Chapter 5 Indigenous peoples and climate change



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Chapter 5

Indigenous peoples and climate change

Climate change has been regarded as a diabolical policy problem globally. The potential threat to the very existence of Indigenous peoples is compounded by legal and institutional barriers raise distinct challenges for our cultures, our lands and our resources.1 More seriously, it poses a threat to the health, cultures and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples both here in Australia and around the world.

The importance of culture and its relevance to Indigenous people’s relationship to our lands, is not completely understood and acknowledged in Australia. This is evidenced by the fact that governments continue to develop Indigenous land policy in isolation from other social and economic areas of policy. This is apparent in the development of climate change policy which has generally fallen on the shoulders of government departments responsible for climate change and the environment, absent of involvement from those departments responsible for Indigenous affairs or the social indicators such as health and housing.

Understanding the significance of the impacts of climate change on Indigenous peoples requires an understanding of the intimate relationships we share with our environments: our lands and waters; our ecosystems; our natural resources; and all living things is required. Galarrwuy Yunipingu expresses this relationship:

I think of land as the history of my nation. It tells me how we came into being and what system we must live. My great ancestors, who live in the times of history, planned everything that we practice now. The law of history says that we must not take land, fight over land, steal land, give land and so on. My land is mine only because I came in spirit from that land, and so did my ancestors of the same land…My land is my foundation.2

Professor Mick Dodson has also provided an explanation of the relationship between Aboriginal people and our ‘country:

The word country best describes the entirety of our ancestral domains. All of it is important – we have no wilderness. It is place that also underpins and gives meaning to our creation beliefs – the stories of creation form the basis of our laws and explain the origins of the natural world to us – all things natural can be explained. It is also deeply spiritual. It is through our stories of creation we are able to explain the features of our places and landscape. It is the cultural knowledge that goes with it that serves as constant reminders to us of our spiritual association with the land and its places. Even without the in depth cultural knowledge, knowing country has spiritual origins makes it all the more significant and important to us.

Country for us is also centrally about identity. Our lands our seas underpin who we are. Where we come from. Who our ancestors are. What it means to be from that place from that country. How others see and view us. How others identify us. How we feel about each other. How we feel about our families and ourselves. Country to us is fundamentally about our survival as peoples. 3

The words of Yunipingu and Dodson highlight the fact that our land is fundamental to our health and well-being. Indigenous law and life originates in and is governed by the land. Indigenous identity and sense of belonging comes from our connection to our country. In contrast to non-Indigenous understandings of land as a commodity, land is our ‘home’.

The responsibilities that go with our home do not allow us to sell up or move on when it is no longer tenable. The land is our mother, it is steeped in our culture, and we have a responsibility to care for it now and for generations to come. This care in turn sustains our lives – spiritually, physically, socially and culturally - much like the farmer who lives off the land.

National climate change policy development is developing rapidly in Australia.4 Despite the Government’s expectation that the Indigenous estate will provide economic outcomes from carbon markets5, Indigenous stakeholders have largely been left out of the debate and there is little analysis available on the direct or indirect impacts of climate change on Indigenous peoples in Australia.

However, at the local level, there is a significant amount of discussion and project development by Indigenous stakeholders who are concerned about the impacts of climate change on their communities. We are particularly concerned that Indigenous lands and waters will be a key element in the national policy response to climate change, yet we have not been engaged in the domestic or international policy debates.


1Overview of key climate change issues for Australia’s Indigenous peoples’


The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs stress that ‘for Indigenous peoples around the world, climate change brings different kinds of risks and opportunities, threatens cultural survival and undermines Indigenous human rights’.6 Climate change, will specifically affect the way Indigenous people exercise and enjoy our human rights at a time when the human rights of all people are being threatened.  

In Australia these risks and opportunities will also be diverse, and in some regions are already being experienced.7 Problems that Indigenous Australians will encounter include:



  • people being forced to leave their lands particularly in coastal areas. Dispossession and a loss of access to traditional lands, waters, and natural resources may be described as cultural genocide; a loss of our ancestral, spiritual, totemic and language connections to lands and associated areas.

  • the migration of Indigenous peoples from island and coastal communities and those communities dependent on our inland river systems to relocate to larger islands, mainland Indigenous communities or urban centres.

  • no longer being able to care for country and maintain our culture and traditional responsibilities to land and water management. Such a disconnect will result in environmental degradation and adverse impacts on our biodiversity and overall health and well-being.

  • in tropical and sub-tropical areas, an increase in vector-borne, water-borne diseases (such as malaria and dengue fever).

  • a disruption to food security, including subsistence hunting and gathering livelihoods and biodiversity loss, increase in the need for and the cost of food supply, storage and transportation, and an increase in food-borne diseases.

  • the risk of being excluded from the establishment and operation of market mechanisms that are being developed to address environmental problems, for example water trading, carbon markets and biodiversity credit generation.

The issues that Indigenous people in Australia will face are evidenced and exacerbated by climatic changes including:

  • the increased number and intensity of cyclones and storms, leading to flash floods

  • the rising sea levels and inundation of fresh water supplies by salt water

  • coastal erosion and changes to ecosystems, such as mangrove systems

  • the bleaching and sustainability of our reefs

  • the drying up of water systems that were once never empty

  • the frequency and intensity of bushfires and drought and desertification

  • the changing migratory patterns of our sea animals and birds

  • the dying out of particular wildlife and plant life in our ecosystems and environments.

The impacts mentioned above highlight the importance of Indigenous participation in the development and implementation of responses to climate change, particularly, where responses will be required to address a diverse range of issues, dependent on the region and its climatic features. This includes responses that appropriately respect the link between local culture and tradition and local physical environments. For example, the needs of Indigenous peoples who rely on the river systems of the Murray-Darling Basin will require different responses and have access to different opportunities than those living in the tropical regions of Northern Australia. Map 2 below shows the diversity in climate across Australia.

There will also be native title and land rights implications including effects on our rights to:


  • manage our lands and waters rich in biodiversity

  • protect and secure the ownership and custodial rights to the Indigenous estate

  • contribute, as major landholders, to the development of adaptation and mitigation strategies to address climate change

  • ensure responses to climate change do not introduce laws and regulations that limit our ongoing use and enjoyment of country.

While there will be devastating impacts for some Indigenous communities that will require intensive support, other communities will be better placed to benefit from the opportunities arising from climate change. Indigenous communities will require Governments support in a number of areas in order to respond to the impacts of climate change. For instance technical and economic support will be required to ensure that the necessary governance structures are in place and infrastructure is available to communities to respond appropriately. Governments will need to give serious consideration to the provision of resources to ensure that this support is available to those Indigenous communities that require it.

As identified by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), Governments must work together at all levels with the full participation of Indigenous people on a ‘holistic’ response to climate change that takes account of not only the ecological dimensions of climate change, but also the social impacts and principles of human rights, equity and environmental justice.

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