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The Australian National University

Sustainable development options on Aboriginal land: The hybrid economy in the twenty-first century

Discussion Paper 226 / 2001


This discussion paper is a brief summary of a number of intellectual endeavours undertaken in 2001. First and foremost, it is an attempt to progress a research collaboration between the author-a social scientist based at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research-and a number of biological scientists based at the Australian Research Council ARC Key Centre for Tropical Wildlife Management at the Northern Territory University. It is hoped that it also further progresses our joint collaboration with an Indigenous organisation, the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation in central Arnhem Land. The broad aim of this wider collaboration is to generate creative ideas about new development futures for Aboriginal people living on Aboriginal land.

The paper seeks to broaden the notion of the economy and development to include the customary economy. A number of other issues are discussed in the process, some in a very cursory and exploratory way. These include the debate about Indigenous development encapsulated in extreme ideological positions taken by so-called 'progressives' and 'conservatives', as well as more conventional debates about the shortcomings of notions of development that are embedded in the market mentality and have limited analytical capacity for considering cross-cultural and sustainability issues. There is a linked debate about land rights and native title and whether the restitution of property rights (in land and species) to Indigenous groups will have a positive (or negative) future development impact.

The paper begins by outlining the economic development problem that is faced by Indigenous people living on Aboriginal land in remote and regional Australia. It then describes the hybrid economy, made up of market, state and customary components, that is a distinctive feature of such situations, and argues that a big part of the development problem is that this type of economy is poorly understood-by politicians, policy makers and Indigenous people and their representative organisations alike. Consequently, important Indigenous contributions remain unquantified and unrecognised in mainstream calculations of economic worth. This shortcoming is generated in large measure by inadequate analytical approaches that fail to ask how development based on market engagement be delivered to communities that are extremely remote from markets, in both locational and cultural terms.

A proper understanding of the hybrid economy requires a hybrid analytical and intellectual framework that combines science, social sciences and Indigenous knowledge systems. The paper argues for such a framework, and concludes by providing a few examples of how this different approach might enhance greater sustainable development on Aboriginal land in the twenty-first century.

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