Australian resources

Sharing Knowledge 2006

Workshop summary The three day workshop brought together over thirty traditional owners, elders and other Indigenous community members (from the Kimberley, East and West Arnhem Land, Kakadu, Cape York and the Torres Strait) with thirty Australian researchers, academics and non-governmental organisation representatives. Unfortunately, some participants from Queensland were not able to attend due to the impact of the cyclone on the Atherton Tablelands the previous week.

The first day of the workshop was a closed-session for Indigenous participants. This day allowed Traditional Owners, elders and other community members from across the north to meet and talk. After a presentation about the regional climate change projections, the afternoon discussion focused on people’s observations of environmental change and concerns about climate impacts at a regional level. These observations are available in the Sharing Knowledge map.

These examples confirmed the depth of knowledge about climatic trends and experience with environmental change among Indigenous communities, a fact acknowledged in the presentation of the Indigenous Weather Knowledge project by the Bureau of Meteorology. The examples also confirmed that climate is just one variable affecting culture and livelihood practices, and as such, cannot be treated as an isolated phenomenon.

Temperature increases have serious implications for health management strategies, infrastructure planning and service provision. Prof. Tony McMichael (ANU) examined these risks for remote communities.

The following day, Glen Marshall (Centre for Sustainable Arid Towns) highlighted the problem of service provision. He noted the ‘comfort expectation’ to provide high powered air conditioning has recently crept into settlements in the central arid lands. He was concerned that the high use of air conditioning has already led to unsustainable energy (and water use) - and that new building designs and decisions about how to maintain existing houses needed to take account of climate change to increase their liveability in the future.

Joe Morrison and Jean Fenton from NAILSMA (North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance) gave a thought provoking presentation that looked at climate change impacts on cultural practices, using the plight of the Arctic Inuit as a model with which to speculate on what might be the major impacts on some Indigenous cultures in Australia.

Other concerns about the impacts of climate change emerged from thirteen shorter ‘speed’ presentations. These included: Garry Cook (CSIRO) who talked about research designed to minimise the carbon dioxide emissions from traditional savanna burning in Arnhem Land; Cathy Robinson (CSIRO) who facilitated a discussion in which Djawa Yunupingu (Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation) noted how traditional hunting areas are adversely affected by mining activity (sickness country) in Arnhem Land; and Traditional Owners from Kakadu who expressed apprehension about the ability for mining companies to adequately plan for the impacts of climate change (such as the potential for an increasing intensity of rain to raise the total amount of contaminated run-of from Ranger Uranium mine).

Kevin Parnell (JCU) and Miya Isherwood (TSRA) confirmed the urgency of protecting the biodiversity and culture of the Torres Strait from the direct and indirect impacts of climate change including coastal erosion, sea level rise and warming ocean temperatures.

Walter Mackie (TSRA) gave an arresting presentation of photos taken on Iama Island (TSI) during the recent King Tides.

We learned of several other relevant initiatives such as the Traditional Knowledge Recording Project on Cape York and the work of the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NT Environment Centre, that prioritise regional action on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

The workshop clarified the significance (to climate change research on vulnerability and risk) that many remote Indigenous communities are still highly dependent on natural resources and ecosystems to sustain traditional livelihoods and cultural practices. Many of the Indigenous workshop participants emphasised the importance of the relationship between the health of Indigenous culture, their country and their physical and mental well-being. Consequently, climatic shifts are likely to have profound implications.

The workshop participants concluded that Indigenous Australians do have specific vulnerability to current and future climate change impacts. Moreover, these impacts are likely to place further stress on community coherence because they overlie pre-existing social and economic disadvantage – there is a low resilience in these communities to adapt. It was acknowledged that if the compounded layering of, and interconnection between, environmental, social, economic and cultural impacts is not explicitly recognised in decision-making by policy makers, then it could be difficult, and not necessarily appropriate, to specifically distinguish or to attempt to deal with the impacts of climate change in isolation.

By the end of the three days, several Traditional Owners had indicated their interest in having specific regional ‘on country’ workshops over the next year to discuss these issues further and work out what adaptation strategies might be possible for their particular communities. Regional representatives from each of the groups present formed a Northern Australia Climate Change Working Group and a decision was made to hold another workshop in two years time to see what progress had been made in each of the regions. As requested, future work by the Sharing Knowledge project and partners over the next three years includes: several ‘on country’ regional workshops, facilitating the regional working group, recording climate change and environmental change expertise at the community level, agenda-setting and lobbying.

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