Climate Change - Further Threat to Aboriginals


By Neena Bhandari, IPS

Date of publication: 
8 May 2009

SYDNEY – Climate change will further marginalise Australia’s Aboriginal communities, forcing them out of their traditional lands, destroying their culture and significantly affecting their access to water resources, indigenous rights advocates warn.

“As coastal and island communities confront rising sea levels, and inland areas become hotter and drier, indigenous people are at risk of further economic marginalisation, as well as potential dislocation from and exploitation of their traditional lands, waters and natural resources,” said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma.

Indigenous people have been living in close affinity with nature for thousands of years, preserving the environment and protecting the biodiversity. “Dispossession and a loss of access to traditional lands, waters, and natural resources may be described as cultural genocide; a loss of ancestral, spiritual, totemic and language connections to lands and associated areas,” said the Human Rights Commission’s 2008 Social Justice and Native Title reports launched this week.

Aboriginal people account for only 2.5 per cent of the total population, with an estimated population of 517,200, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2006 Census.

“The cruel irony is that indigenous people have the smallest ecological footprint but are being asked to carry the heaviest burden of climate change,” Commissioner Calma added.

The government of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has signed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and committed to reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 if the world agrees to an ambitious global deal to stabilise levels of CO2 equivalent at 450 parts per million or lower by 2050.

The new reports are urging the government to create new partnerships with indigenous Australians in climate change policy and planning.

“The government should fully implement the recommendations of the reports, which highlight important ways that indigenous peoples can be involved in responses to the issues of climate change and water access, while building lasting and sustainable industries that include the best of indigenous knowledge and Western science,” Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) Executive Officer Steven Ross told IPS.

Indigenous rights to water are not adequately recognised by Australian law and policy. For example, today 90 per cent of the water consumed in the Murray-Darling Basin is used to irrigate agricultural lands.

“The reports highlight the need for what we call ‘cultural flows’ – a legal entitlement to water allocations for indigenous peoples to deliver to sites of cultural and ecological significance which would also support maintenance of cultural practices such as ‘bush tucker’ (bushfood) and medicinal plants,” Ross added.

The reports also call for positive, practical changes to be made to the native land title system against the looming threat of compulsory acquisition of indigenous lands. The common law of Australia recognises rights and interests to land held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people under their traditional laws and customs.

However, Kevin Smith, an official with Queensland South Native Title Services Limited, told IPS, “the native title system is in need of reform as it contains convoluted, ill-fitting legislative functions and complicated and unfair claim processes, particularly in light of the heavy burden of proof, and it has been bedevilled by policy myopia. Native title has been intentionally excluded from the range of options to address underlying indigenous disadvantage.”

Smith proposes “implementing a broader land settlement framework, where native title is a means to an end, not an end in itself – that is, native title should be a tool along with other legislative and administrative tools that assist with redressing indigenous disadvantage.”

Keeping to his pre-election promise, Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had last February offered an historic, unconditional apology to indigenous Australians for the wrongs committed by the State in the past.

Amidst tears and cheers in the Federal Parliament in Canberra, Rudd had said the long awaited “Sorry” three times to members of the ‘Stolen Generations’ comprising tens and thousands of children who were forcibly removed from their families between 1900 and 1970 under government assimilation policies to “breed out” their Aborigine blood and supposedly give them a better life.

Australia has since also formally endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Rudd made “Closing the Gap” between indigenous and non-indigenous people a cornerstone of his national apology.

But the reports caution that while the ‘Closing the Gap’ campaign is helping achieve indigenous health equality, the optimism could be short-lived and the current economic downturn would pose real challenges for the Aboriginal communities living largely in remote areas with abysmal access to education and health facilities.

Alcohol abuse, domestic violence, chronic diseases, unemployment, high suicide rates and lawlessness are rife in Aboriginal communities.

The Australian government has signed a bipartisan Statement of Intent to close the life expectancy gap by 2030. However, indigenous Australian children are twice as likely to go to hospital for chronic conditions than non-indigenous children, and are much more likely to die before they are 20.

The reports also warn that destruction of infrastructure like housing and sewerage would expose indigenous communities living in remote areas to greater risk of disease from flooded rubbish and insect-born diseases like dengue fever and malaria.

Indigenous leader, academic and ‘Australian of the Year’ Mick Dodson recently told a conference in Alice Springs that ensuring indigenous children attend school is one of the keys to improving Aboriginal health and closing the life expectancy gap. The fact that 30 per cent of indigenous adults lacked basic literacy had a “significant impact” on their health, he said.

Calling for urgent action to address the education crisis faced by indigenous communities, Commissioner Calma pointed out that “many indigenous kids living in remote areas only have a teacher come out to teach them three days a fortnight. These children are being educated in tin sheds with dirt floors.” (END/2009)