First Nations’ burgeoning contributions to tackling Australia’s environmental crisis must be recognized – Arena


This week, the federal government released the long-delayed 2021 State of the Environment Report (hereafter SOE). In twelve chapters and a summary totaling over 2,500 pages, the report draws attention to Australia’s rapid and continuing environmental decline.

For the first time, in a separate 200-page chapter titled “Indigenous Peoples,” the report highlights the current and likely future impacts on Indigenous peoples of climate change and environmental degradation. The chapter also highlights the role indigenous peoples are currently playing in responding to the worst effects of climate change and other threats.

The new government says the science is there and “it’s high time to get to work”. The job will not only be to respond to this report and work to reduce emissions, but also to respond to Samuel’s critical but constructive review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 , completed nearly two years ago.

Today in the House of Representatives and the Senate there are more Indigenous representatives than at any time in Australian parliamentary history, as well as many more representatives who have campaigned on platforms of stronger action against climate change such as the Greens and independents in the community. After a decade of inaction and political rancor, small and large businesses and community co-operatives are in various stages of readiness for the clean energy revolution and other negative emissions technologies that could reduce carbon in the world. ‘atmosphere.

The government made various promises in anticipation of the report. These include doubling the Indigenous Ranger Program, increasing funding for Indigenous Protected Areas, a new Cultural Heritage Protection Act, and finally spending the long-awaited $40 million on rights. Aboriginal water supply in the Murray-Darling Basin. But these steps, while welcome and important, are small compared to the scale of the challenge.

Indigenous peoples are on the front line

As the SOE report points out, indigenous peoples are on the front lines of climate change impacts and mitigation. These impacts are evident across Australia, present in all landscapes, seascapes and ecosystems. In New South Wales, for example, Aboriginal missions and settlements on the outskirts of towns are often located on low-lying floodplains and are vulnerable to bushfires, heat stress, flooding and ecosystem collapse. and dry river systems. Food and water security is affected, limiting the ability of indigenous peoples to live in their hometowns, which is feared by the majority of indigenous communities along the Namoi, Barwon and Darling rivers.

The heat will make large parts of the interior of central and northern Australia potentially uninhabitable. For example, without significant mitigation measures, the town of Kununurra in the Kimberleys is projected to experience temperatures by 2090 above 40°C for most of the year. Even new homes built to today’s standards are not suitable for the extreme temperatures expected.

Natural disasters such as those experienced in the last five years (droughts, fires and floods) also pose a clear and significant threat to the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, as well as to their ability to restore degraded landscapes due to new threats. such as weeds and wild animals, which inevitably take hold in the post-disaster period.

Indigenous peoples are already providing solutions

Indigenous peoples have recognized land interests in more than half of the continent, nearly four million square kilometres, and more are claimed. Most of these lands are in faraway Australia and will inevitably prove very important in mitigating climate change.

Figure 1: Selected Indigenous rights and interests in land. Source: Authors map from various data sources 2019 – 2022. Rights and interests in Sea Country are not shown.

This huge Indigenous land estate is of great biodiversity and regeneration value, as evidenced by the declaration of seventy-eight Indigenous Protected Areas, comprising half of Australia’s Conservation Estate. But the significance of indigenous land ownership is not limited to the measure of square kilometres, many of which include plots near urban areas and some extending into the coastal zone and the sea.

In all these contexts, indigenous peoples are the custodians of local and traditional knowledge systems. As some thrive and others recover, this knowledge connects people to places of heritage and environmental significance, as well as animals, plants and seasons.

Across the tropical savannah, Indigenous Ranger groups are already making impressive contributions to meeting Australia’s emissions reduction targets. In New South Wales, land returned to Aboriginal community control is small, with more land awaiting return, with some claims unresolved since the 1980s. Yet even this small, fragmented estate matters in the context stemming the worst effects of climate change. Indigenous presence in Greater Sydney’s urban areas is high: in at least two local government areas, Indigenous land holdings are second in size to government.

As many as 80% of this urban land is designated as conservation, meaning that for many indigenous landowners the ability to develop their lands and generate much-needed collective wealth is limited. In the context of urban land clearing and development, Indigenous lands often form the essential “green corridors” that provide habitat for animals and are the “lungs” of our cities.

Aboriginal land tenure in towns, villages and remote communities provides vital ecological services to all Australians in many ways; for example, controlling weeds and wildlife in riparian areas results in cleaner water; and managing fires means cleaner air and fewer greenhouse gases. The urgency of the climate crisis calls for new ways to value the contribution of indigenous land and its owners to the conservation of biodiversity, the provision of ecological services and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and to carbon reduction.

To look forward

The transition to clean energy and the decarbonization of our atmosphere will intensify over the next few years, and the Indigenous terrestrial and marine realm and its inhabitants as stewards and stewards will be key players. The value of this area and the work needed to regenerate landscapes and provide vital habitats in our cities must be assessed and appropriately supported as part of any transition plan. The State of the Environment Report recognizes this to some extent, but much stronger bonds need to be formed to seize the immense opportunity for Indigenous peoples and the nation as a whole.

A growing network of interdependent First Nations alliances is demonstrating clear leadership and commitment to clean energy projects and emissions reductions. These include Country Needs People, which advocates living, caring for and managing Indigenous lands in accordance with First Nations aspirations; the Indigenous Carbon Industry Network, which operates in northern Australia to develop and implement carbon projects, primarily through savannah fire management; and the First Nations Clean Energy Network, under the auspices of Original Power, which champions the interests of landowners and communities in the transition to clean energy to ensure First Nations communities share in the benefits of the boom. clean energy. They are aided by the National Native Title Council, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance. Many attended the First Nations Clean Energy Symposium in Naarm/Melbourne last week.

It is time for climate change policies and programs at the regional, state and federal levels to respond to the productive “climate action” of First Nations peoples with recognition and respect, and equitable resources to allow it to flourish. .

Lauren Mellor

As the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere pushes 410 parts per million, fueling a dangerous climate emergency, the world simply cannot afford to let the Northern Territory become the next frontier for the fossil fuel industry.

About the authors

Bhiamie Williamson

Bhiamie Williamson is an Euahlayi man from North West New South Wales with family ties to North West Qld. He is a PhD Candidate and Research Associate at the Center for Indigenous Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University and Director of Country Needs People.

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Francois Markham

Francis Markham is a human geographer and researcher at the Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University.

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Heidi Norman

Professor Heidi Norman is a researcher in the field of Indigenous political history, a member of the Center for Climate, Society and the Environment (C-SERC) and a facilitator of the Indigenous Research Group on Land and Justice at Sydney University of Technology, and Associate Indigenous Dean in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She is a descendant of the Gomeroi people of North West NSW.

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Jon Altman

Jon Altman has a background in economics and anthropology and is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University. He works on practical issues around environmental, economic and social justice for Indigenous peoples in Australia and beyond with a number of non-profit organisations. He has been actively involved in the Arena project for 20 years.

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