Published on 20 September 2022
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Wealth in First Nations: Inclusive wealth and colonial legacies

International debate about the need for sustainability is increasingly centring on the use of inclusive wealth as a measure of progress that goes ‘Beyond GDP’ to embed sustainability in policy decisions. Kado Muir argues that the case for a focus on inclusive wealth is essential in the context of Australia’s First Nations and Indigenous peoples elsewhere, given the legacy of resource extraction.

Manta Rirrtinya is in the Central Deserts region of Western Australia and in these desert homelands my people hold exclusive possession Native Title to around 23,000 square kilometres of land. We are among some of the largest landholders in Australia – yet we remain in poverty. Manta Rirrtinya is an example of a disjuncture between access to extensive land-holding wealth and the reality of poverty.

In recent years First Nations in Australia, New Zealand and Canada have built on the processes of restitution through treaties and land settlements to reclaim the Wealth in First Nations. Indeed, Australia is moving towards 80–90% of its land mass being under Native Title and Land Rights claims, determinations and agreements. Despite our access to extensive land holdings, however, we remain an impoverished people in an otherwise highly developed and phenomenally resource-rich nation. Measure the current situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people against the UN Sustainable Development goals and the Australian ‘Closing the Gap’ targets, and our severely disadvantaged position is clearly visible.  Measured against the increasing wealth of Australia’s powerful companies and the profits multi-nationals take home from Australian soil, the First Nations ‘Gap’ is increasing.

Harnessing the Wealth of Nations for First Nations

In this context, work on inclusive wealth, such as the Bennett Institute for Public Policy’s Wealth Economy research programme, offers an important lens on the causes of this gap, and guidance as to how to address it. In the 243 years since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, First Nations people have suffered the brunt of colonial expansion and expropriation of land and resources. European empires subjugated and exploited First Nations people, extracted resources such as people, minerals and plants from their territories, then relocated the benefits derived from these sources of wealth back to their motherland. The flow of substantial wealth to Europe built the foundations for today’s systems of international wealth management and global geopolitics. The question is how can the Wealth of First Nations be built on these extractive foundations?

Wealth in its most fundamental form is generated from the accumulation and use of assets and resources generally attributed to six different forms of capital: Human Capital, Intellectual Property, Physical/Produced Property, Social/Institutional Capital, Net Foreign Assets, and Natural Capital. Natural Capital is of particular interest to the generation of First Nations wealth. It comprises renewable and non-renewable resources, the ecosystems that support and maintain the quality of land, water, air and water and the vast genetic library referred to as biodiversity. First Nations wealth also rests heavily on customary forms of cultural capital. Cultural capital may exist in tangible form such as buildings, locations, sites, artworks and artefacts, or in intangible form such as ideas, practices, beliefs, and traditions.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have engaged in the production of natural, intellectual, and cultural capital for thousands of years; they began with abundant wealth. In a well-known 1966 paper Marshall Sahlins found First Nations hunter-gatherer people to be one of the ‘Original Affluent Societies’, with diets rich in protein and the ability to invest time and labour into natural, intellectual, and cultural capital production. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders invested in cultural production such as oral history, painting, dance and song. As custodians of the land, we engaged in sustainable natural capital production and maintained the ecosystem. We generated intellectual capital such as building sophisticated fish traps, inventing aerodynamic weapons, and the development of extensive trade networks across Australia and internationally with people from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Some of these extensive trade networks continue to operate throughout Australia, but in some cases are now sleeping because of the oppression of the settler society.

These forms of natural, cultural, and intellectual capital are assets at our disposal to reactivate a First Nations economic model. Data sovereignty, renewable energy, net zero emissions, carbon credits and nature-based solutions are emerging sources of First Nations’ capital. As First Nations people, it is important that we understand, access, and have the confidence to use the tools and the capital at our disposal.

Shared wealth: A First Nations economic model

The production of First Nations wealth is underpinned by complex social relationships. We live in a social universe of relationships with each other, relationships with the spirit world, relationships with the land, and we maintain that spiritual relationship. It is a kinship-based understanding of the universe and dreaming, and spirituality is the core – thing that wraps around it all.

Ngapatjika is the process of reciprocity and exchange that is the core to our (sharing) economic system. I got excited when I first heard about the idea of the sharing economy, and thought, “Wow that’s a breakthrough, finally Whitefellas have got it!”.  Then I find that this ‘sharing economy’ is Uber. My definition of a sharing economy is one where there are structured relationships so that no one goes without. There is a process of a structured exchange and reciprocity – I give you this and you give me that – the ‘pay it forward’ idea, except not paid forward linearly, but paid around and around and around. This is what Aboriginal economies are based on: systems of distribution and exchange that support the livelihood and sustenance of all our members.

In contrast, there was a linear flow of wealth from the colonies back to Europe that built and benefited the institutions still dominant globally. There is an ongoing debate between Australia’s First Nations people and the settler state about who actually owns the wealth, but we are essentially fighting over the crumbs because the loaf of bread has already been taken. For example, in 2010, Australian mining generated around AUD$60 billion in revenue, of which AUD$54 billion was exported in the form of dividends and payments overseas.

In the tradition of a social contract between a people and the state, our asset in the land is given in trust to our government to manage on our behalf; and our government then licenses corporations to extract the value from that resource. But most of the realised financial wealth is distributed amongst their stakeholders and we, the people, might get 10 cents in the Australian dollar. And nowhere in this financial accounting is the reduction in other components of our wealth, in natural, cultural or social capital, being accounted for. As an Aboriginal person directly suffering from this flow of wealth away from my traditional territories in Australia, what I would like non-Indigenous Australians (and others) to do is peel away the onion layers from their eyes and come to the point of realising that they too are losers.

First Nations people in Australia are reclaiming and taking back the custodianship of our lands. We are holding the government to account. We are articulating and defining the type of society we want to live in and we are wearing out the rubber on our boots doing it. What are you doing as a citizen of your country to create the type of society you want to live in? By defining the forms of wealth that we want to generate, where that wealth flows, and how that wealth is restored and shared, we can create wealth for all citizens. The first step is having visibility over the entire wealth of the nation as well as the wealth of First Nations by fully accounting for it.

Image: “Manta Rirrtinya Country, Western Australia, Australia” by Kado Muir (2022)

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Kado Muir

Kado Muir is a cultural leader and senior knowledge holder from the Ngalia dialect family of the Mantjiltjara language group, with traditional territorial ties in the Western Deserts of Western...

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