environmental groups, governments and our agricultural industries.7

By 2006 the conservatives' NHT initiative had become NHT2 with "total funding of $3billion over 12 years to 2007-8". The Natural Heritage Trust has now been joined by The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP) providing for the federal, state and territory governments to jointly "invest $1.4 support actions of communities and land managers in [developing] comprehensive natural resource management plans and investment strategies...achieving national objectives through regional solutions to regional problems".8 I argue that the NHT and the NAP are exemplary of the new order of regulatory government in Australia. As webs of extended connections they work as zones formed through the circulation of technical practices and devices.

The vision of the working trust fund has it fostering on-the-ground relations between members of Australia's various knowledge communities. Scientists, Aborigines, environmentalists, corporate operatives, government officials, and farmers, must harmonise their practices if they are to receive NHT monies. Somehow problems of the past when 'others' found that scientists and government officials did not listen, and that vested financial interests were unduly influential, will be overcome. Collective action will be 'sensible': scientific theories and abstractions about Australia's nature, along with indulgence in politics and ideologies, will be cast aside.

How is the NHT to be put into operation? Further on in its launch document we learn that market mechanisms will be privileged as means for achieving change.9 Now things begin to sound familiar. Despite the rhetoric of uniqueness we come to recognise that the conservative Liberal Party's Natural Heritage Trust initiative is a continuation in a different key of the re-orchestration of government that commenced under the two previous Labor administrations. In 1997 the conservatives' Natural Heritage Trust initiative was a new move in the "ecologically sustainable development (ESD) policy experiment"10 that has been underway in Australia since the late 1980s. So far reaching were the Labor initiatives that some claim that what was achieved in Australia in the 1980s and early 1990s was "one of the most thoroughgoing and innovative responses to Brundtland in any country".11

ESD, ecologically sustainable development, is a notion the 1987 report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development—the Brundtland Commission, saw as a key element in integrating economic and environmental aspects of development. The first Australian government translation of ESD occurred in 1989 when the Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke released the statement Our Country Our Future, followed soon after by a discussion paper. In Australian politics the 1980s has a special significance. This was the time of 'The Accord'. Unions, government, and industry committed to working together as stakeholders promoting a common good: an economy tuned to global economic forces and a framework for industrial relations that might achieve that. Such consensual approaches are not the norm in Australian politics, but as it happened the style of 'The Accord' meshed closely with the formulations promoted in the Brundtland Report.

In adopting ESD this 'Accord' style was translated to Australian environmental politics which at that time was characterised by intense oppositional politics. As part of its economic and industrial relations agenda the Australian (Labor) government was struggling to defuse the increasingly bitter hostility between green groups which had captured the popular Australian imagination, and the industrial and resource extraction sectors that were crucial to its industrial relations agenda. In this situation the high public profile achieved by the international environmental agenda as the Brundtland Commission mobilised its message in the lead up to Agenda 21, was a gift to the Hawke Labour government. The global environmental consensus that the 'hidden hand of the market' should be the means of ESD turned out to be just the velvet glove the government needed.

In 1990 Federal Cabinet resolved to proceed with "a process, to be known as the Ecologically Sustainable Development Process, which would bring together a wide range of stakeholder interests".12 This put into gear a thorough-going renovation of Australia's environmental bureaucracy. Australia's "new era" of NRM inaugurated in 1997 by the conservatives' Natural Heritage Trust is a continuation of the ESD policy agenda of the previous decades which had proceeded under the general thrust of doing Australia's nature by 'getting the prices right'.13 One way to view the disjunction that 1997 represents in NRM in Australia is to see the conservative's NHT as about institutionalising the outcomes of the 'ESD policy experiment' that had proceeded rapidly and extensively during the Hawke government, and more slowly and patchily under Keating.

Some might view the Howard Government's Natural Heritage Trust as major institutional development, but it is not really an institutional development at all. It is a public finance mechanism disbursing telecommunications privatisation proceeds to environmental programs through the vehicle of a trust comprising two Commonwealth ministers. ... The NHT was a superb political wheeze aimed at winning environment votes and sweetening privatisation, but it has a use-by-date, and—very dangerous in the medium term—it removes much environment policy from the normal realm of public finance14.

In 2006 the question of the medium to long term, the availability of funds to sustain this new type of disbursement remains.

Originally devised to 'sweeten' the partial selling off of Australia's national telecommunications network, and in the long Australian political tradition of 'rural rorting'—providing monetary and other hand-outs to Australia's conservative 'rural heartland', NHT embeds a new mechanism of public finance disbursement and government. This new and uncertain mode of disbursement devised under the conservative NHT version of Australia's ESD policy experiment, was possible because a surprisingly complete reconstruction of the statutory, organisational and customary arrangements of government had been achieved under the previous Labor governments. This reconstruction had ranged through all levels of government recognised by policy analysts: from meta-policy like intergovernmental agreement, to micro-policy like community recovery programs.15

The conservatives' NHT has pushed the boundaries of arrangements established by previous Labor governments in bringing to life a new order of government in Australia, an order I identify as regulatory in intent. From my perspective the way NRM in general and NHT in particular, as expressions of this new order of regulatory government, sunder what used to be the norm of relations between knowledge generation and policy formation is both highly significant and under recognised. Formerly, producing objective knowledge about the nature of Australia was taken as the domain of the natural sciences and subject to a politics of nature that dated back to the European counter-Enlightenment. Albeit contested, knowledge of nature was seen as an end in itself, to be used as the basis of sound policy development, a process that was a second front for a politics of nature.16

A New Bureaucracy

In this section I describe the new bureaucracy for doing Australia's nature that has grown out of two decades of government reform first as Labor's "ESD policy experiment" and then as the conservative's Natural Heritage Trust initiative. This re-institutionalising, which has at its core a standardising process, has brought with it new ways of collectively doing knowledge. In NRM knowledge generation and policy formation and implementation have become one and the same endeavour, the means of which are overshadowed by the ends. A tight harnessing together of economic and environmental objectives to the end of promoting development understood narrowly as gain in natural asset values occludes the mechanics of the practices and devices—the technology that is central in NRM as regulatory government.

Crucial in this new bureaucracy are 'Natural Resource Management Regions' the workings of which have recently been imagined as a vague whole: the "Natural Resources Management Knowledge System".17 NRM bureaucracy is a network of 'councils', the highest level of which is the Ministerial Councils.18 Each Australian State has established an NRM Council19 that has the responsibility to develop the State NRM Investment Plan and appoint Regional NRM Boards that in turn have the responsibility to develop a regional NRM Strategy and Investment Plan for their regions. NRM Groups are formed under each NRM Board to implement the Regional NRM Investment Plans. Boundaries have now been agreed for fifty six NRM Regions covering almost all of Australia.

As my informant clad in bright orange forest worker overalls described it, on-the-ground NRM work is experienced as a seemingly interminable series of meetings. In these meetings a single accredited NRM Regional Strategy, and a single NRM Regional Investment Plan, are devised. These documents become the basis for investment of government funds in the region with the expressed aim of improving the value of the region's natural (and cultural) assets. The Australian Government and the relevant State and Territory Governments jointly accredit these NRM strategies and plans, which depending on events like raising money by floating shares in Australia's national telecom on the stock exchange, may or may not be funded.

Nine of the new NRM regions are in Victoria which is somewhat ahead of the rest of Australia in instituting reform.20 Victoria's NRM regions more or less follow the Catchment Management Authority boundaries as set out by a conservative State Government in the early 1990s as it swept vigorously with the new brooms of 'deregulation' and 'user pays' through Victoria's entire administrative apparatus. This bureaucracy established under a conservative agenda in the State of Victoria presaged the establishment of Australia's NRM bureaucracy at the national level in the late 1990s. This is how this innovation in State Government bureaucracy was justified.

The Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994 places a duty of care on landowners, both public and private...this duty of care is an economic imperative... [involving] the whole community recognising the environmental, social and economic benefits of sustainable land and water management...

A major priority of the Council remains the development of an effective catchment monitoring and assessment system...We will then be in a position to invest in the areas of greatest need...The intense competition for limited funds means that we must target resources where the returns in terms of measurable community benefit will be greatest.21

Established with boards of directors responsible to a State government minister, Catchment Management Authorities (the name Victoria has retained for its NRM Regional Boards) are partly funded by a levy on local councils. Their business is contracting out the delivery of the services called for under the NRM Regional Plan.

A question worth asking at this point is whether this changed order of government has had impact on the 'health' of Australia's nature. It is a question worth asking now because we can expect an answer—at least in theory. A central element of the technological space that is NRM regulatory government is environmental audit. 'State of the Environment Reports' are now assembled every five years both at State and Federal levels of government. The first 'key finding' of Australia State of the Environment 2006 is that

It is still not possible to give a comprehensive national picture of the state of Australia's environment because there is a lack of accurate, nationally consistent environmental data. Therefore the need for an enduring environmental data system remains a high priority if Australia is to measure progress and make sound investments in the country's environmental assets.22

Under the impetus first of Labor's ESD Policy Experiment devised to deal with an intractable and hot green politics that was getting in the way of its economic and industrial relations agendas, and then through the "political wheeze" of the NHT—a creature of a conservative government committed to quickening the pace of privatisation of Australia's infrastructure services, and promoting industrial, resource extraction and rural interests, the landscape of government of nature in Australia has been radically altered and assiduously standardised in a way that has not previously been achieved in Australia.

Australia's new NRM bureaucracy is not only a new set of institutions it is an expression of a new form of governance in Australia, one which takes

technical change to be the model for political intervention...[where] government operates not just in relation to spaces defined and demarcated by geographical or territorial boundaries but in relation to zones formed through the circulation of technical practices and devices. Practices of government are as much oriented towards the problems of defending, constructing, and reconstructing such technological spaces, as with older concerns with the defence and demarcation of physical territory.23

NRM Regions as People-Places Doing Business

"In truth, the 'strong sense of belonging to and being part of the land' held by Indigenous Australians resonates, at least in part, with most residents of East Gippland. We have no doubt about the value of our country: its productive capacity; its potential; and its bounty of plants and animals." So begins the East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy 2005-2010 (EGRCMS 05-10). The East Gippsland Regional Catchment, one of Australia's newly hatched NRM regions, lies in the southeast corner of Australia and has a population of almost 40,000 with a land area around that of Belgium.24

In this section I make a close reading of the latest NRM Strategy document produced by one particular NRM region—East Gippsland. I show that we can understand the region as a 'technological space' in the sense proposed by Barry above. As technological spaces in this sense I take NRM regions to be people-places. I claim that as people-places, NRM regions come into being as purposeful entities. As people-places NRM regions are born to do business. The knowledge practices that generate them are unashamedly teleological. My close reading leads of the East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy 2005-2010 (EGRCMS 05-10) shows that the workings of the NRM region is best understood by analogy to the working of a firm.

The document prefaced by the stirring sentiments I quoted above, can be downloaded from the Federal Government maintained NRM website.25 It is a large technical document of 200 A4 pages, its cover bears an attractive computer generated perspectival topographical image in greens and blues showing the mountainous and coastal nature of the region with the white tipped Australian Alps as the skyline. Inside the front cover are the logos of the Natural Heritage Trust, which features the Australian coat of arms, the State of Victoria, and the East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority—boxy contemporary designs. This disclaimer "The level of government investment in this strategy is contingent on budgets and government priorities" is printed discreetly under the logos. It strikes an odd note of uncertainty in a document that is clearly attempting to be definitive, exhaustive, and up-beat, revealing the document as rhetorical as much as factual.

An example of contemporary report genre, in its content the document is reflexive. The third chapter is devoted to explaining the origins and development of the text. We learn that this replaces the 1997 strategy which had some serious flaws, and is the result of a process of consultation described in some detail. The text begins with an executive summary and articulates a short sharp vision

Environment 2050: A rich diverse region, managed on sound scientific principles in a way that responds to the values and needs of its human communities; a place where residents and visitors alike respect and conserve its natural wealth, as the foundation of their being; a place whose people, acting for all Australians, accept collective responsibility for the region's future.26

The 2004 Discussion Draft detailed a set of understandings and priorities as a priori principles.27 Beginning with a ritual acknowledgement

The partners in this Regional Catchment Strategy acknowledge that East Gippsland is the traditional land of the Kurnai-Gunai, Bidiwal and Ngarigo people.

The principles are as follows:

1. People are part of the system.

2. It is easier and more cost effective to maintain than restore 'natural' ecosystems.

3. We should integrate strategies and actions to conserve and improve natural assets.

4. Trade-off and balancing divergent desires are inevitable.

5. Subject to legal sanction, people dependent on natural assest have a right to use those resources, provided their activities do not cause off-site effects or irretrievable loss of assets.

6. Clarification of rights, roles and responsibilities or resource users and managers should ease conflict and create opportunity.

7. Artificial and highly modified ecosystems can deliver sustainable, multiple benefits such as good water quality and biodiversity conservation.

8. Those who manage our natural assets need the capacity to do this well: ... The East Gippsland community of 38,000 needs help to manage natural assets of significance on behalf of the Victorian, Australian and international communities.

9. Planning for use of natural resources should attempt to use market mechanisms

Most of the bulk of the document is constituted by seven chapters summarising the region's assets, six of these describe natural assets of differing types (for example "State Forest Asset Class", "Coastal and Marine Asset Class"). One chapter describes the human communities. The strategy document exhibits fourteen figures and sixty tables in making its pitch.

Why go into so much detail in describing this document? The description supports what might be a rather surprising claim: this document is best understood by analogy to a prospectus that is issued by a company as a legal requirement of an Initial Public Offering (IPO). When a company wants to go public and sell equity in its future operations it lists itself on a stock exchange—a capital market. By selling equity a company acquires finance to do its business and increase the value of its assets. Making analogy between the company prospectus and the regional NRM strategy that each of Australia's fifty six NRM regions will eventually make public, is to suggest that the role of NRM plans is to offer equity in the future profitable (it is supposed) business of 'doing business with nature' in the region. East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy 2005-2010 can be read as a prospectus associated with the region 'listing itself as a company in the NHT2 capital market'. By so 'listing' itself the region seeks to attract government 'finance' to do its 'business with nature' and increase the value of its assets.

Of course many companies these days are complex associations of quite diverse operations bundled together to constitute a brand. The prospectus of such a company launching an IPO has several tasks. One is to describe the diverse operations in such a way as to highlight how they form a whole, to downplay the disparities and distinctions between the company's various constituent parts. One of the things being accomplished in The East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy 2005-2010, is presenting the diverse operations of the many communities of East Gippsland in such a way as to foreground their coherence as a region. Backgrounded are the disparities and distinctions between East Gippsland's various historic social groupings and places. Many and varied histories are here being bundled together to constitute an NRM region—a 'company' with a particular brand.

Developing the analogy further. An important aspect of a company prospectus is its brokerage role. It sets out to assist the company attract investment and focuses the description of the company in such a way as to be attractive to specific areas of the capital market. The EGRCMS 05-10 also claims this role. We learn on page 27 that

The East Gippsland CMA [or Regional Authority in Federal Government terms] acts as a broker to establish a framework to ensure that natural resource management programs in the region reflect the expectations and priorities of the community and engage their commitments...[It] assists the East Gippsland community to attract direct investment from a range of possible sources including, but not limited to: •The Victorian Government; • The Australian Government; • Philanthropic trusts; • Industry bodies; and • Local Government..

Just as a prospectus goes to considerable lengths to show the good management practices that characterise the company and the ways lines of accountability are arranged, so too EGRCMS 05-10 has analogous diagrams.

Figure 1. A diagram showing the lines of accountability of the East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy.28

Perhaps the most important element of a company prospectus is to show the character and worth of the company's assets as they stand, and the potential they have for development through appropriate action that will be enabled by investment of the money raised by the sale of equity in the company's future. So too EGRCMS 05-10 is most concerned to display its assets.

The natural resource base assets are broadly divided into productive assets (cleared land for agriculture), and environmental (a relatively unmodified forest ecosystem in a reserved Park). Some can be understood as dual purpose like a forest remnant used for both conservation of the natural environment and recreation. ...The use of an asset provides the region or state with a benefit or value. Some natural resource based assets are relatively easy to value. There are well established markets which provide mechanisms to provide monetary values for commercial assets—land and water resources are good examples. Because of limitations in the availability of data, the strategy has not attempted to make a comprehensive assessment of economic values of assets, it has however provided data to indicate economic value data is readily available.....Valuations are less straightforward for natural ecosystems and other environmental assets where there are no established markets

Monitoring the condition of assets will be an important task for the future. ...Although a great deal of work has been carried out on monitoring water quality in the region, a full understanding of the condition of water based assets is far from being achieved. Making inventories of other assets has not yet begun, let alone the condition monitored.29 (p.28).

Given these provisos we might be forgiven for wondering how salient is the information presented next one hundred and thirty two pages with respect to assessing the value of the regions assets and showing how a measurable increase (or at least not a decrease) in their value might be achieved by strategic investment.

Undaunted by this actuality, the document claims that an assets-based approach

focuses assessment and investment on the natural resource assets to be cared for or improved, rather than on the issues, symptoms or causes of deterioration. It creates a measurable framework to provide both the community and government with confidence that their investments achieve tangible benefits.30

Company annual reports must be read in conjunction with a prospectus if we are to get a sense of the actual functioning of the company and so it is with the East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy (RCS).

The RCS identifies priorities for action in the region at a strategic level....describes broad condition targets for assets with the aim of improving, or at least slowing the deterioration of, the condition of those assets. Detail is provided in the annual Regional Catchment Investment Plan...The Regional Catchment Investment Plan (RCIP) is the annual mechanism for interpreting the RCS and its associated sub-strategies.31

What is the significance of my analogy between an NRM Regional Strategy document and the prospectus published by a company making an initial public offering? It helps us see that the ecological sustainable development policy 'experiment' which has been emergent in Australia for the past twenty years is pursued through entities, at once material and social, technical and literary, and the function of these entities is doing business.

At its core new era Australian NRM has a particular sort of people-place: one that is modelled on the notion of 'the firm'. In this relatively recently tightly articulated project of knowing and doing, that is managing, NRM regions fit the Oxford Dictionary definition of a firm as "a commercial house transacting business". They are in the business of transacting natural asset value.

In coming up with their Regional Catchment Strategy (RCS) communities with disparate and various histories, sometimes opposed or competing interests and disparately focussed knowledges, must be rendered within a single frame, a regional NRM plan articulating and branding a region as a set of natural(cultural) asset values. Those communities and places most easily articulated (in both senses of that term) will fare better in this exercise than those whose natural asset values remain ambiguous and/or unquantified, or that abstain from involvement in the process. Part of the work of being this new sort of NRM people-place that does business is to be knowledgeable about itself—to account and monitor its assets (natural and cultural) so that they may be publicly witnessed. The most successful sort of community in the ESD frame is the type that show can show itself to itself and to others, using quantified terms.

The Orbost flood plain remnant rain forest is exemplary in this. 32 Here in doing government as business, the East Gippsland NRM Region has achieved a marginal gain in natural asset value. This attested and articulated rain forest remnant is a crucial element in the NRM region, understood as a connected and reconstructed zone that is simultaneously material, social, literary and technical.

Orbost Flood Plain Remnant Rain Forest.

Near Orbost on the banks of the Snowy River a warm temperate rain forest thrives for the first time in perhaps a hundred years. It exhibits the Victorian government standardised ecological vegetation class 'warm temperate rain forest'. The remnant patch has become a feature in Orbost's Rain Forest centre, and been added to the Victorian State tally of 2596 'pockets' of warm temperate rainforest. In the EGRCMS 05-10 on page 124 the banks of the Snowy River near Orbost are inventoried as a 'high conservation status biodiversity asset'.

This is witnessed by visitors who 'have reacted positively as the forest is in a high profile area near the main tourist road to Marlo. It is open to the public and includes fishing platforms, picnic facilities and bicycle paths.' Importantly too birds give witness—their visits have been recorded. 'Three years ago there were only about 10 species of native birds in this area, all of which were common. Now at least 60 species have been sighted, most significantly a number of threatened species including the magnificent White-bellied Sea Eagle and many rainforest birds. The rainforest birds include the Eastern Whip Bird, Bassian Thrush, Wonga Pigeons, Bellbirds and Yellow Robins.'

Under the first East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy, the 2001-4 Investment Plans included contracts to restore a warm temperate rainforest on a sliver of land owned by the East Gippsland Shire Council along the banks of the lower reaches of the Snowy River at Orbost. Financed by a $300,000 Federal Government investment between 2001 and 2003 and a $280,000 State Government investment in 2004, the East Gippsland Catchment Authority, working through its Orbost based Bushcare facilitator mobilised and organised groups of students and other volunteers. Armed with tools and suitable seedlings they worked to 'replicate ecological pathways [and among other things] re-introduce 14 rare or threatened species of plants...[to produce] a functioning rain forest'. In addition to attest their work they produced a work manual recording how they went about making this 'self-replicating restoration'.

New Era NRM is Amnesia towards the Nature/Culture Dichotomy

There are many things to be said about the practices and forms of new era NRM in Australia. What I want to foreground here is the way that knowledge and NRM people-place doing business are one and the same—mutually and strongly co-constituting. As people-places doing business in transacting natural assets, NRM regions are tightly-knit technological wholes simultaneously neither and both political and natural. Their constitution effects a collective forgetting of the nature/culture dichotomy.

In performing themselves as a single moment of collective knowing and collective action, the NRM Region people-places doing business effect amnesia around a dichotomy that in the past has been crucial to doing a politics of nature—contesting both the forms by which nature is known (for example by the pitting the epistemologically distinct 'scientific' and 'Romantic' forms against each other), and challenging the forms of social arrangements that render nature systematically productive, and distribute the benefits of that productiveness.

In Australia's new era of NRM—as an expression of a regulatory order of government, nature is consigned to oblivion along with politics. As older orders of government are superseded the dual and separate moments of objective knowledge of nature and the politics surrounding that nature dissolve. But this does not mean that NRM is not resisted, that there is no contest or challenge to its hegemony.

In concluding I want to look briefly at one particular instance of contestation and resistance to NRM one that at first blush might seem more like compliance with NRM's forms. I examine a 'sea-country plan' produced last year by some members of the Yolngu Aboriginal Australian community. Part of the problem in recognising this 'plan' as resistance is its highly technological nature; there is a carefully wrought partial coherence between this sea country plan and the newly conventional NRM practices.

What could resistance in Australia's new era of NRM be? Regulatory government renders resistance as failure of government. There is indeed much resistance of this sort in NRM. For example developers often fail to fully comply with standards that will render developments environmentally neutral say in terms of biodiversity loss. In the sense that compliance in not enforced this resistance is a failure of government.

Even considering resistance in its stronger more active sense of protest and challenge, regulatory forms of government can still explain resistance away as failures of government. Here it is failure in the sense of failing to forge the necessary clotting for example of 'NRM Region' as the knowledge generated in enacting such an entity by experts, administrators, and individual citizens. A form of ontic 'clotting' is part of the messy business of government through doing business in transacting natural assets. Protest can be seen as failure of the practices and devices crucial in technological government to effect a 'clot'. Such failure of course calls for ever more assiduous connecting and reconstruction work in the technological zone that is an NRM region in order to effect a satisfactory clotting of that entity. Seeing resistance this way it is not a politics, and does not involve nature.

But as Barry points out opposition and protest is not simply failure of government in these senses.

Opposition and protest have their own logic and inventiveness; their own spaces and temporalities; their own forms of knowledge and technique; their own ways of restricting as well as opening up spaces of contestation.33

In recognising this it is crucial to see that forms of opposition are just as technological in character as government, and no less or more technically inventive than government; no less or more irrational than government. In concluding my paper I briefly consider one example of resistance to NRM that can be understood as a politics of nature, albeit that both politics and nature must be radically redefined.

Yolnguwu Monuk Gapu Wänga Sea Country Plan34

Subtitled "A Yolngu Vision and Plan for Sea Country Management in North-East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory" the text which articulates this vision is clearly identifiable as speaking to the arena of NRM. And it is up front in expressing "concerns". The document contests NRM's sovereignty with respect to a specified territory and makes its case for an entity that is not an NRM region to be recognised and resourced as the sole legitimate land management authority of this territory. In presenting itself as not an NRM Region the text begins with cosmology going on to illustrate the forms of title so conferred with images of startling beauty.

Ancestral Spirit beings of the Yirritja and Dhuwa moieties created us and the known world—the celestial bodies, land, sea, living plants and animals. The journeys of these ancestral creators crisscrossed the sea and the land creating the the land and the seascape and breathing life into the living things that inhabit it. The origins of these ancestral beings, their behavious as they crossed the landscape, their meetings with other ancestral beings and their resting places have marked our sea and landscape with sites of great significance to us. From these ancestral journeys and the network of important sites created across the land and sea, we gain our names, our identity, and our way of life.35

In pressing its claims, the document notes that

We [Yolngu] are not just another stakeholder; we are first Australians whose identity and essence is created in, through and with the sea and its creatures

And its claims are uncompromising:

1. The seas of the coast of Miwatj (Arnhem Land) between Djimardi (Blyth River) and Wurrungguyuna (the mouth of Walker River) should be referred ro as Manbuynga ga Rulyapa on all new official maps of the area.

2. The Australian Government should consult with Yolngu about the extent of our interests in the area.

3. A bi-lateral co-management agreement with the Federal Republic of Indonesia for the whole of the Arafura Sea should be pursued by the Australian Government with the assistance of Yolngu.

4. The marine protection strategy for Manbuynga ga Rulyapa should continue to be based on Yolngu management principles.

5. Governments should acknowledge and support the application of Yolngu law throughout Manbuynga ga Rulyapa

6. Yolngu want to be able to set minimum safety standards for ships using their waters.

7. Yolngu want to own and operate commercial fishing enterprises in Manbuynga ga Rulyapa and to have a say in the way these fisheries are regulated.

8. Mining proposals for the sea bed and subterranean minerals should be processed according to the principles of Yolngu customary law.36


In my example of resistance to Australia's new era of NRM it is the people-place 'born to do business' itself that is resisted and opposed. We see a people-place 'born to re-generate The Dreaming' both connecting with and separating from that relatively newly hatched entity of Australian government—NRM Region. In this canny contestation a new space for politics is opened up, one which both subverts and remakes 'NRM Region' rendering it political once again, although the terms of this political engagement are radically 'other' than the terms of the old politics around government which NRM Region subverts and remakes.

This Yolngu contestation helps us redefine politics and nature and envisage a new politics of nature. Politics becomes recognisable as the process by which NRM Regions as entities become objects of contestation. This is an ontological politics rather than a politics wrought over epistemological issues and social action. We can also re-recognise nature as what it is that is at stake in these ontological contests/negotiations—that which is being negotiated over. Vale the nature/culture dichotomy. Long live the politics of nature.

1 How Now Gippy Cow , Issue 90, June 2006, p.3. The State of Victoria, Dept of Primary Industries and GippsDairy.

2 Dhimurrru Land Management Aboriginal Coroporation 'Sea-Country Plan See

3 Comment made during interview. The informant had participated over a period of two years in getting the Regional NRM Plan for north east Tasmania together. With a degree in forestry science years of experience as an environmental advocate, he could be understood as an exemplary NRM practitioner. Interviewed in September 2005.

4 As Andrew Barry points out, in today's world terms and practices promiscuously cross between political debate and academic criticism, between scientific practice and social theory. He notes that this cross-over is not a new phenomenon, citing the miscegenation of evolutionary theory and eugenics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but noting that the contemporary phenomenon deserves more systematic interrogation. Andrew Barry, (2001). Political Machines Governing a Technological Society, The Athlone Press, NY and London, p.4.

5 This account of a new order of government as regulatory has been developed by Giandomenico Majone. He contrasts a new order of government as regulatory, inspired by American models, to older orders more common in Europe. These older orders are "welfare states" concerned with redistribution between social groups, and "Keynesian" in that they are concerned with preserving satisfactory levels of economic growth employment and stable prices. (Deregulation or re-regulation? Regulatory reform in Europe and the United States, Giandomenico Majone (ed) London : St. Martin's Press ; New York : 1990; Regulating Europe, Giandomenico Majone (ed) London ; New York : Routledge, 1996; Dilemmas of European integration : the ambiguities and pitfalls of integration by stealth, Giandomenico Majone New York : Oxford University Press, 2005).

6 Barry

7 "Natural Heritage Trust Overview". Environment Australia and Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Australia. Commonwealth of Australia, 1997. p.2. Accessed 11/8/05

8 National resource Management Ministerial Council, National Cooperative Approach to Integrated Coastal Zone Management. Framework and Implementation Plan. Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, 2006 p.54.

9 "Natural Heritage Trust Overview". Environment Australia and Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Australia. Commonwealth of Australia, 1997. ( p.1 (Accessed 11/8/05)

10 'Brundtland' here refers to the recommendations made by the UN's World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1987. Clive Hamilton and David Throsby (eds), The ESD Process: Evaluating a Policy Experiment. Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra, 1998.

11 Stuart Harris and David Throsby, "The ESD Process: Background, implementation and aftermath" in Clive Hamilton and David Throsby (eds), The ESD Process: Evaluating a Policy Experiment. Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra, 1998, p. 14.

12 Stuart Harris and David Throsby, "The ESD Process: Background, implementation and aftermath" in Clive Hamilton and David Throsby (eds), The ESD Process: Evaluating a Policy Experiment. Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra, 1998, p. 3

13 Tor Hundloe, "ESD and the Industry Commission", in Clive Hamilton and David Throsby (eds), The ESD Process: Evaluating a Policy Experiment. Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra, 1998.

14 Stephen Dovers, "Institutionalising ESD: What happened, what did not, why and what could have?" in in Clive Hamilton and David Throsby (eds), The ESD Process: Evaluating a Policy Experiment. Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra, 1998.

15 Tor Hundloe, "ESD and the Industry Commission" in Clive Hamilton and David Throsby (eds), The ESD Process: Evaluating a Policy Experiment. Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra, 1998.

16 It is an exaggeration to portray this set of understandings about collective knowledge as a thing of the past. It is alive and well in many areas of Australian life. Many practitioners of science studies, notably feminists and the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) group, have roundly criticised this model pointing out that the fantasy of neutral, universal knowledge systematically blinds policy makers, favouring the interests of the establishment and young, white males in general—the 'ideal knower' in that old model of objective scientific knowledge. See

17 accessed 21/7/07.

18Ministerial Councils: A number of Commonwealth-State Ministerial Councils provide forums for member governments to exchange information and experience and develop coordinated policies in relation to national and international environment and conservation issues. These include the: National Environment Protection Council; Natural Resource Management Council; Environment Protection and Heritage Council; and Primary Industries Ministerial Council. Accessed 17/07/2007

19 About Natural resource management (NRM) Regions. Department of the Environment and Heritage, Commonwealth of Australia 8/3/05. Accessed 1/6/06.

20 Natural Resource Management Regions Department of the Environment and Heritage, Commonwealth of Australia 25/2/04. Accessed 1/6/06. Terminology differs somewhat between states. In Victoria the boards that administer NRM regions remain as 'Catchment Management Authorities'.

21 History of the Catchment Management Framework (CMF). Victorian Catchment Management Council, .html 29/3/2006 Accessed 1/6/06.

22 Australian State of the Environment Committee, Summary of the independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment. Commonwealth of Australia, 2006

23 Andrew Barry, (2001). Political Machines Governing a Technological Society, The Athlone Press, NY and London, p.2.

24 EGCMA (2005) The East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy 2005-2010. East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, Bairnsdale. The Board of the East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority was reconstituted in January 2005 "on a skills basis...with members drawn from across the community" p. 184


26 EGCMA (2005) The East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy 2005-2010. East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, Bairnsdale. p.xii.

27 East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy "Exhibition Draft: 10 May 2004", p.8.

28 East Gippsland Regional Catchment Strategy "Exhibition Draft: 10 May 2004", p22 (p23 in 2005 version)

29 EGRCMS 05-10 p. 27-28

30 EGRCMS 05-10 p. 26

31 EGRCMS 05-10 p. 20/22

32 "Natural resource Management Case Study Snowy River" Australian Government, June 2004, Accessed 1/6/06.

33 Barry p.6

34 Dhimmurru (2006)Yolnguwu Monuk Gapu Wänga Sea Country Plan: A Yolngu Vision and Plan for Sea Country Management in North-East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Dhimurru Land management Aboriginal Corporation

35 Dhimmurru (2006)Yolnguwu Monuk Gapu Wänga Sea Country Plan: A Yolngu Vision and Plan for Sea Country Management in North-East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Dhimurru Land management Aboriginal Corporation, p6

36 Dhimmurru (2006)Yolnguwu Monuk Gapu Wänga Sea Country Plan: A Yolngu Vision and Plan for Sea Country Management in North-East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Dhimurru Land management Aboriginal Corporation, p16-17.

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