The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and research sectors must be resourced appropriately to respond to climate change, according to the Lowitja Institute’s submission to the National Health and Climate Strategy consultation.
Lowitja Institute writes:
Our submission to the National Health and Climate Strategy consultation is summarised under nine themes.
We welcome the consultation paper’s acknowledgement that Indigenous knowledges have a critical role in informing how Australia can address the problem of climate change and its impacts on health and wellbeing. It is important the strategy also elevates and draws upon the strengths of our peoples. For example in recent events such as the New South Wales floods, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people demonstrated great adaptability, ingenuity and innovation.
A strengths-based approach is important in ensuring this strategy moves beyond reactivity and enables system transformation in line with a Health in All Policies approach and our peoples’ holistic approach to health and wellbeing. We must act urgently on health and climate, but we can also use this urgency as an opportunity to improve our society and systems for the better.
2. Governance matters
We currently lack a specific forum that is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led and resourced to focus on health and climate. This is a huge governance gap that needs to be filled. Lowitja Institute is assessing the feasibility of a national governance body, such as a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander coalition on health and climate, to enhance our peoples’ voices and leadership on this important policy issue.
Such a body could work alongside government and the Department of Health and Aged Care to co-design the strategy, as well as other policy documents, and implementation. It could work to ensure that government policy on health and climate aligns with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policies.
In keeping with a Health in All Policies focus, it is important the strategy considers other policy areas such as housing, workforce, land management and other social and cultural determinants of health. As climate change has such a significant impact on our peoples’ health and wellbeing, we recommend the inclusion of a specific target relating to health and climate in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap targets.
3. Resource services
The strategy must clarify that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led organisations are included within its scope. This is important because, when decisions are made, actions are taken and funding is allocated according to this strategy, there is a risk that we are left out.
Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations (ACCHOs) and Aboriginal medical services (AMSs) are already stretched for resources. With adequate funding, these organisations can better develop adaptation plans and recruit specific roles within organisations so they can collectively work towards reducing emissions and advising on health and climate policy. These services require access to emergency funds so that they can continue operations and deliver vital and flexible services to community when there are climate-related extreme weather events and disasters, such as floods.
Specific funding that is easily accessible for the renovation or construction of energy efficient buildings would be beneficial. We also recommend increased funding for the National Aboriginal Health Plan and for ACCHOs who do vital preventative health work in their communities.
4. Emissions reduction
An additional area to consider is food production. Traditional food sources in Australia are often low emissions options. Investment into and support for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led development of a traditional food sources economy would benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing, and would have broader benefits for the whole population, as well as reducing emissions.
Another area for emissions reduction is local service provision. This connects up with travel but it is broader than this. Keeping services local benefits Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, especially those in regional, remote and rural communities.
Further, building the internal capability of all staff who work in local ACCHOs to provide advice and assist with implementation of emissions reduction activities is essential. This includes funding for the recruitment and training of people with specialist knowledge within the organisation to provide specialist advice. The success of any emissions reduction in the sector will depend on this.
5. Building the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mitigation and adaptation workforce
Workforce development and capability building for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this space is essential. This includes investment in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce and others who can work alongside our peoples, to develop and implement approaches to mitigation and adaptation.
Community involvement in adaptation planning that is short, medium and long-term is essential. Adaptation should also be expanded to harness opportunities for the healing and regeneration of Country, as well as to create economic opportunities and development within communities.
We recommend the establishment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led community healing centres that can support whole communities before, during and after times of crisis, such as floods or fires. These centres would provide safe places for whole communities in easily accessible and safe locations. For example, the Northern Rivers Community Healing Hub played a key role in supporting the local community after the recent floods.
Lowitja Institute is confident that healing centres would also provide savings to government by building community resilience, providing post-event trauma support, and acting as central hubs where community members can access services and supports. These centres could also support communities with mitigation and adaptation planning.
6. Dedicated research funding
Building a comprehensive evidence base requires investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led research. To ensure the evidence base is inclusive of our knowledges, wisdom and expertise, we recommend dedicated funding for a specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research agenda and for a specific funding stream for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers to engage in projects looking at health and climate. We suggest engaging with Lowitja Institute to do this work as this is our area of expertise and we have significant experience in developing research agendas that are led by our communities. This would help to inform priorities and drive strategic action.
There is also a need for increased funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be involved in this work. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander investigators could be trained and employed to be on Country, assessing how it is changing and reporting on this through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led research programs.
7. Human rights and climate justice
We recommend the strategy includes alignment with international human rights frameworks, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the recently internationally recognised human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This human right was recognised last year by the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council in a resolution for which Australia voted in favour.
Colonisation is ongoing in this country, and climate change is a direct consequence of colonisation and colonial practices and policies. The strategy must prioritise climate justice, redress, and decolonisation, and ensure climate action does not perpetuate existing inequities.
8. Terminology matters
It is important to note there is a distinction between collaboration, co-design, partnership, and leadership – these terms are all used in the paper at various points in reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Ensuring that our peoples’ knowledge and experience is central to decision making is not the same as empowering our peoples’ leadership. At worst, it could perpetuate harmful unethical extractive practices of policymakers taking and using our peoples’ knowledge and wisdom without reciprocity. This harmful approach is often experienced by our communities. To avoid this unintended harmful consequence, the strategy should clearly spell out what First Nations Leadership means, as well as how it will be supported.
The consultation paper implies the strategy will commit to ‘First Nations data sovereignty’. However, it is unclear what is meant by this. Indigenous Data Sovereignty (ID-SOV) is a specific term that “refers to the right of Indigenous people to exercise ownership over Indigenous Data. Ownership of data can be expressed through the creation, collection, access, analysis, interpretation, management, dissemination and reuse of Indigenous Data.” This is an internationally recognised term and it is not interchangeable with other terms. The inclusion of ‘First Nations data sovereignty’ adds no value to the strategy.
Indigenous Data Governance (ID-GOV) is another specific term, which refers to “the right of Indigenous peoples to autonomously decide what, how and why Indigenous Data are collected, accessed and used. It ensures that data on or about Indigenous peoples reflects our priorities, values, cultures, worldviews and diversity”.
Both ID-SOV and ID-GOV are vital to ensuring ethical data practices. It is important to note that Priority Reform 4 under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap does not commit to ID-SOV. However, many of our leaders and experts are actively advocating for government departments to take up ID-SOV and ID-GOV practices. We recommend the Department leads the way by including ID-SOV and ID-GOV in the strategy as guiding principles and non-negotiable components of related data ecosystems and processes.
We appreciate that the consultation paper has acknowledged our peoples’ roles as Traditional Custodians of Country, waterways, and seas, as well as the role that colonisation has played in climate change and the need to include our leadership in the strategy.
We encourage the Australian Government to include this acknowledgment in the opening pages of the completed strategy, noting that, despite the traumatic and ongoing consequences of colonisation and institutional racism, we have maintained and continue to develop our sophisticated and diverse cultures and knowledge systems.
We have continued to care for Country, water and sea, and will continue to do so as the climate keeps changing.
• See here for more information about the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled health research institute.
See Croakey’s previous articles on the National Health and Climate Strategy