Heal Country: An Indigenous perspective on climate change

As COP26 draws to a close, one thing I think has become clear: Indigenous voices can and will no longer be ignored in the fight for climate justice.

Indigenous peoples from across the globe have seized the opportunity to gather in Glasgow at this year’s conference, and it’s been great to read the steady stream of articles over the past 2 weeks featuring stories of incredible Indigenous activists advocating for change in their home countries.

These stories have reinforced to me that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be at the centre of climate action in our own country. There’s much we can learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about how to care for country – knowledge that has been built over tens of thousands of years surviving and thriving on this continent.

Earlier this year, KPMG held an internal virtual panel event for NAIDOC week to explore exactly this, anchored by the theme ‘Heal Country’. The panel included 2021 ACT Young Woman of the Year, Dhani Gillbert; ANU Academic, Bhiamie Williamson; cultural burning practitioner, Leeton Lee; and author and photographer Vicky Shukuroglou.

The question we put to our esteemed panel was: How can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge help to solve climate change?

Several key themes emerged over the course of the conversation, and a KPMG Articulator captured the key messages of the conversation.

People experience the effects of climate change differently

The 2019/ 2020 bushfires highlighted to Australia and the world that our lucky country is not immune to the devastation of global climatic changes. As a nation, we collectively experienced an emotional trauma as a result of the bushfires. However, for many people living in the cities, the overwhelming presence of smoke and ash falling from the sky was the first time they had experienced the realities of what future with a greater than 2 degree increase in climate would look like. The message was brought home for a lot of people: our country is sick. However, the impacts have being more harshly felt in regional and remote communities for some time. For example, sacred sites in the Torres Strait have already been damaged by rising sea levels, and the population of fish in the Murry River has severely decreased. Those who are most vulnerable are being most severely impacted, and their voices need to continue to be elevated in the discussions around climate change, not just when the cities are full of smoke.

It’s all connected

The structure of the way we deal with land and sea management are fundamentally flawed. Policy for land management, agriculture, water management and fire management are typically governed separately from each other, when they are essentially dealing with the same issue. These systems are dependent on each other and are part of the same ecosystem. Policy reform needs to happen to integrate all these management systems together, to fully understand their dependencies and streamline the solutions.

Indigenous people already have the solutions

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples already lived in a circular economy long before colonisation.  Learnings can be taken from cultural practices that will help to restore the land and bring it back to health. Being on country and caring for the land is intrinsic to Indigenous culture and central to our identities. Perhaps the solution could lie in all people adopting a similar mindset, placing caring for country at the heart of what it means to be Australian.

However, Indigenous culture is not just about caring for country – it’s also about how we interact with each other. Our culture is founded on the fundamental concepts of respect, trust and truth telling. This means being willing to have difficult conversations, to listen not just to the loudest voices in the room but to give equal weight to all voices. Caring for country and people are interconnected, and we need to be strong in both if we are to succeed in addressing climate change.

Indigenous cultural knowledge needs to be appropriately valued

The opinions of politicians, economists and scientists are consistently prominent in the debate around climate change. But Indigenous cultural knowledge is thousands of years old, passed down through hundreds of generations, and specific to people and place. This knowledge should be treated the same as other forms of intellectual property and needs to be treated as highly specific expertise that is respected and valued.

Reflecting on the conversation now, the main take away for me is still that climate change is an environmental issue caused by a social issue. It will take all of us working together, elevating the right voices, to address this important issue. My hope is that, for COP27, more Indigenous voices are front and centre.


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