Protecting Country: First Nations People And Climate Justice

Green Agenda’s Simon Copland recently interview Larissa Baldwin, the national co-director of the Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network. Simon and Larissa spoke about the indigenous climate movement and how it connects to broader questions of colonialism and land rights.

Edited transcript of interview

Simon Copland: You’re the national co-director of the Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what Seed is, and what it does?

Larissa Baldwin: Seed is a national network of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island young people, and we’re a climate organisation. Basically, we address climate change and we talk about climate change from the perspective that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are already experiencing the impact but we also know that we’re also impacted not just by the impacts of climate change, but the causes of climate change too.

And extraction in our country of fossil fuels plays a huge role in a lot of issues that we have around in our communities – the divisiveness, issues with government control over our land, foreign companies having control over our country, and it also, it develops problems around our traditional decision making structures and takes power away from that. We address the causes and the impacts, and we talk to our communities about climate change.

Simon Copland: Okay, can you talk about some of the big projects that you might be working on. I take it big sort of extraction projects. I know that there’s been a lot of work done on Adani and in the Northern Territory in particular. Can you just go into some detail about those different projects?

Larissa Baldwin: Yeah, so we have been, our biggest campaign at the moment is one, stop fracking, shale gas fracking in the Northern Territory. So currently over 80% of the Northern Territory is covered in licences for oil and gas extraction. And we know that there are over 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves in the Territory, and right now there are a bunch of companies who are trying to dig that up. So when we first started going we heard about all these licences, we knew that all these licences has been rolled out during the Northern Territory Intervention, over, like the whole of the Territory and we wanted to go up there and see what rights, whether or not people had been properly consulted, whether or not communities had issues with it. We went up into the Territory last year and we just met with community after community who said that they did not consent to oil fracking on their land. So we’ve been campaigning hard to put a halt to it, and ultimately call for a ban.

We’ve also been working on the Adani campaign, obviously to stop them mucking up the Galilee Basin. And I guess our approach has been similar there – we want to work with traditional owners, you know Aboriginal communities along the reef coast and also Torres Strait Islanders who are experiencing the impacts of climate change to make sure this mine doesn’t go ahead. We know it doesn’t have consent from the Wangan and Jagalingou people, and we have just been organising our mob and making sure people know about what’s happening.

Simon Copland: So you touched on this briefly when you introduced it but I want to ask what do you see as the points of connections between your work with Seed and the history of resistance to colonialism of Aboriginal and Torres Strait island people over the past 230 years?

Larissa Baldwin: Yeah so, it’s all connected in that, that’s the thing about climate change. It’s not just an environmental issue for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. You look at actually what the impacts of climate change are going to be, so like you’re saying that certain parts of this country aren’t going to have, it’s gonna be too hot to live or there’s not gonna be access to clean, fresh water. Or at least, you know these areas are gonna be polluted by mines and that sort of thing. Then predominantly I would stake my bet on the fact that you’re talking about Aboriginal country and people who are at risk specifically where only Aboriginal communities live. Climate change presents a real risk that for whatever reason, over the next twenty years we’re going to see mass removals of our communities into urban centers or into cities because it’s just not possible for us to live off our land anymore.

We know the trauma that’s existed through colonisation and we’re still dealing with the impact of it now, right across so many issues. And so climate change is basically just going to exacerbate a lot of issues that are already there. But I think from, fundamentally it’s about having rights over your land as well, so if we’re going to be the people that are impacted the most from climate change, then we should have a say about the solutions to the climate crisis, and we should have a say about what ultimately happens on our land. And everything is wrapped up in colonialism and I guess that is the history of this country for us.

So it’s a process of, you know, people think colonisation happened 230 years ago or whatever it was, but the truth is, it still happens today.

Simon Copland: I know that there’s been a particular push by the government recently to amend legislation related to the Native Title Act if I’m correct. Can you just give me some detail about that and what Seed is doing and other organisations are doing to resist that move?

Larissa Baldwin: So first we heard about it was when it was in the media that the Queensland Resources Council, Ian Macfarlane, basically said that, he was at a breakfast or something like that, he said don’t worry. He talked through…because basically, the decision has come down with Noongar mob in Western Australia. They won a court case against the Government there. They said that the government had not obtained the ILUAs (Indigenous Land Use Agreement) that it had, with the proper consent, and so those ILUAs were thrown out of court. Basically, there are a bunch of ILUAs that were sought under the same conditions, that we know about, which is not correct under the Native Title Act. So Macfarlane basically said, don’t worry about it, I talked to all my friends in Canberra, at this breakfast, and we’re going to change the law.

And we were as Seed, we didn’t know anyone else that was working on this. We were just ringing Canberra, like ringing all the people, all the politicians’ offices trying to find out what was going on, and we weren’t getting any answers. And then George Brandis came in and tried to rush that legislation through.

So we were really instrumental in basically getting a halt on that legislation until people could understand what was happening. But still the response has been Labor pretty much supporting these changes and we know these changes are just going through because of the West Australian government decision. Basically where a Government has lost to a group of Aboriginal applicants because they haven’t followed the law properly. Now our federal government is deciding to change the law so that decision doesn’t stand any more. All these changes will be retrospective. And we know the other reasons it’s happening is because they cannot get an Indigenous Land Use Agreement with the Wangan and Jagalingou people to extinguish all the Native Title rights over the land that the mine will be on. This is like a complete power imbalance that exists in this country.

So we basically started telling everyone about it. We had a lot of stuff go viral, we had over 20 000 submissions going to the inquiry for it that we pushed for and we got. We’re still pushing to get better inquiry because what we got was basically crap. So that’s where we’re at with it.

Simon Copland:  So, just talking more about this land rights and country discussion. I know that Seed has done a lot of work to really frame a lot of the work you do around the concept of caring for the country, and doing it in that sort of framing rather than talking specifically or only about climate change. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you think as an organisation it’s important to frame it in this way and sort of again connecting that back to some of these discussions on land rights?

Larissa Baldwin: Yeah, it was a really deliberate decision for us not to use the language around climate change that exists. So why? Because climate change is very scientific language when you explain it, it’s all about the science. It actually refers to, I guess, a western style of education that in a lot of ways, the way that we grew up, the way that we’re taught at schools takes precedence over what then we’re taught through our culture. So the reason for changing the language is that we know when we talk about protecting country, so if you talk to a bunch of black fellas about it, you talk about protecting country, talk about country, we’re immediately in the drivers seat as the expert.

It’s not just a perception being. You’re talking about the thing that we know. We are talking about a thing that we understand. When we talk about country, we are talking about the environment, we talk about our communities, it’s about culture. It’s a very, the way we talk about it, is very holistic. And I think what we’ve seen in the broader mainstream media is that climate change has been politicised into this argument about whether or not it’s real, or whether or not who is taking the right action, or which party has best policies. It all means nothing but I guess when you explain to black fellas that this is essentially what we’re talking about.

One of the great things that we have when we go out into the communities is that, when you talk about protecting country instead of using the language climate change, we don’t need to convince people that climate change is real. Once you open up that conversation, people start telling you about the changes that they can see. And really incredibly, detailed changes. So like, because we have this oral history that’s been around for thousands of years, we have people that tell us stories that, you know, just talking about potentially like, fishing in the river for certain types of fish that are supposed to be there at a certain time of the year, and they can tell you how the story goes, how this is, the changes that are supposed to be happening to the environment, leading up to knowing that, you know, you can go hunt for this type of fish.

All these stories are completely out of whack because of climate change. And this is one way that we can prove what we need to show this mob scientific reports. They can refer back to their own stories and say, hey it’s different, hey its changed. So we wanted to make the language more accessible just for black fellas to understand that we need to take some leadership on this issue and it really is going to affect us.

Simon Copland: I guess it seems like it’s speaking in a way that connects more strongly with your community or is actually led from your community rather than  adopting the western scientific terms and trying to speak in that language. You’re speaking in your own language.

Larissa Baldwin: When we first started talking about climate change and the struggle of sitting within the environmental and climate movement in Australia, it was really a struggle for us to translate what everyone was saying, what we needed to be talking about, to our own mob. It made it even more difficult for our volunteers and young mob around the country to do it. We’re dealing with very low levels of literacy but at the same time, you know that’s in English, dealing with the English language. You go out into the community, you’re speaking your own language, you’re speaking in terms that people understand, then education isn’t a barrier because you have the education. You know the knowledge. So we decided that this was how we’re going to talk about it. If it doesn’t work in the broader non-indigenous climate environment movement, that’s not really our problem. Our aim and our goal is to talk to our own people about climate change and make sure that we know  about the effects. Because people are already impacted by climate change here.

Simon Copland: Yeah, excellent, thank you. So let’s just take a little bit of a sort of global approach briefly. I know that, around the world First Nation’s people are really leading the fight against dangerous global warming, and particularly against fossil fuel extraction. And like Australia, they’re often in the front lines literally as mines and pipelines etc are destroying land. How much are you connected or how much is Seed connected and influenced by what is happening in other part of the world in this sort of struggle?

Larissa Baldwin: There’s a huge influence there. There’s a huge influence and it goes both ways. So we meet First Nation’s people from all around the country and just, the point of starting Seed, which is a youth climate organisation, people were like, hey that doesn’t actually exist in many places around the world. So, you would see Standing Rock and the One Mine Youth Movement, and we had one of their young people come over to Seed. And it was really cool to see the influence that, originally what they’d done is they had started the spirit camp at what was called, what became Standing Rock. And basically it was just a prayer camp. We had young people come over here, to our last summit and explain what we’re doing and how they’re gonna build a movement and talk to them about a bunch of different ways that we are creating change in building awareness of what we’re doing and the type of actions that we’re doing. It was really great being able to share and then the other thing is this incredible international movement is being led by young indigenous people that we knew, which is really cool.

But I think also when you look at indigenous people worldwide, there’s so many similarities in what people have experienced and in the trauma that they go through today. Some of the problems that are in the communities are very similar because we’ve been through the same sort of stuff. And that means that solutions, while not being a perfect fit for us, they fit better than the top down government policies in this country. Because they’re just the same sort of issues that we need to address in order to get the right solutions for our community.

So there’s a massive amount of sharing that happens and it’s really cool to see. It’s really cool to learn from people, to create with other people around the world. So we get a lot of influence and even like over a month ago we had Melina [Laboucan-Massimo] come over to a renewable energy conference, and from that we were able to work together and start the First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance, the first of its kind in Australia. Renewable energy has had huge uptake in her communities back home. So its just how we do it. How we do it, governments are not gonna give it to us, how do we do it ourselves?

Simon Copland: Yeah and building off that, do you have much connection with people from the Pacific Islands, in particular, which obviously is very close neighbour to Australia?

Larissa Baldwin: Yeah, I mean, in Australia, they’re our closest neighbours but also we’ve had a lot of, I think especially with the challenges within the environmental movement and the climate movement in Australia because we’re so close, we are typically talking and having the same challenges with the same organisations. So I guess we built a relationship there, but also, I think one of the things is that for us getting to know the Pacific Island crew and we went out there to help them with their strategy and that sort of stuff and we do work closely on a lot of things and we are really great friends but, one of the things that really resonates for us is, like right now, Pacific Islanders are fighting for their country. Like they’re actually fighting for the survival of their people and their land.

There’s no better person and no group of people in this country to understand what that means or how important that is than Aboriginal people. Because we’re already living the trauma of forced removal from so many places, that for some people to be fighting for their country, and fighting for ultimate, there are islands in the Pacific that aren’t going to exist even at 1.5 degrees and that is completely, that’s a scary thing.

Simon Copland: Yeah, absolutely.

Larissa Baldwin: Like how do I call myself a Bundjalung woman if I don’t have my country? And I can understand how scary that is, and how real the fight is, I know how hard it is for the government not to take you seriously. To have the closest neighbor to be the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas and you know, it must be devastating.

We’re working really close with those guys and we support each other where we can. But I think it’s not just in the actions that we do but I think also just on a really human level, like we really support each other in our well being and that sort of stuff and make sure each other are okay and that sort of thing.

Simon Copland: So just bring it back to Australia then and to sort of end up. There hasn’t always been a positive relationship between First Nations activism and environmental and social justice movements in Australia, and that sort of struggle may, those tensions may continue today. I just wanted to hear about what your experience is of allies being prepared to follow the lead of Seed and other Indigenous leaders in relation to climate activism. And maybe just broadly what are your observations of sort of black-green alliances at the moment and where they stand?

Larissa Baldwin: I think one of the things is, black-green alliances are always gonna be really awkward, so sometimes we can work together and sometimes we just can’t. And I think one of the things to throw in to this is that, well, when it works well, sometimes, it’s because of a lack of power or, basically the power the government has over us. So if the government can achieve things and we need each other to fight against the government in order to protect or preserve or conserve places, then that’s always going be a place where we can work together.

So I think where it diverges is when it becomes about Aboriginal rights or when it becomes about things that are more deeply felt within Aboriginal communities. I think there’s not an understanding there from the green alliance, exactly like the, I think the nuance that is there and like the actual impact of how important some things are, it can become really tricky to always work with green groups or green alliance.

I think people assume that because Aboriginal people live off the land, and have this huge history of being here and leaving such sustainable places, I think people automatically assume that Aboriginal people are conservationists.

But, and it’s like we are, but at the same time our community is in crisis. We have people living in extreme poverty, people living without adequate housing, people living without access to essential health services and even education. And so when you’re faced with that and faced with a government that has a lot of power and then on top of that you mix in mining companies with a lot of money and a lot of influence, then that puts us on the bottom of the totem pole and sometimes that puts us so far at the bottom that it actually puts green groups ahead of us. So it can be incredible tricky.

Especially as one of the things that I really hate to see is when there are people in the green movement who you know, who pick, who join that same sort of fight that the government takes on trying to divide our communities where if you’re saying yes to something from a Government’s perspective you’re good and if you’re saying no to something like the Wangan and Jagalingou people, then you’re a trouble maker. But the government, and the green groups have this thing where they’re like, if you’re saying no to a big mine in your country then you’re the good guy and if you’re saying no then you’re a sell out. Like there’s so much judgement that exists there and I think until green groups and government actually understand the complexity and it’s never going be an easy relationship.

Simon Copland: Yeah that totally makes sense. I think that’s actually a really good place to end the interview. Thank you very much.