OPINION - The peril of ignoring indigenous voices: the urgent lessons from Australia's bushfires

Indigenous Australian Jacob Morris, who was taught ancient burning techniques by his family, tests the quality of the forest soil as he speaks about cultural burning in Illaroo, New South Wales, Australia, January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Listening to and acting on indigenous voices is the only way to stop the fires raging in Australia and elsewhere

As bushfires rage across Australia, annihilating animals, destroying biodiversity, devastating Aboriginal homelands, and generating unprecedented levels of air pollution, it is worth reflecting on the urgent need for sustainable land policies, and how our best land custodians can be made central to them. 

Indigenous voices have long been calling attention to the destruction being wreaked upon the planet by wanton exploitation of resources since their earliest encounters with colonisers

The quest to generate wealth from land-based resources drove colonial enterprise around the world, taking adventurers and “entrepreneurs” to shores as distant from Europe as the Pacific.

Narratives of “civilising the natives” accompanied the quest, justifying abrogation of property rights, with native populations treated as mere occupiers of valuable resources. 

For indigenous peoples, the arrival of colonisers decimated their kith and kin, and altered their surroundings and economies. Their lands were no longer homes to be revered, but resource-beds; the materials extracted were not for sustainability of proximate communities with a stake in the surroundings – they reflected profitable commercial opportunities for extraction and transportation. 

No thought was given to seeking consent from the indigenous populations, no financial gain accrued to them, and no respect given to their spiritual values or belief systems, including animist ones that put Nature at the centre. 

The economic model developed from colonial times is still thriving and benefits a select percentage of the population across the world, united in a common cause: derivation of wealth from resource-rich areas, many of which are located on indigenous lands. 

Contemporary Australia epitomises this phenomenon. Its gleaming cities, drawn heavily from trading and benefitting from indigenous resources, are usually far removed from the damage that happens “out in the bush”. 

Over time, a range of strategies have been used to sustain the subterfuge, including the generation of pieces of paper legitimising “title”; the notion of individual ownership of land; the creation of land registries fuelling the commodification of land; the licensing of extractive industries so the state can profit-share, and of course, fortress conservation. 

This idea, that the only way to conserve Nature is to maintain it as “wilderness” treats indigenous populations - custodians who live symbiotically off the land – as akin to the profiteers who are destroying it on an unprecedented scale.  These policies persist in the thinking of those creating so-called nature reserves by displacing indigenous populations. 

For some, the growth in environmentalism and environmental awareness generates new business opportunities: pristine, well-preserved Nature with intact biodiversity can boost “ethical tourism”, although often in name only.

Fortress conservations can enable privileged access to untouched Nature, where biodiversity flourishes, just as it becomes scarce through rapid urbanisation elsewhere. Few, if any indigenous peoples benefit, however. Fewer, if any, will profit. Many will lose their homes and livelihoods, forced into alien existences on the peripheries of growing peri-urban areas. 

But indigenous peoples, and those determined to fight the continued capture of planetary resources to benefit the few and destroy the many, are fighting back.

And the fight is deadly – 40% of the human rights defenders killed in 2019 were indigenous land rights defenders, according to a Frontline Report. When legislators are unable to write laws dispossessing people, when maintaining immoral titles through courts fail, and when popularity for issuing licenses to allow resource exploitation diminishes, it is back to violence, the perpetration of which first enabled the seizure of many territories.

The Global Risk Report has named five environmental threats among its top risks, calling attention to the small window for mitigating action.

Despite the odds, many are working for a better world: to secure the environment, safeguard rights and live sustainably and peacefully within fast approaching planetary boundaries. Many are working actively to mitigate the impact of climate change. Many of these are indigenous people, and they have been doing this since time immemorial.

Listening to and acting on indigenous voices while learning from them is the only way to stop the fires raging in Australia and elsewhere.

Joshua Castellino, Executive Director & Professor of Law, Minority Rights Group International 

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