A conversation with Professor Anne Poelina, First Nations experiences and wisdom and how Western law fails Country 

We’re celebrating the launch of the groundbreaking new book, “Declaration of Peace for Indigenous Australians and Nature”.  

What began life as a piece of research for EDO, has now transformed into a groundbreaking book on First Law and Earth-centred laws in a Western legal context. It’s a manifesto for how Country and the environment should be protected, valued and cared for under the law.  

The book delves into the lived experiences and collective wisdom of Indigenous communities impacted by colonialism. Through collaborations with non-Indigenous colleagues, the book seeks to inform current legal practices and advocate for a transformative shift toward justice, equity, and the recognition of First Law and Earth-centred law. 

By presenting Indigenous stories as case studies and incorporating the collective wisdom gained through extensive discussions and exchanges with non-Indigenous colleagues, the authors highlight the ways in which Australian law falls short in upholding holistic principles and fails to align with First Law and Earth-centred law. The book invites readers to consider alternative legal futures that are rooted in respect, justice, and the well-being of both Indigenous peoples and the natural environment. 

Through its thought-provoking analysis, literature reviews, and insights from Indigenous leaders, this book serves as a powerful resource for legal practitioners, policymakers, scholars, and anyone passionate about social justice and environmental sustainability. The book aims to ignite meaningful dialogue and inspire concrete actions to address the historical injustices faced by Indigenous peoples while fostering a more inclusive and equitable legal framework for the generations to come. 

Online Book Launch Event 

On 21st May, there was an online launch of “Declaration of Peace for Indigenous Australians and Nature”, with short talks and selected readings by several of the book’s authors, including: Anne Poelina, Tyson Yunkaporta, Chels Marshall, Ross Williams, Michelle Maloney and Michael Davis. 

Watch a recording of the book launch event here

For more details on the book and to purchase your copy, visit: 
Springer, Booktopia, or Angus & Robertson

A Conversation with Professor Anne Poelina 

We spoke with Nyikina Warrwa woman and co-author Professor Anne Poelina PhD, PhD, Med, MPH&TM, MA ahead of the book’s launch. 

Congratulations on publishing this groundbreaking book! What excites you most about this book?

Because Country is a living ancestor and an active listener: Ngajanoo Nilawal jayida Boorroo my name is Anne Poelina and Broome is my home, it is where I was born. This Country belongs to Jugun and Yawaru people and I’m very respectful of that. This is my home, on the lands of Jugun and Yawuru people and their living Elders.  

What excites me about this is the opportunity for Australia to recognise, protect and enforce First Law in the legal system. 

There have been a number of publications, investigations and reports done by government looking at Customary Law and seeing how that can be embedded in legal pluralism with Crown Law and First Law. 

So it’s not a new way of thinking, it’s a new way of bringing all these stories together in one text, so that people can read the lived experience of Indigenous leaders at the frontline of a lot of unjust development in this Country, with the wisdom of legal scholars, and bringing both into the discussion of how we can recognise, protect and promote First Law in the legal system. 

Why do we need this book? Why is this book important? 

We need to find a way to work with government with shared values, ethics and virtues.  

Many big, unjust development projects are focused on the politics of economics. What we’re saying is that we need a different way to sit around the table and say: how do we develop public interest matters for the greater good of everyone and not just for multinational corporations? How do we come together and think in a moment in time when we have so much climate change and uncertainty? How do we come together and think about what true legal pluralism means in this nation? 

White law is often about precedence and constantly finding new ways to challenge the system, expand it and learn from it, whereas First Law never changes. These laws are from the beginning of time. They come in First Law stories, in narratives. They create the meaning of justice and of equity.  

When I talk about First Law, Law of the Land, it’s about values, it’s about ethics, it’s about virtues. It’s about how we self-regulate our behaviour, how we negotiate how we live together in unity from a world of ‘we’ and not ‘me’. We manage Country through a bicultural governance system that cares about the common good of everybody. 

First Law, the Law of the Land, which has been here from the beginning of time, needs to be able to sit side-by-side with Crown Law.  

Who do you hope this book reaches and what do you hope they learn? 

As we say, we come from a world of ‘we’ and not ‘me’. Knowledge is something that should be shared, and this book is written from a collective wisdom perspective.  

We wrote this book to open the minds, not only of legal scholars and people working for the environment, but of everyday Australians and global citizens.  

What we see this book doing is sharing the Law of the Land, and not of man. So, what is the ancient laws of this land? Because they have been here from the beginning of time.  

One of the things that we’re saying is that we need to bring both laws together so that we can have justice and equity, and that we can look to move forward through that transformation and legal pluralism. 

It’s truly a book for people who want to look at what I write about, ‘lawful but awful’ laws and how we can come together as fellow citizens, to look at how we can transform what is happening now. 

Where I live, we talk about how we can ‘wake up the Snake’.  

How do we wake up the consciousness of everyday people, to feel that Australia is their home and they have a duty of care to connect through ethics, through values, through understanding this ancient wisdom that has come from Indigenous people? How can we have peace? How can we have harmony? How can we have balance? How can we coexist in a time of great uncertainty and climate change and climate chaos? 

This is a book to ‘wake up the Snake’. 

Your work in the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council is groundbreaking in developing a model for how governance can be founded upon First Law. Could you explain what’s been achieved and its importance? 

Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council is groundbreaking.  

We are developing a model of transformation in governance. The Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council is made up of senior Elders and knowledge holders from the top of the catchment to the bottom. And we are also very much investing in our young leaders, so within the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council is a Youth Council, and we are investing very much into the transfer of knowledge, building leadership and building capacity in our Youth Council. It’s a model that we call bottom-up governance, not top-down.  

The Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council is grounded on First Law. It’s also grounded on the principle which one senior Elder left with us, who passed away, he said ‘We have to speak and stand with one mind and one voice’, so really focusing on unity, on collaboration, on cooperation and making sure we’re evidence-based. We are here to protect this River and ensure the River not only has a right to live, but a right to flow.  

The Martuwarra Fitzroy River has been recognised as National Heritage and is the largest registered Aboriginal Cultural Heritage site in Western Australia, so it has standing itself. 

The Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council uses First Law, Warloongarriy Law. There is a Law for the Fitzroy River that combines all of the Nations under one Songline, one law, which says that we are one society, we have a duty of care and a moral obligation to ensure that Martuwarra Fitzroy River, which has given us our Law, given us our identity, given us everything that keeps us alive, is respected, is protected for generations to come.  

Then, at a much bigger regional governance level we have what we call the Wunan Law. So all of the Nations are connected from a regional perspective as well. So we manage the commons, for the greater common good of all of us. That’s what’s really unique about the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council.  

What excites you most now that this book is published?  

Faced with climate chaos, we need to see nature not just as a resource to be exploited and destroyed, but to create a relationship with nature. We’re reimagining different concepts of heritage and the environment, not just seeing the land as something we can dig up, trade off and sell out, and constantly negate our obligations and duty of care as human beings. 

What we’re saying is that we need to see the environment, we need to see nature, as our family, as our kin, so that we can build a relationship and learn that exactly as it was written by Thomas Berry, the trees have standing, the rocks have standing. 

So we, as Indigenous leaders, particularly those of us who’ve written this book, we want to encourage our fellow Australians to feel the land, hear the land, to listen to the Law of the Land, to listen to the laws of nature. So this is what this book does. 

This book explores those relationships, human-to-human, human-to-non-human, and spotlights work right across the planet, particularly around nature rights, that have been led by Indigenous people at the frontline of unjust development, working with amazing legal scholars to give them a voice, give them a pathway to justice, to freedom and equity. 

This book is really a blessing. It’s a treasure. It’s a way to open up people’s minds, to create what we call the ‘coalition of hope’. How can we have hope when the systems of law are so unlawful, and justice and equity are such difficult journeys to navigate in this Country, particularly for Indigenous people, particularly for the environment? 

We hope this book allows people to believe and feel that we can build the ‘coalition of hope’.  

For more details on the book and to purchase your copy, visit: 
Springer, Booktopia, or Angus & Robertson

About Professor Anne Poelina 

Professor Anne Poelina PhD, PhD, Med, MPH&TM, MA. Chair & Senior Research Fellow Indigenous Knowledges Nulungu Institute Research University of Notre Dame, Adjunct Professor, College of Indigenous Education Futures, Arts & Society, Charles Darwin University, Darwin. Anne is the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) inaugural First Nations appointment to its independent Advisory Committee on Social, Economic and Environmental Sciences (2022).  Visiting Fellow Water Justice Hub at The Australian National University, Canberra. Inaugural Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (2018). Co-winner of the Women Taking Climate Action Award, awarded by the Zonta Club of Melbourne on Yarra and the Zonta International District 23 Zonta Says NOW team (2023). Awarded Kailisa Budevi Earth and Environment Award, International Women’s Day (2022) recognition of her global standing. Ambassador for the Western Australian State Natural Rangelands Management (NRM) (2023).  Founding member (2019) of the Western Australian government Aboriginal Water and Environment Group (AWEG). In 2017, she was awarded a Laureate from the Women’s World Summit Foundation (Geneva). Anne is a Peter Cullen Fellow for Water Leadership (2011).