Thursday, 9 July 2009

Climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock)

There's a debate going on in Australia at the moment about whether to ban people from climbing Uluru (or Ayers Rock as it is sometimes known). It mirrors a recent debate that took place in my family when I was back home!

I'm not normally one for banning things but in this case I think the benefits in terms of respecting traditional culture and helping Australia move forward from its tainted history of exploitation of indigenous people, far outweigh the costs of reducing people's freedom to do something that is really not that big a deal.

Here's a well balanced article on the debate from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Original here

"A proposed ban on climbing Uluru in Central Australia has sparked debate between tourists, traditional owners and political leaders.

A draft management plan for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was released today, recommending a ban for cultural and environmental reasons.

The plan could come into effect within 18 months, but must first go through a consultation process and be signed off by Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett.

The Northern Territory's Tourism Minister, Chris Burns, says the Territory Government does not back the proposal.

"We have never supported the full closure of the climb at Uluru and that remains our position," he said.

But a traditional owner of Uluru, Vince Forrester, says he is is relieved a ban on climbing the iconic rock is one step closer to becoming a reality.

He says the rock is sacred to the local Aboriginal people and traditional owners have wanted the climb closed since the park was handed back to them in 1985.

"You can't go climb on top of the Vatican, you can't go climb on top of the Buddhist temples and so on and so forth," he said.

"Obviously you have to respect our religious attachment to the land too, so we're saying please do not climb Uluru - we've said it in all languages."

Mr Forrester says tourism operators should not be concerned about the closure.

"The visitors will get more information by walking around the base of Uluru and getting told the stories which Aboriginal people are available to do," he said.

Mixed response

The 346-metre high rock is visited by about 350,000 people a year, about half of whom are from overseas. More than 100,000 people climb the rock against the wishes of the traditional owners.

More than 35 deaths have been recorded on the climb, which can be steep, slippery and extremely hot.

The draft management plan, which is open to public comment for the next two months, notes that recent surveys show 98 per cent of people would not be put off visiting the area if they were not allowed to climb the rock.

But members of the public writing to ABC News Online have had a mixed reaction to the proposed climbing ban.

"This is a secular country. Dictating access to a popular tourist destination based on religious beliefs is unacceptable," wrote one, called Jim.

"By all means close the rock to climbers in adverse weather conditions, but to permanently close it would a denial of the rights of all Australians," wrote Saint Mike.

"The decision to climb or not to climb should remain with the individual, not the park management (white or black)."

"I understand the opposition to people climbing it. But at this point, it is a pilgrimage to travel to Uluru and climb it. I suggest that it is as important to Australia in general as it is to the traditional owners, and that should be considered," said another, Si.

"It is not as if anyone built it. It was always there. Climb on it if you want. It is like saying you can't swim in Sydney harbour or walk around the Grand Canyon," wrote Ron Rat.

But others were more supportive of the ban.

"About time. We would be horrified if people were allowed to climb all over our churches or sacred sites," wrote Lilly.

"I think a ban would be great. We should all respect others' cultural and sacred areas," agreed Jenny.

"I have climbed the rock, but would never attempt it again out of respect for the owners," said one person, going by the nickname The Owl.

"When I view it now, it is similar, in a spiritual sense, to a church or mosque. Walking around the base is the most respectful method of experiencing the monolith.

"Land rights is not about legal ownership, it's a link with Mother Earth and our appreciation of the land. We can all enjoy it now, without possible desecration."


Most of those who had already visited the rock said they had not climbed it, or if they had, they said they would not do so again.

"I have just visited this magnificent region - both Kata Tjuta and Uluru. I loved it! I did not climb Uluru nor did I wish to - it is far more beautiful and mystical from a distance," wrote Anne-Marie.

"I've been there, and the walk around the rock is rewarding, probably just as rewarding as the climb up," agreed another.

"Our family has recently visited Uluru and gained an appreciation of this wonderful icon," wrote John.

"We were delighted to take the walk around the rock and gain some understanding as to why 'the rock' would have such cultural significance to the traditional owners.

"Uluru is far more impressive than I ever imagined. It is an experience every Australian should have and not climbing the rock is part of the experience."

But some who were planning to visit the national park said they would not be deterred from climbing the rock.

"I am a student in a rural area and I am expecting to go to Uluru next year - I want to be able to experience what other people have been allowed to! Nature is beautiful, let us see its beauty!" wrote a student.

"I would love to climb this spectacular part of our country. I would like my children to see the view from the top," wrote Barrie.

Two people said if the ban was imposed, they would not visit the national park."


impossible songs said...

Great post, I can comment on your blog!

Paul Hutton said...

The reason I'm inclined to side against a ban is the same reason I'm outraged by this newly passed blasphemy law in Ireland.

Perhaps the whole debate over climbing on Uluru (Ayers Rock) is misplaced. If the rationale for banning climbing is respecting religion then I'm probably against it. However if the rationale is respecting a person's right to own property then perhaps a useful discussion might take place*.

This is an important distinction because it seems many contributors to the debate imply that the reason people don't climb over churches or deface graveyards is because they respect religion. This may indeed be their reason, however it does not seem to be justified. A justified reason for not engaging in these actions is respect for a person's right to hold property*. As I'm sure you'd agree, even this right has limits**.

We might feel we wish to ban climbing on Uluru as a symbolic act to recognise the oppression encountered by those who regard it as a sacred place. This does not seem justified though, for at least a couple of reasons:

1. Expressing disgust at the oppression of one group by oppressing another seems to send mixed moral and political messages. Surely liberals should be standing against oppression in all its forms, rather than siding with one group? Indeed, the fact that the oppressed here wish to stop others engaging in a particular activity which offends their religious viewpoint (is that not oppression?) suggests it is their particular claim and their particular religion which is important to them - they do not seem to desire inclusiveness and equality for its own sake. If they did, surely they would wish to share the land with those of all Faiths so that all can enjoy its natural beauty?

2. If a group of Christians / Muslims / Scientologists today asked the Government to ban fellow citizens from engaging in activity on a piece of land they did not own but believed to be of religious significance then we, their fellow citizens, would be right to treat such claims with great skepticism** (if, however, such a group made a compelling case that they actually owned the land then that is a different matter*).

3. If we did grant land on the basis of religious significance alone then how do we go about sorting genuine religious claims from false ones? Should we use reason and evidence? How would that work? I don't like slippery slope arguments however it seems clear to me that such an accommodation to religious belief in a liberal secular society provides a firm moral and legal precedent which, if followed, could lead to some quite absurd situations.

*Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17

# (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

**Article 29

# (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

Article 30

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Sorry for long post!

Emma said...

I thought this might spark a debate – apologies in return for the long response!!

If you don’t mind me saying, I think you’ve taken a very selective approach to using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a justification for your arguments. To say that respecting religion “does not seem justified” as a reason to support banning climbing, but that respecting property rights does, and to use the UDHR as a basis for supporting this, is perplexing, particularly when Article 18 (the one directly after the one you quote!!) asserts that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to….manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” I would have thought that being free to observe and practice belief or religion is, in fact, the main reason why the Pope wouldn’t want people climbing all over the Vatican, why most of us feel graveyards should be respected, and why indigenous Australians would like climbing Uluru to be banned.

Beyond that, I think it is problematic to use the UDHR as the basis for moral arguments, as opposed to legal ones. The UDHR does not necessarily derive its authority from any moral basis, rather it is a legal instrument which, yes, we may and should use to help us work our way through the maze of interactions between individuals, other individuals and states, but which we must recognize came into being as the product of a particular set of values, many of which may appear to be universal but are in fact quite contestable.

Property rights are a prime example of this and are relevant to this particular topic. Indigenous cultures in Australia had no conception of property ownership, rather they had a belief system based on custodianship of, respect for, and living in harmony with land, rather than seeking to ‘own’ it. This meant that when colonialist settlers landed with their measuring tapes and picket fences and started parcelling up land into ‘plots’, they took the view that the land was ‘unsettled’ and therefore fair game to start formally ‘owning’, a concept which was completely alien to indigenous peoples and was the start of a slippery slope of exploitation and imposition of one set of beliefs over another. Our ‘Western’ concept of property rights is rooted in classic liberal theory which is by no means universally accepted (and nor should it be in my view). For a very basic overview of the debates that have always been held around individual property rights, see

Of course, if we were going to use property ownership as the basis for deciding whether or not climbing Uluru should be banned, we’d get into some very murky waters. “On 26 October 1985, the Australian government returned ownership of Uluru to the local Pitjantjatjara Aborigines, with one of the conditions being that the Anangu would lease it back to the National Parks and Wildlife agency for 99 years and that it would be jointly managed.” However, let’s remember that the Australian government was only ever in a position of ‘ownership’ (and therefore able to impose the above condition) because of nearly 200 years of mass murder, enforced slavery and wholesale exploitation of the indigenous population. Let’s also remember that indigenous people were only recognised by the Australian Government as citizens with any kind of rights at all (rather than as some kind of sub-human species) in 1967 (yes, that’s right, nearly 20 years after the UDHR was signed).

Paul Hutton said...

Thanks for responding!

We'll have to agree to disagree on the reasons for not climbing on Churches. Suffice to say, my argument merely shows that someone who climbs on Uluru does not necessarily commit him or herself to saying it is ok to then climb on Churches etc. They may reasonably refuse to do so because they respect property rather than religion.

Regarding property and the UDHR, I'm sure the issue is, as you say, complex. However I'd be interested in finding out what you are committing yourself to when you profess skepticism regarding the moral importance of respecting the right to hold property. Are you proposing that people don't have such a right? How would that society operate? What's the practical difference between a custodian guarding the land (and banning people from engaging with the land) and someone saying they own the land?

Regarding murky waters, I'm happy for the facts to present themselves here. If the indigenous people own the land then I expect their interests should be taken as seriously as any landowner. I suppose that was my point. I'm not interested in proving that the indigenous don't have a right to ban people from climbing, I'm interested in finding out whether they do!

In citing the UDHR I was not proposing it was an absolute and universally binding moral code. However I did think that it would be an 'uncontroversial' place to start - that is, I thought it would be 'common moral ground' from where to start deliberating. I was obviously wrong! I am interested to know what framework of values guide your defence of the right of indigenous people to ban people from climbing on Uluru!

(TBC as each comment can only be 4096 characters!)

Paul Hutton said...

Ctd from previous.

Although you cite the right to religious freedom in the UDHR you seem to imply this provides a basis for not climbing on Uluru (I'm inferring this from you stating it's really this which underwrites our reluctance to climb over Churches). Setting to one side any skepticism over the moral worth of the UDHR, I remain unconvinced. I believe in a secular society that sharing the land between those of all Faiths and traditions trumps the right of those of one Faith to keep it for themselves (unless the people of that one Faith owns the land - even then, it may be contentious). Indeed, I believe the right to religious freedom would count as a reason NOT to ban climbing on Uluru. Not because climbing is a religion, but because we cannot have one religion or tradition imposing itself on others.

That sort of reasoning leads to this sort of protest (which raises similar issues to the Uluru debate):

Notably it was thought that preventing Sunday sailing was a contravention of Human Rights if it was based on religious grounds (but not otherwise):

I also believe addressing the oppression of the indigenous people is a separate issue from whether to ban climbing on Uluru. A harmless religion or tradition should never be oppressed in a modern democracy. Equally though one religion or tradition should never seek to oppress others.

You express concern that settlers began to divide up the land and formally 'own it' and point out that such a concept was unknown to the indigenous people and 'imposed'. That a concept is not known about and that a concept is imposed does not necessarily make that concept wrong or immoral (freedom from slavery may be an unknown concept to some and may be imposed - please, please don't say that freedom from slavery is merely a Western imposition!!). If the concept of ownership IS wrong or immoral, then I believe that undermines the view that people should be banned from climbing on Uluru.

Personally I'm less interested in where our concepts and values come from than whether they are right. Here I'm careful not to overreach myself and place respecting tradition and culture more than those particular values I would find unthinkable to act against. It happens that respecting difference and diversity is one of those values - but I understand I have to balance this with respecting other values as well. Sure this sort of reasoning may have it's origins in Western thought, but that does not mean it is wrong.

Emma said...

In terms of facts speaking for themselves, we probably need to separate the legal issues from the moral ones when it comes to property rights in this particular example. Legal ownership of Uluru was returned to the traditional indigenous owners in the 1980s but only on condition that it was leased back to the National Park authority for 99 years and that it be ‘jointly managed’. So this whole debate probably won’t be an issue (legally) in another 90 years. However I do have an issue with the conditions that were attached to the return of ownership because I see these in the context of the historical mistreatment of indigenous Australians and, using my moral framework, this is relevant (I explain below). Even using a rights-based framework the situation when it comes to indigenous land ownership in Australia is highly, highly complex and contested and involves complex arguments about the nature of indigenous law vis-à-vis the laws brought to Australia by the British – simply not enough room here to get into it and I’m no expert anyway!

To pick up some of the more philosophical points… First I will answer your question about what a society without property rights might look like…

I’m not saying the concept of property rights is necessarily a bad one but for me that can only be as part of a framework of legal rights that particular societies choose to use as a way of organising resources and living together harmoniously. I don’t think property rights are “natural rights” because I have not seen a rational argument that says to me they are universal and inalienable, as theories of natural / human rights would state they need to be. We only have to look at indigenous cultures in Australia for examples of what societies without a concept of property ownership might look like. Communitarianism might be the most articulated / well developed philosophy in this area, although I’m not 100% sure on that.

To answer your question on what framework of values “guide my defence of the right of indigenous people to ban climbing on Uluru”…

Please note - I’m not defending their inherent right to do this, just as I wasn’t arguing in my previous comment that the right to religious freedom is a good basis for justifying it (in the latter case I was merely pointing out the inconsistency in your use of the UDHR!) Rather I’m saying that given the historical and cultural and legal circumstances surrounding this issue, I believe a ban is justified. But that is because I do not use rights-based approaches to reach moral conclusions, I use a values-based, utilitarian approach. I will explain!

Emma said...

Fundamentally I’m really not sure that I can support the concept of any natural rights including the right to life or the right to liberty. However, that does not mean that I don’t believe in the value of life, liberty (and I would add equality). So to answer your point on slavery – I think it’s abhorrent but I would argue against it from a different moral framework.

I tend to lean towards more of a utilitarian approach to moral philosophy – how do we make the world a better place for as many people as possible? This seems to me to be a rational goal for humankind, not to mention far more achievable in practice than taking a rights-based approach. I believe that pursuing the values of liberty and equality (and working through some of the inevitable tensions between these two) will, rationally, achieve maximum utility and I would refer to philosophical constructs such as Rawls’ Original Position / Veil of Ignorance to show this. Note this absolutely does not mean I think we are all born with a fundamental ‘right to liberty’ or ‘right to equality’ in the universal, inalienable, natural human rights sense of the word. I do think that in some societies and cultures, it is rational to use legal rights as a way of enshrining those values and indeed, I think the law can be a powerful tool to enable greater liberty and equality. Here I think I’m with Jeremy Bentham when he talks about natural rights being ‘nonsense on stilts’ but does recognise that the language of rights (and development of legal rights) can be a useful way to promote more human happiness.

And so back to Uluru. In my view, the very minimal amount of unhappiness caused to people from not climbing it is outweighed not only by the increased happiness of indigenous Australians but by the greater harmony and peace between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians that I predict will follow in the future.

I realise there are many problems with using utilitarianism as a moral framework but that’s a separate debate that we will no doubt have another time!!

Mimi said...

I'm least surprised by the news of the ban, what else wud one expect when ppl climb and start to strip on it!

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