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Symposium highlights First Nations insights in transition to net zero: The Wire

The First Nations Clean Energy Symposium in Adelaide gave insight on how clean energy can both support First Nations communities and be informed by Indigenous perspectives.

Emma Wotzke from The Wire spoke with Heidi Norman, Research Professor at UNSW and Steering Group member of the First Nations Clean Energy Network. 

There's probably three key areas that are being discussed at the First Nations Clean Energy Network Symposium. 

One is community members speaking either in relation to their land holdings - so native title determinations - and talking about and sharing those experiences with other Aboriginal people.

The second is the policy content. This is where, for example, the federal government is in the process of developing the framework for the Capacity Investment Scheme. This is $70 billion worth of curated investment with incentives for investors underwritten by government. We’re thinking, well, how do our rights and interests get a look-in in that big public policy and systems change? There's an enabling policy dimension, there's also the action component. 

And then the third is how do we work together to share information to ensure that this is a just transition. 

So when you talk about sharing, do you mean sharing between or collaboration between non-Indigenous communities and First Nations communities? Can you elaborate on that point? 

It’s more, how can we share our lessons, our experiences, what works, what doesn't work? Some of these energy proponents or renewable energy proponents will work across communities. How do we educate one another so that experiences and the lack of securing benefits in the context of mining are not repeated in this setting? 

The Symposium is really inspiring because you've got people from down at Hay, in Whyalla, up in Northern Territory. They are doing these things themselves. They are here to talk about the lessons and the experiences and what's worked for them. 

And you say people have shared their knowledge and those are really inspiring aspects. Can you share any more on those? What came to light? 

Some of the examples that have come through is people undertaking incredible work on their land. So recovering land, regenerating landscapes - and now the next step is raising capital to build renewable energy projects on your land. 

Some of the emphasis here is on energy as a human right. You want to be able to provide energy for your community and for your people. A second sort of key theme is that you want to be involved in energy transition because this is a way to generate wealth and to create new economies - to create Aboriginal economies. So there's a lot of interesting talk about circular economies where you actually provide not only jobs for your own people, but there's business opportunities. It feels like this incredible opening up of opportunities. 

You mentioned circular economy. There seems to be this sense of preservation and sustainability and giving back. Can you elaborate a little more on that? 

A lot of people have spoken in relation to their work in terms of multi-generation - so seven generations. How do we calculate our decisions here so that we ensure in seven generations that there will be benefits? And so those benefits are that your Country will be healthy, that your people can live on Country. So there's really that long term thinking about what these benefits will look like over time, not short term gain. 

It is pre-budget, so what are First Nations communities needing from governments around the transition to net zero? 

There's also been a lot of talk in a general sense about just transitions, participation and engagement. One of the points that's been raised really strongly here is that engagement, say employment or consultation and procurement, is good but what we really want is partnerships and equity and ownership of projects. So it's about revenue sharing. We talk about energy being systems transformation. I think First Nations people are saying we want a transformation of the economic values, a transformation of our place within the modern economy. So it's about equity, having a revenue share, being equal partners. 

A portion of First Nations homes are without power. What would you like to see happen to make power more accessible to First Nations communities?

This is what we are hoping will become clear once the First Nations Clean Energy Strategy is released by the Federal Minister in the coming months. 

Really it's about comprehending that access to reliable, clean, affordable energy is a human right. And where community relies on powercards, where they're reliant on diesel (and it might come as a surprise to a lot of Australians to understand that many Aboriginal communities don't have diesel as a backup), it's a first line energy provider, so they have inadequate energy supply, disrupted energy supply, 

So transitioning remote communities away from diesel to more reliable energy that's clean and affordable is a human right, and that's something that I think the government, all governments, have an appetite to address. 

And why is it so important to include the voices of First Nations communities, indigenous knowledge, and the notion of consent in the transition to net zero?

There's a few reasons. We talk about climate instability. So if you've lived on this ancient land for tens of thousands of generations then you should have something to say about how to care for this land in a way that hasn't been enacted in the last 200 years. That should be a factor that is mobilised into any effort to stabilise the climate.

The second is Aboriginal and Torres Islander people have native title and land rights recognised over something like 57% of the country. For this energy transition to happen - not just electricity transformation, also decarbonisation, drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, biodiversity - Aboriginal land will be absolutely critical in achieving decarbonisation, not just because of social justice, but also in a practical, tangible way. 

The success of what is absolutely necessary really needs the active engagement of Aboriginal people. 

How do you want to see non-Indigenous communities better understand the needs of First Nations communities in the transition to net zero? 

I think energy proponents will not necessarily want to arrive at revenue sharing or equity partnerships or inclusions unless there's policy context that makes that necessary.

So we also need government, industry and communities to support our interests and to understand that we have something to offer. That's a key part of this. A just transition looks different for workers, for indigenous peoples, for indigenous landholders, so understanding what those different perspectives look like in different places. 

And do you have anything else that you would like to add at all?

You know what a lot of people have wanted to highlight is that, you know, all of the other waves of economic boom, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have not only not been the beneficiaries of that, you've been variously cut out of those economic waves. Many of those economic waves have occurred at your expense because you got pushed off your land, because those particular assets were extracted from your land.

That is the reality of the history of the economic history of Australia. And so here is the biggest systems change we've ever faced. It's now an opportunity to do something different for this not to be a third or fourth wave of dispossession. 

This story was first published on The Wire.


Grateful for use of the photo by Hamish Dunlop.