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Sovereignty is Climate Action

15 Jan 2020

Indigenous methods have always cared for country but the disruption of this has put us on the brink of ecological disaster. Jamie Graham-Blair discusses.

Jamie Graham-Blair

You’ve probably heard it before, but I think it bears repeating.

Indigenous people make up less than 5% of the global human population yet protect and defend more than 80% of planet Earths’ remaining biodiversity.

Our diverse and complex cultures, including our languages, diets, technology and kinship structures at their core are dependent on the health of the environment that shaped them. My people, the trawlwoolway pakana of North-eastern Tasmania have been proven to have not just survived on my homelands but thrived for a bare minimum of 42,000 years. You don’t belong to one of the world’s oldest continuing cultures by not being sustainable and in touch with the needs of the land you occupy. This is why the invasion of our milaythina (country), the destruction of our tunapri (knowledge), and breakdown of our takariliya (family systems) at the hands of the invading Europeans was not just damaging to us as a sovereign people, but to the land itself.

For countless generations we sustainably utilised many different animal species; seals, possums, kangaroos, emu and most notably our abundant seafood. We maintained selective pressure and cared for hunting grounds to the benefit of the entire ecosystem which according to our tunapri, included ourselves. Our fundamentally balanced culture depended on seasonal indicators to tell us when to burn different types of country to increase the productivity of the system. It was these indicators paired with astrological signs that influenced our movement through country as we relied on and harnessed both fire and water to keep ourselves and country in balance. In doing so we tapped into the true potential of our native species, our regular cool burns germinated seeds and invigorated tubers for herbivores and ourselves to graze, we made the entire island productive and safe, inoculating the land with small doses of fire to suppress the uncontrollable nature of wildfire. We shared the spoils of our labour

with each other through ceremony and gatherings and it was this system of trade and ceremony that kept us relatively peaceful for millenia, where we maintained at least 9 distinct Aboriginal nations/language groups on the island. Our long-term impacts on lutruwita, lead to us becoming essential components within it, maintaining balance through at least two separate glacial maximums. In ecology, we call this a keystone species, one that all others of a system rely on for balance.

So, what happens when a keystone species is taken from the food web? Well, we are seeing the perverse impacts of that loss clearly play out each summer. The dispossession of us from our milaythina and tunapri is intrinsically tied to the growing ecocide and climate impacts we are witnessing in the modern bushfire season here in Australia.

Country that is adapted to seasonal burning and Aboriginal management, has gone untouched for decades, in some parts centuries. Unmanaged country is not healthy country. We are not allowed to burn country, hunt traditionally, craft spears, waddies, and digging sticks, nor gather medicines and other cultural supplies on much of our own country as we have since our beginnings. This has led to the bush becoming denser, less diverse, and covered in thick, flammable eucalyptus detritus. Animal habitat has changed or been destroyed for development and growing industries since invasion continues the destructive legacy of invasion. Much of this change has gone unnoticed by the layman thanks to the Shifting Baseline Syndrome.

Yes, climate change is making things hotter and drier, undeniably so, but had my people been allowed to maintain cultural connections to fire, country, and ceremony the bushfire season would not be as severe as it is today. My country is sick, so sick that modern models predict we would need to burn a massive 1/3 of the island in the traditional manner to see any reduction in severity and frequency of wildfires.

Burning this massive area would be overwhelming to most, but what other options do we have? Succumbing to catastrophe? Phasing out fossil fuels? Funding a just transition for fossil fuel industry workers into new sectors? Renewable energy? Ya know actually commit to the Paris agreement without using dodgy accounting techniques to meet targets? There’s an endless list of things we SHOULD be doing but instead, we are being led towards climate catastrophe, ecocide and cultural genocide by the current Australian “leaders”.

Whatever the course of action may be, it’s obvious that for the sake of our planet, Indigenous voices need to be heard. Indigenous strength must be shared. The spirits and history of this land must be respected, and we must resource those who know how to manage it. We need to see true collaboration between science, culture, and politics, and we need to see it happen on a massive global scale. Australia is uniquely positioned to do this being the home of the world’s oldest continuing culture, but we must act.

And quickly.

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