Australia’s rivers are ancestral beings

Crawford School of Public Policy | Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis
Dr Erin O'Donnell, Professor Anne Poelina, Dr Alessandro Pelizzon

Event details

RE&D Research Seminar

Date & time

Thursday 04 August 2022


Online via Zoom


Dr Alessandro Pelizzon, Professor Anne Poelina and Dr Erin O’Donnell.

Zoom link: Meeting ID: 839 7507 8536 Password: 602289

Rivers around the world are now recognised by law as legal persons and living entities. Here in Australia, our rivers can be understood as ‘ancestral beings’ under Indigenous laws. This could unite the idea of Nature as a legal subject with Indigenous world views that see Nature as a complex tapestry of ancestral relations enmeshed in a network of interdependence and guardianship between the human and the non-human world. We work in partnership with the Martuwarra to show how this concept of the ‘ancestral person’ can transform human relationships with rivers, and challenge settler colonial laws governing water.

You are invited to watch a short film before the seminar, ‘Yoongoorrookoo, Creator of the Law’, a traditional Nyikina story from the Bookarrarra, which provides cultural context. You are welcome to bring questions about ancestral personhood:

Speaker biographies Dr Erin O’Donnell is a water law and policy expert. She has worked in water management since 2002 in both the private and public sectors, and including a consultancy for The World Bank, on water markets and their role in water security and sustainable development. Erin is recognized internationally for her research into the ground-breaking new field of legal rights for rivers, and the challenges and opportunities these new rights create for protecting the multiple social, cultural and natural values of rivers. Since 2018, Erin has been a member of the Ministerially-appointed Birrarung Council, the voice of the Yarra River. Since 2018, Erin has been working in partnership with Traditional Owners across Victoria to identify law and policy pathways to transfer power and resources to Aboriginal people in water management.

Professor Anne Poelina PhD, PhD, MEd, MPH&TM, MA, Co-Chair Indigenous Studies 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). Awarded Kailisa Budevi Earth and Environment Award, International Women’s Day (2022) recognition of her global standing. Anne is a Peter Cullen Fellow for Water Leadership (2011). In 2017, she was awarded a Laureate from the Women’s World Summit Foundation (Geneva), elected Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (2018), Visiting Fellow with Institute for Post-Colonial Studies, Melbourne and the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, Canberra. See website: -ORCID: - Personal website:

Dr Alessandro Pelizzon completed his LLB/LLM at the University of Turin in Italy, specializing in comparative law and legal anthropology with a field research project conducted in the Andes. His Doctoral research, conducted at the University of Wollongong, focused on native title and legal pluralism in the Illawarra region. Alessandro has been exploring the emerging discourse on rights of nature, Wild Law and Earth Jurisprudence since its inception, with a particular focus on the intersection between this emerging discourse and different legal ontologies. Alessandro is a co-founder and an Executive Committee Member of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature and an expert member of the UN Harmony with Nature programme, as well as a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Business, Law and Arts at Southern Cross University. Alessandro’s main areas of research are legal anthropology, legal theory, comparative law, ecological jurisprudence, sovereignty, and Indigenous rights.

Updated:  26 February 2024/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAMA admin