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How Indigenous knowledge can help fight climate change

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge systems and science is an effective way of addressing the impacts of climate change, and it's urgent in the Torres Strait.

When the king tides rise in the Torres Strait, the perils of climate change are obvious. The sea rises and low-lying islands flood. Each year the ocean takes more of the islands.

According to the United Nations, climate change threatens the very existence of Indigenous peoples all over the planet.

But, when Indigenous knowledge and science are incorporated into looking at environmental problems, there's a growing body of evidence that the outcomes are better.

Paul Kabai, from Boigu Island, is one of two Torres Strait Islanders taking the Australian government to court for failing to prevent climate change.

"Our people have lived on these islands for more than 65,000 years," he said.

"But if the government doesn't change course, our homes could disappear beneath the rising seas, making us Australia's first climate change refugees.

"Climate change is already here," Mr Kabai says.

"Storm surges are getting worse and the seasons have changed as well.

"Our gardens now get flooded with salt water, and our homes, cemetery, school and community centre are all at risk."

Saibai community centre surrounded by seawater. Image: Torres Strait Island Regional Council

Lowitja Institute chief executive Janine Mohamed travelled to New York in April to call on the United Nations to take full responsibility for decolonisation when addressing climate change and its impacts on Indigenous peoples' rights, health and wellbeing.

"There is a clear connection between climate change and colonisation," she says.

"There is a ticking clock for action and we want nation states to act with urgency.

"We are at an ecological tipping point ... To urgently act on climate change, we need to heal the deep relational wounds between governments and Indigenous peoples related to our colonial past," Ms Mohamed says.

"That's why we are calling on the United Nations and member nation states to take responsibility by committing to decolonisation."

Wiradjuri Nyemba woman Dr Virginia Marshall is an expert in Indigenous water rights and is leading a research program in the Kimberley working with the Nyikina people about commercialisation of native crops.

"What we need to do when we talk about decolonising climate change is we have to really think about the responsibility and the effects of ignoring Indigenous peoples and Indigenous science," she says.

"Aboriginal people in Australia have been successfully managing land and water for tens of thousands of years."

In her UN address, Ms Mohamed said climate change had significant impacts on Indigenous people's health and wellbeing "by disconnecting our peoples from country and culture".

Governments had to work in partnership with Indigenous peoples and support workforces at the forefront of climate change mitigation and adaptation, "drawing on deep knowledge about how to care for country."

Indigenous rangers play an important role in caring for country and in addressing climate change.

From the warm waters of the north, to the old-growth forests in Tasmania and the vast country in between, Indigenous rangers are on the environmental frontline.

The Indigenous desert alliance has produced an animated film to bring a spotlight to the impacts of climate change.

The community in the animation reflects on how things were for them in the past, able to grow millet seeds with water and cook damper.

Now there is no more water or millet seeds to collect and grind because of the heat and in its place Buffel grass, an invasive species, has grown.

In their frustration the community decides to hold a town meeting with their local rangers where they discuss the issues at hand including the lack of water and shade, invasive species and heat intensity.

The community realises they must adapt to climate change. This is just one example of how Indigenous communities are attempting to preserve their way of life with the ongoing climate crisis.

Saibai sea wall. Image: Torres Strait Island Regional Council

Greens senator Dorinda Cox says climate change impacts on Indigenous rights, health and wellbeing but also on displacement.

"Indigenous communities have that science and the knowledge that has been passed down through generations," she says.

"We need to make sure that we talk about the importance of caring for country, whether it's Indigenous rangers, native title groups being part of conservation, cultural burning, mining and rehabilitation, and the importance of that as we pivot towards the critical minerals strategy."

Senator Cox says Indigenous people usually contribute the least to climate change, but they are also often impacted the most.

"Climate change requires us to take strong action and not do the casual walk that we're doing but instead we need to do the sprint that's required towards having climate action, but also the preservation of the oldest surviving culture," she says.

Using native plants for food, in medicines and cosmetics helps address climate change because they are more sustainable, need less insecticide and less irrigation.

While demand for native Australian ingredients like river mint, lemon myrtle and quandong is growing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up less than one per cent of the native agriculture supply chain, government data shows.

Dr Marshall says Indigenous people need to be at the helm of projects commercialising native plants and their uses.

"But the problem is, as we can see in many other countries, for example, in the Amazon that many companies have made huge profits without really being mindful of Indigenous people," she says.

"And also there are many Aboriginal people that don't want to just be the supply chain of a process. They actually want to be at the helm.

"They want to be the business partners instead of just the producers."

On Thursday Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek announced a major reform for Indigenous water management, putting $9 million on the table for an Indigenous water holding plan.

And mega cosmetics company Colgate-Palmolive has announced they are seeking out Indigenous growers in developing its Palmolive Skin Food products.

For the people of the Torres Strait addressing climate change is a matter of urgency.

"If we become climate refugees we will lose everything, our homes, community, culture, stories, and identity," Mr Kabai says.

"We can keep our stories and tell our stories but we won't be connected to Country because Country will disappear."

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