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Ahead of landmark climate and health report, an artwork tells of the harmful impacts

The Western Australian Government is expected to release a landmark investigation into climate change and health in WA later this month.

One of the submissions to the Climate Health WA Inquiry came in the form of a deeply meaningful artwork, reports Jade Bradford, a proud Ballardong Noongar freelance journalist based in WA.

This article is published as part of Croakey’s contribution to the #CoveringClimateNow collaboration.


Jade Bradford writes:

White dots come down from the sky, they rise from the bottom and are in the waterways. The waterways are home to species of fish and turtles which are swimming around. On the banks near the water’s edge are the turtle’s nests.

Two First Nations people are standing nearby on the land – a man and a woman, under a shady tree. The woman is pregnant. Behind them in the background, a kangaroo hops through the plants used for bush tucker and traditional medicines. The white dots affect every living thing in the painting.

The white dots symbolise climate change as a disease.

Proud Nyikina woman, and Aboriginal Health Council WA (AHCWA) Sector Engagement Officer Ronda Clarke told me the story behind her artwork:

The painting, the visual view of climate change was inputted [and the story] from the 23 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services [across WA], and it was just me putting the paint to canvas.

It was the ACCHS’s and their communities’ story to be told, not mine and this is how they wanted it told.”

First Nations people are increasingly aware of the impacts of climate change on their communities and surroundings. AHCWA and ACCHS work hard to ensure First Nation’s people have the same level of healthcare available to them as all Western Australians.

The artwork was created to include in AHCWA’s submission to the WA Department of Health’s Climate Health Inquiry.

The inquiry was announced in March 2019 in response to the State Government’s Sustainable Health Review. The inquiry reviewed the health system’s capacity to respond to the health impacts of climate change and will make recommendations for improvement.

Ronda Clarke said CEOs from the ACCHS wanted to present a visual to communicate their concerns to governing bodies in a more powerful way. She said AHCWA and ACCHS workshopped the topic ‘climate change’.

From the workshop, the painting and a submission were provided to the inquiry on behalf of the ACCHS and AHCWA.

Clarke explained it was important to the ACCHS that the direct effects of climate change on First Nations’ people were heard and understood by the WA Government.

“Words sometimes get blurred and you only pick up what you want to see. Whereas if a picture is in front of you, you are getting the whole view,” she said.

Collective expression. Photograph of artwork by Jade Bradford

From climate change to COVID-19

Clarke’s artwork and AHCWA’s opening statement to the inquiry poses the question: if we were to call climate change a disease, would more people take notice?

Clarke said ACCHS wanted to highlight that climate change is affecting First Nations people in similar ways to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Climate change has had a big impact on the social and emotional well-being of our people. I’ll use the Kimberley region as an example; the roads get cut off, things get washed away, the fish in the waterways have changed.

There are lots of waterways that have dried up, rivers have changed paths, and grown wider, these events have cut off sacred areas, and the land in some areas across WA have changed.

Where people could access bush tucker and bush medicines, which are traditional to our mob, some of these things are gone, or you can’t see anymore.”

Extract from AHCWA submission

The CEO of AHCWA, Des Martin, said similar responses and investments to the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic were needed to address climate change.

“AHCWA and its members are very mindful of the threat and impact that climate change is having on land, country and the ecosystem, and more so to the overall health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people, their communities, culture, and traditional customs and practices,” he said.

“First Nations’ people are intrinsically connected with their land and country,” Martin said, quoting the words in the AHCWA and ACCHS Model of Care: “for I am country and country is me, for I am the bush and the bush is me, for I am the waterways and the waterways are me.”

Martin added:

For thousands of years as the custodians and caretakers, Aboriginal people have tendered and cared for land and country, the ecosystem and the environment, and in turn the land and country [Mother Earth] has also tendered and cared for Aboriginal people, their communities and cultural traditions.”

Taking the lead

Both Clarke and Martin agreed the work undertaken by AHCWA and ACCHS in the fight against COVID-19 has shown mainstream services that First Nations people have the systems in place to deal with complex issues.

“We are very capable of taking the lead, we are very capable of strategising and basically, we walk the talk,” Martin pointed out. “We’ll say something and we’ll put it into action. In some cases, we have been ahead of the game and not behind the game.”

ACCHS expressed in their submission that the WA health system needed to take on more responsibility and consult with First Nations communities when making decisions.

The submission recommended ACCHS co-produce policies and strategies embedding community access to renewable energy, water security and planning for climate-resilient infrastructure. ACCHS would also like to co-produce policies to improve emergency management processes, including post-event counselling.  

Other areas needing policy responses included educating community, clinicians and health professionals about the impacts of climate change on First Nations people.

Martin said AHCWA and ACCHS had welcomed the opportunity to provide a submission to the inquiry and acknowledged former Chief Health Officer, Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, for including the ACCHO sector as part of the feedback process.

“Tarun has been a driver for the last few years. We have done a fair bit of work alongside Tarun in his role,” Martin said. “It’s people like Tarun that have ensured the Aboriginal voice has been considered and factored into the various discussions.”

Ronda Clarke agreed, saying it was important governments acknowledge First Nations people with a place at the table.

“The Elders are out there and it’s about respecting them, they’re the ones who notice the changes and it’s those stories that are passed on from family to family and this is a part of our heritage and history,” she said.

Clarke said AHCWA and ACCHS are proud they were asked to present to the inquiry and have the opportunity to explain how climate change is affecting First Nations health services across WA.

“To actually be acknowledged, this was a huge achievement and honour,” she said.

AHCWA is now waiting for the WA Government’s response to the report, which is expected later this month.

Watch the interview

Jade Bradford is a proud Ballardong Noongar freelance journalist based in WA. She has been taking part in The First Nations Messaging and Narrative Shifting Project, which aims to identify the most effective language and messaging to support First Nations self-determination and empowerment. On Twitter, follow @Jade_BraddyCorrection (25 August): When first published, the feature image was incorrectly attributed to Jade Bradford. It was taken by Natasha Gillespie from AHCWA.


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