Australian Indigenous leaders say ‘need to be’ at climate table

First nations representatives say the scale of the climate crisis requires ‘unprecedented collaboration’.

Baked and cracked earth as the sun beats down from a bright blue sky
Australia is enduring increasing floods, drought and fires as the global climate heats up [File: Peter Parks/AFP]

Indigenous Australians have called for a greater say in the global climate change response at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt.

Commonly referred to as COP27, the conference has urged member states to take action on past climate change commitments with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warning the world is “on a highway to climate hell”.

Indigenous leaders told Al Jazeera that they, too, need to have a prominent role in the process.

“Having us at the decision-making table is critical,” Jamie Lowe, CEO of Australia’s National Native Title Council, told Al Jazeera.

“We are at an unprecedented moment on Earth and we need unprecedented collaboration to work through solutions together.”

While stakeholders such as Indigenous groups have been given an opportunity to present at COP27, any final agreements and negotiations are restricted to UN member states.

Lowe – who is from the Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung peoples – told Al Jazeera that this separation of decision-making powers constituted a “disconnect”.

“Decision makers go off into another room and make the decisions about our peoples’ future,” he said.

“We need to be at the decision-making table and making calls on what happens in regard to the globe and climate change.”

Indigenous men, some with body paint, sitting down and listening to speeches on sandy ground in the Northern Territory of Australia
Australia’s Indigenous leaders, some of whom have travelled to Egypt, say caring for the land is part of the Aboriginal way of life [File: Neil Sands/AFP]

Drought, fire, floods

As parts of eastern Australia succumb to widespread flooding, two years after catastrophic bushfires burned communities to the ground and killed millions of native animals, Indigenous Australians are concerned their voice continues to be ignored despite the rapid rate of climate change.

Indigenous people successfully managed the land with which they have a unique spiritual and cultural relationship for more than 60,000 years. But 200 years after the British colonised Australia the environment has been devastated.

Nearly half of Australia’s bushland has been cleared, and Australia has the highest rate of mammal species extinction of any continent, with 500 species at risk of disappearing forever.

Les Schultz, from the Ngadju and Mirning peoples, is the chair and founder of Ngadju Conservation Aboriginal Corporation.

Also in attendance at COP27, he agreed with Lowe that Indigenous peoples need to be at the decision-making table in the fight against climate change.

“We [Indigenous peoples] look after 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity – we should be at the table,” he said.

Schultz helped establish one of the first Indigenous ranger programmes in Australia, which draws on traditional land management practices to reduce catastrophic bushfires, such as “cool burning”, a preventive fire burning technique.

“The Indigenous rangers are continuing thousands of years of practice so we have that knowledge base,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Indigenous rangers are extremely successful in Australia. There are a lot of benefits to the Australian Indigenous ranger program that could be copied across the globe in response to climate change.”

Along with the protection of biodiversity, Schultz said it was vital that Indigenous cultural heritage was protected.

In 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto destroyed the sacred Juukan Gorge cave which contained evidence of 46,000 years of Indigenous inhabitancy dating back to before the last Ice Age.

“We are also seeing a lot of cultural sites being desecrated,” said Schultz. “With ranger programmes in place a lot of that could be prevented.”

Australia's climate minister Christopher Bowen making a speech at COP27 against a bright blue backdrop showing the UN climate talks logo
Chris Bowen, Australia’s minister of climate change and energy told COP27 the country was back as a ‘constructive, positive and willing climate collaborator’ [Peter Dejong/AP Photo]

Joshua Gorringe, the general manager of Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation, was also in Egypt and agreed with Schultz.

“Something the world has really got to consider is a lot of these First Nations peoples have been on the land and worked with the land,” he said.

“Yet a lot of Western agriculture works against the land. With better land practices we will get back to a more sustainable future.”

Gorringe, from the Mithaka peoples, said that Indigenous cultural practices were inherently centred on caring for the environment, which he referred to as “country”.

“Part of the culture is caring for the country and the way we managed that was that we worked with the country not against it,” he said.

“A lot of our ceremonies are connected to the way the land works with us, not against us. A lot of these practices really need to start being listened to.”

Priceless environment

Gorringe told Al Jazeera that his attendance at COP27 was to highlight the impact not only of mining, but also hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – on his traditional lands.

Fracking – a process which uses small explosions to break up shale rock formations to extract gas and oil – has been criticised for its potentially devastating environmental and health effects.

While a ban on fracking was recently reintroduced in the United Kingdom by new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, energy company Origin was recently given permission to frack the delicate riverine region of Gorringe’s traditional homelands.

“In the world that we are in now where we are talking rising sea levels and climate damage surely the dollar is not worth as much as what the environment is,” he said.

“We successfully managed the country for 60,000 plus years and in just 200 years all that management practice has gone out the window because governments and other people thought they could manage it better. And the world is paying the consequences now.”

Australia’s efforts in tackling climate change are ranked 55 out of 63 countries, according to the global Climate Change Performance Index, up four places from last year when the country came last.

Not only is Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target one of the weakest, it has also yet to start phasing out coal and gas production. Australia is currently the fifth-largest producer and the second-largest exporter of coal in the world.

In 2017, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison – then treasurer – even brandished a lump of coal in parliament in support of the coal industry, including the establishment of the giant Adani coal mine.

However, the government of Anthony Albanese, which was elected in May, has committed to addressing climate change, with the prime minister declaring shortly after his election victory that Australia had an opportunity to become “a renewable energy superpower”.

“Australia is back as a constructive, positive and willing climate collaborator,” climate change minister Chris Bowen told COP27, although he was later criticised for refusing to join a pledge to end public support for fossil fuel projects overseas.

Back home in Australia, the government is touting its recent “Rewiring the Nation” project, which includes a 1.5 billion Australian dollar ($1bn) pledge to fast-track renewable wind power in the state of Victoria.

While supportive of such initiatives, First Nations Clean Energy Network spokesperson Ruby Heard told Al Jazeera that in the race to combat climate change, Indigenous peoples should not continue to be overlooked as they had been in the past.

“It is a rapid transition, and it needs to be a rapid transition for our environment. But we have to take the time to do this part right,” Heard said.

“We are trying to avoid some of the mistakes and some of the problems that we’ve seen in the mining industry where our communities haven’t been given a fair go and they haven’t shared in benefits.”

Shifting mindset

Australia’s vast land mass may be attractive to green energy companies wishing to develop banks of solar and wind power, and mine renewable energy resources for batteries and solar panels.

However, Heard – from the Jaru peoples – said that it was vital to develop business partnerships with Indigenous peoples and retain respect for sacred cultural sites.

Protesters rallying against Rio Tinto, and carrying a sign saying '48,000 years continuous history destroyed'
There was outrage over miner Rio Tinto’s destruction of ancient rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge [File: Richard Wainwright/EPA]

“We really want to see co-ownership of projects,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We want our people to not just receive royalties for projects on their land but be more active participants in these projects and have a financial stake in them and have some ownership over them as well.

“We want to see our First Nations people have the option to say no if they don’t want a project on their lands or at least to be able to redirect the project away from significant sacred sites.”

Still, Heard is confident that green energy companies will be more respectful of Indigenous peoples than fossil fuel mining conglomerates.

“With renewable energy comes a slightly different mindset. It does tend to be a lot more socially and community focused,” she said.

“We are feeling really hopeful about resetting those relationships and taking this in a different direction – a better direction.”

Source: Al Jazeera