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“Listen to us”: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership on climate and health

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and knowledge must be at the forefront of national responses to the climate crisis, a landmark roundtable meeting will be told today.

The roundtable – hosted by the Lowitja Institute in partnership with the National Health Leadership Forum and the Climate and Health Alliance – will bring together key thinkers on climate change and its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s health and wellbeing.

A detailed discussion paper prepared for the meeting highlights the wide-ranging impacts of climate change upon the health and wellbeing of communities, from remote and regional areas to urban centres and the Torres Strait Islands.

The paper says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ perspectives have not featured prominently in Australian discourse on climate change.

Despite “formidable barriers” in current health and environmental policy and legislative frameworks, the paper says there is “an opportunity for redress and empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to lead climate action planning based on their intimate traditional and historical knowledges of Country”.

The discussion paper, prepared by researchers from the Healthy Environments and Lives (HEAL) Network and the Centre for Research Excellence in Strengthening Systems for Indigenous Health Care Equity (CRE-STRIDE), highlights many examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in climate change advocacy, adaptation, and mitigation.

Restore justice, protect rights

It says climate change has many impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, that it compounds historical injustices and disrupts cultural and spiritual connections to Country.

Critically, the paper says it is “clear that to restore justice and protect the rights and interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, a national framework needs to integrate their meaningful participation and leadership at all levels of planning and implementation” on climate and health action.

The paper’s wide ranging recommendations and findings will be discussed at the roundtable to inform a report to be released by the Lowitja Institute at a side meeting to COP26 in Glasgow.

Questions to be considered at the roundtable include:

  • What can co-governance arrangements look like in climate and health policy that would provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people equitable control over leading change to improve sustainability and wellbeing?
  • How can we systematically integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges into climate adaptation and mitigation planning?
  • How can principles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data sovereignty be embedded in climate mitigation and adaptation planning? Should there be a national set of indicators to monitor progress on climate action and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health?

Dr Janine Mohamed, a Nurungga Kaurna woman and CEO of the Lowitja Institute, told Croakey the report arising from the meeting will provide a collective standpoint for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector, with recommendations that she hopes will be widely useful for services and organisations.

In speaking notes prepared for the roundtable meeting, Mohamed cites the Seed Mob’s declaration that: “All around the world, sea levels are rising. And so are First Nations peoples.”

“We are rising up because – like Indigenous peoples across the globe – we are uniquely equipped to drive solutions to deal with the climate crisis, using experiential, traditional and cultural knowledges,” Mohamed says.

“We know our role and responsibility as custodians, to not rule over Mother Earth, but to take care of it, to nurture. We nurture Country and Country takes care of us.”

The roundtable will also hear from Maori public health physician and scholar Dr Rhys Jones, Hayley McQuire, National Coordinator of the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition, and Amelia Telford, National Director of Seed Mob.

Drawing upon strengths

The lead author of the discussion paper, Dr Veronica Matthews, who is from the Quandamooka community at Minjerribah and is head of the CRE-STRIDE, has expertise in environmental toxicology, ecology and health systems research.

Speaking from Bundjalung Country at Lismore in northern NSW, Matthews told Croakey that she was often struck by how mainstream media and narratives focused on the risks of climate change to Pacific Islands without acknowledging the impacts already occurring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“It’s incredible how people don’t think first of Torres Strait Islander communities having their Country washed away and also communities in central Australia experiencing prolonged heatwaves,” she said.

Matthews said she looked forward to the roundtable discussions “drawing upon the incredible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wisdom in this space”.

“There’s a reason that Aboriginal people are the oldest surviving culture on this planet,” she said.

“It’s because we’ve been very tuned into the environment and we’ve understood how human interactions do change ecological systems but we’ve maintained balance, and our responsibility to look after Country.

“We have adapted to climate change before; we have such a large and valuable knowledge system that hasn’t been utilised as much as what it could be for climate change planning.”

Matthews said all Australians would benefit from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership on climate action, and stressed the importance of co-governance arrangements for land and water management, and intersectoral collaboration.

She said it seems a never ending call from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for governments and others to listen to us.

“We’re doing it again now with climate change. Because it will impact on all Australians now and future generations, there has never been a more pressing time to start listening.”

Bookmark this link to follow Croakey Conference News Service coverage from the roundtable.

On Twitter, follow #IndigenousClimateJustice21 and follow this Twitter list to stay in touch with participants.

This article is published as part of the #HealthyCOP26 series, produced in partnership between Croakey Health Media and the Climate and Health Alliance.