Climate change is damaging the health and wellbeing of many people, communities and ecosystems, as extreme weather events in Australia and elsewhere have made clear.
As policy makers, systems, researchers, health professionals and communities grapple with how to respond to the rapidly emerging health threats of climate change, the knowledges and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people must be central.
We are launching the #JustClimate series with this LongRead below profiling the work of Indigenous scientist and Nyikina Traditional Custodian Dr Anne Poelina and Indigenous peoples globally in environment protection.
Poelina urges scientists and researchers to broaden definitions of science by incorporating Indigenous knowledge into mainstream practice in order for the world to have a chance of addressing climate change and planetary survival.
See in the post and at the bottom for links to three videos filmed by Magali McDuffie on the work being done to protect the Mardoowarra/Fitzroy River and challenge scientific thinking, or read more at the Madjulla website.
And please make a note in your diaries for Monday 27 March when there will be Two Hours of Twitter Power for #JustClimate from 12-2pm AEST, moderated by Professor Kerry Arabena, President of the International Association for Ecology and Health, and Summer May Finlay, Croakey contributor and public health practitioner.
Marie McInerney writes:
In 2010 Indigenous scientist and Nyikina Traditional Custodian Dr Anne Poelina travelled from her home in Broome to a remote Kiowa Indian community retreat at Redstone, Oklahoma to attend the first International Summit on Indigenous Environmental Philosophy.
Over several days, delegates from Africa, Asia, North, Central and South America, Russia, Australia and New Zealand shared stories of how their environments have changed and about new threats looming.
She helped to draft the resulting Redstone Statement – titled “Leave Us A Future!” Its preamble recognises that Indigenous communities across the globe are perhaps the most impacted by climate change and the least responsible for causing it and notes:
Indigenous elders and environmental specialists have also been the first to warn of changes and offer viable suggestions for response strategies yet their critical messages have usually gone unheeded by dominant societies.”
Those critical messages still go mostly unheeded, says Poelina, who issued a call to action late last year at the international One Health EcoHealth Congress in Melbourne for science and health researchers and practitioners.
Poelina urged scientists and researchers to broaden definitions of science by incorporating Indigenous knowledge into mainstream practice to in order for the world to have a chance of addressing climate change and planetary survival.
“The message for us scientists is to think beyond our own paradigms,” she said. “We need collaboration with other scientists, but most importantly to recognise that traditional ecological knowledge is Indigenous science because it’s thousands and thousands of years of observation, recording and transmission of knowledge over generations. Not only knowledge production but knowledge adaptation to complex and changing systems.”
“So our voices need to be in there, they need to be valued, and they need to be part of the collaboration on how we right-size the planet and the wicked problems in the world we have created.”
A new era of colonisation
Poelina is a Yimardoowarra woman from Mardoowarra/Fitzroy River who is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame in Broome and council member of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
As both a Traditional Owner and deputy president of the Broome Shire Council, she was a key player in the successful campaign against the proposed $46 million gas hub on traditional land at James Price Point near Broome.
She is a registered nurse and traditional midwife with a Masters in Education, Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and Master Arts (Indigenous Social Policy).
For her PhD, she studied the historical colonial context of development in the West Kimberley and how that impacts on contemporary Indigenous participation in decision-making, governance, land and water reform.
She says Indigenous peoples’ experience and survival of colonialism also offer crucial insights for climate change and environmental action, seeing the current environment as a new era of colonisation where the rights of transnational corporations transcend those of humans and nature.
Internationally there is great concern among Indigenous groups and communities about the elevation of corporate rights over human and Indigenous rights in agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
As well as being concerned about a lack of transparency and consultation, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli Corpuzhas warned that investors have “strong and arguably disproportionate” rights to remedy, while States and/or indigenous peoples are often unable to effectively legally challenge corporate practices that severely undermine the realization of human rights.
“That contributes to a dangerous accumulation of power among international corporate actors, which impedes States’ abilities to act as an effective regulator and protector of human and indigenous peoples’ rights,” Corpuzhas warned.
Poelina says the TPP is a breach of Australia’s constitution on land, water, and food sovereignty as it “enshrines the rights of transnational companies over the rights of Australian citizens, particularly if our livelihoods threaten the profit making of these companies”.
She cites also the campaign by green groups and Traditional Owners against the $21 billion Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, where the Federal Government sought to remove the right of most environmental organisations to challenge developments under federal laws unless they can show they are “directly affected”.
“We are being colonised by transnational companies,” she told Croakey. “We’re talking about divide and conquer, we’re talking about manipulation, we’re talking about cultural invasion and so on…We are in a fight for the life of the planet and its people.”
Recognising nature’s right to live
Despite the steepening odds, Poelina sees hope and purpose on a number of fronts, from grassroots activism that transcends communities and disciplines to innovative legal action.
She is buoyed by the growing Rights of Nature movement that calls for legal recognitions that ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned, but entities that have an independent right to exist and flourish.
According to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, the first legal structures to recognise the rights of nature were adopted by local municipalities in the United States, bolstered in 2008 when Ecuador became the first country to recognise rights for nature in its constitution.
New Zealand too has been showing the way globally, with new laws that, as the ABC has reported, “completely flip” the presumption of human sovereignty over the environment and embrace the Maori relationship with the land.
In 2014 the Te Urewera national park, more than 200,000 hectares of remote wilderness on New Zealand’s North Island, was granted ‘personhood’, a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person”.
The empowering legislation reads like a song, talking about Te Urewera as “ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history; its scenery is abundant with mystery, adventure, and remote beauty”, as “a place of spiritual value” with “an identity in and of itself”.
Late last year, New Zealand also bestowed legal personhood on the Whanganui River, the country’s third longest river, recognising it as having its own presence, needs and wellbeing, and being ‘”an indivisible and living whole…from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.”
Inspired by these moves, Poelina last year took the case of the Mardoowarra/Fitzroy River and a comparative analysis of the Whanganui agreement to the first full hearing of the new Tribunal for the Rights of Nature Australia.
The Tribunal has been established by the Australian Earth Laws Alliance to provide a forum to challenge “the current legal system’s failure to protect the health of ecosystems and to highlight the role that the legal system, government agencies and corporations play in destroying the Earth community”.
It has no legal force, but is expected this year to produce recommendations about law reform and restorative actions that need to happen to support the four cases it considered last October.
In the meantime, Poelina and other Traditional Owners in the Kimberley have published the Fitzroy River Declaration, identifying eight agreed steps needed to protect and manage the Fitzroy River. They include a buffer zone for development, a joint position on fracking, development of a Fitzroy River management plan complemented by an Indigenous Protected Area, and a management body for the river.
“It’s a declaration to the world and particularly to the Australian Government that we are getting organised, getting united,” Poelina said.
“We are building a very strong argument to say the Fitzroy River is globally unique… We are getting knowledge systems together to look at and understand the geological formation of the river, and we are overlaying that with cultural and environmental values.”
While she says there’s no appetite for support from the Federal Government, the aim is to promote it as a UNESCO Global Geopark.
“As a Global GeoPark, the Mardoowarra’s exceptional natural and cultural values to the nation could set a national standard for native title as well as enshrining the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for self determining our responsibilities as guardians of this globally unique river system,” she said.
Also on the legal front, Poelina sees hope in the growing use by Indigenous people of international courts of justice, including work by UK barrister Polly Higgins advocating for a law of Ecocide, that would prohibit extensive damage, destruction to or loss of human and non-human life.
“I think there are real opportunities to look at what’s happening internationally and be able to build a very strong legal case precedent around international and customary or First law,” she said.
‘Waking the snake’
Poelina’s call to action in Melbourne last year came just days after Indigenous communities across the globe celebrated the success of the #StandingRock protests against the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline that threatened the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation downstream.
The denial of a crucial permit was one of the final acts of then US President Barack Obama, and followed two years of negotiation, litigation and a groundswell of protest that brought thousands of American Indians and their allies to camp out through winter near Standing Rock and massive online support through the #StandWithStandingRock hashtag.
But the fight is not over: incoming President Donald Trump, who previously held a direct financial interest in the gas company proposing the pipeline, put it back on the agenda in one of his first acts of office.
Poelina said there has been much to learn from the StandingRock campaign, particularly the mobilisation of Indigenous leaders standing “not as protestors but protectors of country”.
Closer to home, she says there are many lessons for activists and scientists in the James Price Point campaign – in the collaborations it built and the creative social actions it fostered.
“What we found with social media is we were able to mobilise mass interest, mass participation of people from all over the world, so people came as citizen scientists…to participate in surveys of indigenous threatened species so all of that combination of people standing for Country together was able to show these things are not automatic, that these big projects don’t need to happen if people stand (together).
“They said it couldn’t be stopped and it was.”
Role of the experts and health sector
Poelina said non-Indigenous people, particularly those in the health sector, who want to support work by Indigenous people to address climate change and sustainability issues should heed the findings of a Reconciliation Australia survey that found that six out of 10 Australians have had little or no contact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“First of all, find out where the Indigenous people are in your area, because that’s an amazing network that will be able to add value to health care and health recovery,” she said.
“We’re out there in the community doing amazing things as leaders: find those key champions, bring them into your service, add value through the AMSes (Aboriginal Medical Services), and show how together you can provide a holistic framework of how we heal people and bring them from a life of intergenerational trauma to intergenerational hope.”
To promote the recognition of Indigenous knowledge, she cited the work in the 1990s of non-Indigenous scholar Michael Christie, who wrote that the Aboriginal scientific system, in its own sphere, “is impressively ecological, in a way in which ours is not”. He said:
The features of Aboriginal science which give it a firm ecological grounding are the ongoing negotiation of knowledge, and the extensive use of a large range of metaphor to interpret scientific data within a social, political and economic context. The work of metaphor and negotiation in Western science is generally denied or ignored by our own scientists, and yet these take centre stage in the ecologically based science of Aborigines.”
In the wake of the election of Trump and the UK decision to leave the European Union, Poelina said there is also a challenge for academics and experts to better communicate science in a language that is understood by ordinary people.
“I think the critical thing is to find the connection to the heart: once you hook people through the heart and their emotions, they come with you on the journey, so I think we need to be very creative, use the arts, media, video, animation, song and dance,” she said.
“It’s a bit about what our Elders call ‘waking up the snake’….waking up consciousness of the people and using the snake as a metaphor because for us that’s our ancestral living being, connected to the whole Fitzroy River and the Mardoowarra.
“It’s about how do we bring all that into the equation and look at the lived experiences of Indigenous people right across the planet.”
Watch this short Croakey video interview with Dr Anne Poelina:
We also thank Dr Poelina and film-maker Magali McDuffie for providing access for Croakey readers to these two short films, made on Country in the Kimberley. Click on the links below – the password for both films is Kimberley.
Our Shared and Common Future (screened at events in the lead up to the signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement)
Croakey acknowledges and thanks the Oak Foundation for a grant to enable the #JustClimate project, and especially Stephen Campbell and Lucie Rychetnik for their thoughtful assistance in facilitating this. We also acknowledge and thank Professor Kerry Arabena for funding Marie McInerney’s registration to attend the international One Health EcoHealth Congress in Melbourne in 2016. We also acknowledge and thank the Public Health Association of Australia for auspicing the Oak Foundation grant, and Paul Dutton for the artwork, Mother Earth, in the logo.
• Read more about the #JustClimate project here.