Indigenous Communities Should Be At The Forefront Of Action On Climate Change

Virginia Marshall - Indigenous Communities Should Be At The Forefront Of Action On Climate Change

Dr Virginia Marshall is providing a keynote address at the upcoming Green Institute Conference, Cultivating Democracy. Register now!

In early September I attended an Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Preparatory Meeting in Mexico City as one of three delegates representing the Australia/Pacific region, where Indigenous delegates from around the world drafted and endorsed a Commitment of Indigenous Peoples Action for presentation to the UN Climate Change Summit in New York.

Hosted and funded by the government of Mexico at the encouragement of UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, the Preparatory Meeting brought together Indigenous representatives from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Arctic, Russia, North America and Australia/Pacific in response to the call by the UN Secretary-General for world leaders to commit to concrete and realistic plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next decade and to net zero by 2050.

Climate change will impact Indigenous communities more than other groups. Indigenous communities around the world are already feeling the impacts. Who isn’t aware of the fires in the Amazon that not only threatens the ‘lungs of the earth’ but is seriously impacting the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon? Likewise the we should all be aware of the impact in Borneo and South East Asia where the forests of traditional people are being cleared at alarming rates. Land clearing in Australia is the biggest contributor to biodiversity loss and is reversing thousands of years of sustainable Aboriginal land management. Australia’s remote Indigenous communities are also suffering serious impacts on their health and wellbeing from poor water quality and inadequate water infrastructure which climate change will exacerbate.

The current drought impacting eastern and southern Australia is inflicting severe social and financial pressure on rural communities. Evidence is mounting that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of droughts and wildfires in southern and eastern Australia and also increase extreme rainfall events, resulting in erosion and sedimentation of watercourses. These impacts will reduce the quality and extent of instream habitat, reducing the availability of fish, crayfish, turtles and other bush foods used by Indigenous people. As Indigenous people in these regions have the lowest socio-economic status they will be disproportionally affected.

Most Indigenous communities in the wet/dry tropical monsoon zone across northern Australia are dependent of groundwater resources, which are vulnerable to climate change. Highly variable rainfall, low topographical relief and high evaporation rates make large dams unviable, as studies by CSIRO and others have repeatedly found. The State of the Climate 2018 Report by the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) found that Australia has warmed over 1 °C since 1910 with most warming since 1950. Eight of the top ten warmest years in Australia have occurred since 2005, and the shift to a warmer climate is accompanied by more extreme daily heat events and increasing length and intensity of the fire weather season. This is very significant for Indigenous communities across northern Australia both in terms of fire hazard and summer heat.

Climate change will also increase biosecurity threats – from pest animals, insects and diseases – across northern Australia. The spread of cane toads across the north is a case-in-point as they have reduced goanna populations across their ever increasing range. Not only are goannas an important bush food but they are culturally important, so this impact is a serious one.

Many people are aware of the mass fish kills earlier this year in the Darling River resulting from mismanagement by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).  A Natural Resources Council report pointed out that the problem isn’t just related to lowered inflows due to drought but to excessive water extractions by irrigators. The recent report by the Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission pointed out that Indigenous traditional knowledge could guide more sustainable water resource management that would benefit all the communities of the Basin and recommended that basin States give Aboriginal people a more central role in water resource management.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties meeting in December 2018 (COP24) affirmed the important role Indigenous peoples can play in addressing the adverse effects of climate change. The 2019 IPCC ‘Special Report on Climate Change and Land’ also said the combined use of Indigenous knowledge and new sustainable land management technologies can increase resilience to the challenges of climate change.

The Australian experience has shown that Indigenous ranger groups have a high-level capacity for monitoring environmental conditions and identifying environmental threats, i.e. by using Indigenous knowledge of bio-indicators to ‘read the country’. It has also shown that traditional fire management significantly reduces carbon emissions and protects biodiversity values, i.e. ‘caring for country’. These are of critical value in addressing climate change. Yet the level of funding for these Aboriginal ranger programs is far lower than it should be, leading to missed opportunities for climate change mitigation, biodiversity protection, remote area Aboriginal employment and intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge.

The Commitment of Indigenous Peoples Action highlighted that Indigenous peoples have protected their forests and biodiversity for centuries and currently steward 60-80% of the world’s biodiversity. It observed that partnering with Indigenous peoples to secure their rights to lands, territories and resources, in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples (UNDRIP) and other International Human Rights Instruments will help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It included a commitment to ‘strengthen the stewardship of forests, land, territories and natural resources’ under Indigenous management and protect and restore diverse ecosystems ‘for the dignity of our peoples and respect of our planet and humanity’ and the ‘promotion and advancement of a rights-based approach to climate action by Indigenous people in the spirit of collaboration, solidarity and partnerships’. These are important commitments which can provide a significant contribution to addressing climate change.

As a nation we have a unique opportunity to build equitable partnerships with Australia’s First Peoples which will benefit present and future generations, help us meet our international obligations and protect our unique cultural and biological diversity.