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'We could have helped': report exposes racism during Black Summer bushfires

Emma Ruben -

Widjabul First Nations woman Cindy Roberts's tribal name is Mebbingarri, which means woman eagle. She was born to be a protector of Country.

Even when those on Country respond to her help with racism and ignorance.

For the First Nations people, Lismore or Widjabul is sacred rainbow snake Country.

But when the 2019-20 bushfires came, their advice was ignored by the government and they faced racism from those meant to be providing them with relief.

The Australian National University released a study detailing the disproportionate impact the 2019-20 bushfires had on Aboriginal people.

Titled Aboriginal Community Governance on the Frontlines and Faultlines in the Black Summer Bushfires, the study examined first-hand experiences of racism and unfair treatment of Indigenous Australians during the 2019-20 bushfires.

The paper highlighted the culturally unsafe bushfire relief endured by First Nations people during the bushfires and gap in policy when it came to supporting Indigenous people during disasters.

The report goes as far to say the response during the bushfires were "inadequate, ineffective and inappropriate".

Ms Roberts said the government ignored advice from First Nations people about how to protect the land.

"They continue to ignore the advice, especially culturally, from people that have lived upon these lands for thousands and thousands and generations and generations," she said.

"Yet local governments, local shires, federal and at a state level, ignore the cultural significance of protecting land.

"We could have protected many Australians from the effects of fires, floods, droughts, but they continue to ignore the advice of the First Nations people that are trying to protect Australians."

The study found many First Nations people seeking relief from the bushfires faced racism.

As reported in the study, one Indigenous elder was told by a relief person: "we've helped enough of your people today."

Ms Roberts said racism has long been apparent in their community.

"A lot of people been saying don't let the Aboriginal people on your land or they'll take it from here," she said.

"But the reason why our people want to be on these lands is so we can help the Australians, help the farmers, to maintain their land in the way they should be looked after.

"These people have been programmed and brainwashed to think that if they let Aboriginal people on their land to help them, they will take their land from you. And it's not true."

Migunberri and Yugambeh author Jenny Fraser said there has been little to no involvement by the government of First Nations people to carry out culturally appropriate relief and recovery.

"The agency and management and recovery is taken out of the hands of Indigenous people," she said.

"People are still left to their own devices and it's mainly Indigenous people that come up with their own strategies for survival and continuing.

"We're sort of locked out of mainstream help."

Roberts called for the government to listen to First Nations people about how to care for Country.

"We have a duty of care to make sure that all the people who dwell upon our land, that we look after them but teach them to look after the Country," she said.

"The First Nations people we know this land better than anybody.

"We know how to prevent fires, droughts and everything."

Resilience NSW said listening to First Nations advice was important for the future.

"The Bushfire Inquiry and the Royal Commission both acknowledged more could be done by government to consider Aboriginal land management practices," they said.

"The recommendations from both inquiries have been accepted by government and work is underway to implement the recommendations.

"In response to the Bushfire Inquiry, the NSW Government has committed $1.29 million over two years to set up a community driven, co-design process to develop a long-term Cultural Fire Management Strategy.

"The CFM Unit was established by Department of Planning and Environment, Aboriginal Affairs NSW and Department of Regional NSW to explore wider implementation of cultural fire management as a component of Aboriginal land management."

The study concluded there was a lack of trust between Aboriginal people and the government because of the way Aboriginal people were made to feel unwelcome during the bushfires.

Aboriginal community organisations were praised as a critical component in how to safeguard Aboriginal communities and Country in future natural disasters.

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