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Arena: Booming contributions by First Nations to address Australia’s environmental crisis must be recognised

This week the federal government released the long-delayed State of the Environment 2021 report (hereafter SOE). In twelve chapters and a summary totalling over 2500 pages, the report draws attention to the rapid and continued decline of Australia’s environment

For the first time, in a separate 200-page chapter titled ‘Indigenous’, the report highlights the present and likely future impacts for Indigenous peoples from climate change and environmental degradation. The chapter also highlights the role Indigenous people currently play in responding to the worst effects of climate change and other threats.

The new government says the science is in and ‘it’s well past time we get to work’. The work will include not just responding to this report and working towards reducing emissions but also responding to the critical but constructive Samuel Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, completed nearly two years ago.

Today in the House of Representatives and the Senate there are more Indigenous representatives than at any other point in Australia’s parliamentary history, as well as substantially more representatives who campaigned on platforms of stronger climate-change action such as The Greens and community independents. After a decade of inaction and political rancour, small and large businesses as well as community cooperatives are at various stages of readiness for the clean-energy revolution and other negative-emissions technologies that might reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

The government has made various promises in anticipation of the report. These include doubling the Indigenous ranger program, increased funding for Indigenous protected areas, a new cultural heritage protection act and, finally, spending a long-awaited $40 million on Indigenous water entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin. But these measures, while welcome and significant, are small relative to the scale of the challenge.


As the SOE report highlights, Indigenous peoples are on the front line in terms of climate-change impacts and mitigation. These impacts are manifest across Australia—present in all landscapes, seascapes and ecosystems. In NSW, for example, Aboriginal missions and settlements located on town fringes are often situated on low-lying flood plains and are vulnerable to bushfires, heat stress, flooding and collapsing ecosystems and dry river systems. Food and water security are affected, limiting the ability of Indigenous people to live in their hometowns, which the majority Aboriginal communities along the Namoi, Barwon and Darling Rivers fear.

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