‘Caring for Country’ Describes the Sustainable Practices Used by First Nations People to Manage Land and Seascapes in Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia have the longest continuing culture on Earth. This culture is composed of a multiplicity of sovereign Nations interacting through established laws and customs for 60,000 years. These Nations, laws and customs all continue today. In the 2023 census 812,728 people identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin, representing 3.2 per cent of Australia’s total population. They have a young median age (24), speak a vast number of languages (167 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages used a home were recorded in the 2021 census), and live in all regions across Australia from the coasts to the inland deserts.

Prior to the invasion in 1788, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (also referred to as First Nations and Indigenous peoples) lived across the Australian landmass with a population of up to 3,000,000 people. The invasion led to the loss of entire tribes through brutal massacres and the impact of new diseases. It continued into the 20th century with the removal of children from their communities (known as the Stolen Generations). Today, First Nations people experience much poorer educational, employment, health and housing outcomes than non-Indigenous Australia. For example, First Nations people – encompassing 79% living in urban areas and 21% living in rural and remote areas – are proportionally the most incarcerated people on the planet. Many years of programs and interventions seeking to alleviate this disadvantage – generally referred to as ‘Closing the Gap’ – have been a failure. Now, increasing numbers of First Nations people are calling for policies created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rather than for them. A critical element in this call is the ‘Voice to Parliament’, the first of three steps (voice, treaty, and truth) set out in the historic 2017 Uluru Statement of the Heart. In 2023 Australia will be holding a referendum on whether to enshrine this voice in the Constitution. Many Australians hope this referendum succeeds and opens a way for First Nations to gain access, inclusion and a voice in both the governance of the country and also in how we collectively care for it.

The Uluru Statement of the Heart describes First Nation’s peoples’ worldview towards the environment which is intricately tied to the concept of sovereignty:

“This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.” (Uluru Statement of the Heart)

‘Caring for Country’ is a term used to describe the practices used by First Nations people to manage land and seascapes, practices which are built on this long history of experience with the unique Australian biosphere. However, climate change is generating multiple new threats to sustainable management while simultaneously eroding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ cultural heritage and connection to the Country. Bushfires, floods and disasters have a disproportionately negative impact on Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher socio-economic disadvantages, impacting their ability to adapt to extreme heat, while they also experience higher rates of climate-sensitive health conditions. Environmental problems such as invasive weeds and feral animals destroy the overall health of ecosystems and degrade natural resources that Indigenous peoples use to practice cultures such as plants, grasses and water and native timber.

Despite this entrenched disadvantage, Indigenous people are fighting back against the impact of climate change while also seeking to address socioeconomic disadvantage. For example, over 120 separate Indigenous Ranger groups in Australia combine traditional knowledge with conservation management. Rangers engage in bushfire mitigation practices, monitoring and protection of threatened species and overall management of land and water while delivering social and economic benefits for their communities. Another group such as Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation also focuses on bushfire reduction and sustainable land management. A number of urban environmental First Nations groups have emerged working specifically on climate change. Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network focuses on advocating for climate justice, sharing their vision of ‘a just and sustainable future with strong cultures and communities, powered by renewable energy’. Original Power is a First Nations environmental group also advocating for action on climate change. The Wangan & Jagalingou Family Council is fighting to stop the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. Their efforts have led to the establishment of Australia’s first Indigenous sovereignty camp ‘Waddananggu’, occupying a section opposite the mine since August 2021. In other approaches, the First Nations Clean Energy Network is delivering community-owned renewable projects in remote Aboriginal communities to reduce the widespread reliance of these communities on diesel generators. In Western Australia, the ‘Say no to Scarborough Gas’ campaign is fighting the proposed expansion of the Scarborough Gas project that threatens Murujuga land: a unique landscape with globally significant rock art dating back more than 40,000 years. Finally, the legal system is delivering some success. Youth Verdict won Australia’s first climate change case using human rights arguments to stop a new coal mine in Queensland, which proposes the extraction of up to 40 million tonnes of coal a short distance from the Great Barrier Reef. The UN Human Rights Committee found in 2022 that the Australian Government violated Torres Strait Islanders’ right to family life and the right to culture through inaction on climate change.

These successes have resulted from the innovative and persistent work of First Nation communities and their allies. In contrast, the Australian Commonwealth provides little assistance to Indigenous people to resist the impact of climate change and indeed has failed for many years to address entrenched social and economic disadvantage which further weakens First Nations communities’ ability to adapt. One area where government assistance has been successful is through funding the Indigenous Ranger Program. However, the introduction and enforcement of effective climate policy are continually stymied by the ongoing reluctance of the Australia Federal government to implement meaningful action on climate across the country in general. For example, even the new left-wing Labor government supports the expansion of coal and gas mining across the country despite its horrific impacts on Aboriginal culture and country. The Voice to Parliament remains a beacon of hope: providing a constitutionally protected avenue for First Nations people to engage in policy-making on climate change and protect the Country for all Australians into the future.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Robyn Gulliver


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