Continuing our month-long focus on disaster resilience, Give2Asia’s Field Advisor in Australia, Anita Toy, shares insights on the indigenous practices that are critical to managing the region’s environmental challenges.
Australia is the planet’s sixth largest country and home to the world’s oldest continuing civilisation: Aboriginal Australians. For over 60,000 years, Aboriginal Australians have lived in balance with each other and the land, using practices like fire-stick farming to sustainably alter habitats and the species composition of regional ecosystems. Today, while Aboriginal Australians account for less than 3% of the country’s population, they manage one-fifth of its land and are among the most vulnerable to the dangers of a changing climate (Adams 2013). Their Indigenous practices, while at great risk, may be key to resolving Australia’s growing environmental crises – and international philanthropy has a role to play in empowering it.
Indigenous Approaches: The Australian Context
The Australian land is a key part of Aboriginal spiritual culture, and you cannot separate one from the other. In fact, Aboriginal lore is believed to have been developed by spirit ancestors during the dreamtime to look after the land and its people. Aboriginal Australians value a deep sense of responsibility to look after the land and Indigenous knowledge systems are structured around the balance of seasons and weather patterns passed on from their ancestors.
Indigenous burning rituals are very distinctive, both in purpose and method. The temperature is deliberate and remains low so flames never reach the canopy. The purpose of this is to bring the land alive again. Indigenous communities have historically managed the savanna regions through “fire circles” (low-intensity burning) in the early dry season to manage habitats and food resources which can help prevent uncontrolled fires later in the season.
“Since the coming of time the spirits of the skies have been painting their pictures, telling the story of changing season. They reached to the earth choosing individual vibrant colours to paint the universal giant canvas. Calculating the mathematics of day and night, of rotating cosmos with our sun, stars and the moon. Second by second in an endless equation.”
— Cut the Sky, by Edwin Lee Mulligan
After a changing period of 230 years which included the colonisation of Australia, climate change is having a profound and pervasive influence on natural processes. Australia’s water security, natural ecosystems and coastal communities are vulnerable even to relatively low rises in temperature. As the planet continues to experience climate volatility, many policymakers still don’t connect the dots linking climate change adaptation strategies to their Aboriginal people. Aboriginal communities across Australia are not engaged by policymakers to develop or apply mitigation and adaption strategies tackling climate change. These actors completely undervalue Indigenous knowledge and their expertise of the land, which lessens the impact of their new policies.
This is true despite the fact that in recent years, scientists have recognised the importance of Indigenous landscape fire management and its application to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project, for example, was developed to provide a suite of ecosystem services through prescribed burning of savannas, generating revenue by providing offsets to the regional energy industry.
The absence of these knowledge systems in policymaking itself is a great flaw in the current Australian system.
The Role of Philanthropy
International philanthropy has a big role to play in educating people and governments about Indigenous knowledge systems and the ways that it can help address the problems of climate change. Some ways in which philanthropists can do this include:
- Supporting research on Indigenous adaptation strategies
- Funding initiatives which engage young Indigenous people on climate change to take charge, rethink the world and solve problems
- Backing strong leaders who can collaborate and invoke change across business leaders and government
- Supporting organisations seeking to implement systemic change at a local level with a global view
- Resourcing community and non-profit organisations to increase their effectiveness and impact through activities that build capacity across climate change
There is a real opportunity for philanthropist in Australia to contribute to the national response to climate change highlighted in the United Nations COP21 Paris Agreement on climate.
Supporting organisations like Give2Asia is a trustworthy method of ensuring that local practices are implemented in the development projects funded by international philanthropy. Now is the time to step in and create opportunities for thought leaders to provoke traditional thinking and influence policy makers. Together we can collaborate to create a safer, healthier environment for all.
Give2Asia Australia is a new Melbourne-based NGO that enables Australian donors and corporations to support poverty alleviation projects in 20+ countries across Asia—and around the world. Learn more.