Culturally sustainable infrastructure—far more than safeguarding relics

Abstract kangaroo, colorful composition elements illustration

‘Abstract colourful kangaroo’, majcot, Depositphotos

By Scott Losee

It is good to have our thinking and our work challenged. This happened to the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA) when Māori (Mana Whenua) representatives objected to an Australian infrastructure sustainability scheme being applied to Auckland’s City Rail Link project.

To ISCA’s credit, it worked with the Mana Whenua and adapted the Infrastructure Sustainability (IS) rating scheme to embed their cultural perspectives. But this exposed the obvious unresolved question: to what extent does the IS scheme embrace, respect and honour Indigenous cultural values of its country of origin, the Great Southern Land?

Mana Whenua representative Berenize Peita shared her experience with the ISCA conference in Sydney on 25 October. My favourite part of Berenize’s presentation was when, after showing a series of beautiful and artful images to accompany her words up to a point, and clicking over to her next slide, she disdainfully captured in one word how the scheme had reduced her culture’s wisdom—‘matrix’. It was so true. Good intentioned, certainly, but the table of criteria that resulted from adapting the scheme to Mana Whenua was plainly ugly. Fortunately, the architectural design of Aotea Station that resulted from incorporating Māori culture was beautiful.

Sustainability professionals like to believe that they are receptive to Indigenous perspectives. The IS rating scheme itself responds to cultural heritage, recognising the avoidance of impacts and promotion of heritage conservation and interpretation. However, the Mana Whenua critique went far beyond considering cultural heritage impacts.

The amended framework embraced Tikanga Māori, a system of customs and values to conserve, manage and protect natural and physical resources. In the Māori worldview, all natural and physical elements are related through whakapapa (genealogy) and each is controlled and safeguarded through spiritual beings. All living things have mauri and the protection of mauri is essential.

Value systems like Tikanga Māori exist among Indigenous peoples worldwide due to their continuing, intimate relationship with nature. This excites sustainability professionals. Even so, it may be too easy to accept uncritically that Indigenous peoples have a spiritual and somehow purely sustainable relationship with the natural environment that can translate into an enlightened contemporary ethic.

Having immigrated into Australia 60,000 or so years ago, Australian Aboriginals modified their environment substantially through firestick farming. They co-existed with, and ate, the fascinating megafauna that we might call giant wombats or giant koalas. Human activity is implicated in the demise of those species, though possibly over millennia. Similarly, before Europeans settled in New Zealand, Māori were responsible for widespread deforestation and the extinction of the Moa.

No doubt using country and wildlife for sustenance, possibly without anticipating the landscape-scale consequences, is morally superior to many European behaviours in Australia. Leaving aside Europeans’ appalling behaviour towards other people (invasion, murder and dispossession) they hunted to extinction the Tasmanian Tiger—so recently that you can watch video of a living thylacine online on YouTube.

People are people, and people are part of nature. We are apes who use our environment for survival. However, in modern society we have almost no residual connection to the natural world. For example, we never have to kill what we eat; it comes wrapped in plastic. Knowledge of intimate relationships between humans and local environments, be they in Australia or New Zealand, does survive as traditional knowledge with Indigenous people. Whether or not this is a mystical, spiritual connection, it is highly valuable and demands respect.

I am troubled by a nagging sense that we don’t know what we don’t know. The world’s most ancient society lives amongst us giving us, if we are fortunate and respectful, an opportunity to learn. We should be honouring the ancient connection to country when we are modifying it and building our infrastructure upon it. As the Mana Whenua highlighted, this cannot be achieved merely by taking care not to disturb relics or sacred sites.

Although broad, the philosophy of sustainability embodied within the IS rating scheme is incomplete. It is exciting to realise that there is an opportunity for ISCA, as it develops Version 2, to reflect on how we can appreciate Indigenous perspectives and draw a connection between the sustainability we wish to promote and traditional knowledge and Indigenous culture.

What little I know of Indigenous Australia includes the fact that it is very diverse. It is unlikely that there is a single, simple solution to embedding it in the rating scheme. This itself mirrors increasing recognition in sustainability theory that local context is important. The common sense starting point would be to open discussion on the matter and seek engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to explore what might be possible. I hope that we find a similar willingness to collaborate as we did with the Mana Whenua. The rating scheme—as well as the environments, communities and economies in which infrastructure is developed—would benefit greatly.

Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own. They do not represent the views of ISCA. I am an independent consultant and not a representative of ISCA.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Glenn Hedges says:

    Well said, some really good points which I hope get incorporated into ISCA ver2.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Glenn. I appreciate you taking the time to read it and comment. Congratulations again on the Individual Leadership in Infrastructure Sustainability Award. Scott