• Traditional Owners speak at the National First People’s Gathering on Climate Change, Cairns (Supplied)Source: Supplied
As catastrophic floods shock the south-east of the country, a First Nations-led response to the climate crisis is being explored at a landmark meeting of Traditional Owners and scientists in Cairns.
Rachael Hocking

29 Mar 2021 - 12:24 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2021 - 12:36 PM

A collective of First Nations people and scientists have discussed the need for an Indigenous-led response to combat the climate crisis. 

The talks took place during the National First People’s Gathering on Climate Change, which saw dialogues between 120 Traditional Owners and western scientists over five days in Cairns.

The gathering was led by the CSIRO and a First Nations Steering Committee of ten Traditional Owners, who said their goal was to empower communities to tackle events made worse by climate change on their own Country, such as marine heatwaves and bushfires.

Malgana woman Bianca McNeair is the Co-Chair of the Steering Committee. She said that despite a common purpose there’s a gap between what western climate scientists espouse and the deep understanding of Country that First Nations people hold.

“A lot of the opportunity from this forum is about bringing together scientists and Aboriginal people to just to actually just have discussions about climate change, because basically we're speaking two opposite languages but we're both speaking about the exact same thing,” she said.

“So, breaking down those communication barriers, bringing that scientific Western research into the reach of our mob and making sure that we're able to put forward our priorities when it comes to scientific research on climate change.”

Ms McNeair is from Gatharagudu, or Shark Bay, and says their spiritual connection to Country and its animals is often overlooked in Western studies.

“[Scientists] will say, the marine heatwaves are heating up and these are the predictions.Whereas  for us, we'll be saying, ‘Are our dugongs gonna end up having to go south, and how are we going to manage that?’” she said.

“We're the only ones committed to this country, that will be committed for generations to come. And if you really want to get an impact on Country in the environment, it needs to include Aboriginal people, Aboriginal voices, Aboriginal priorities... and economic benefit as well."

The gathering in Cairns built on previous events held in 2012 and 2018 in collaboration with the Yorta-Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation in Victoria.

Scientists shared climate research with Traditional Owners, such as the restoration of seagrass on Ms McNeair's Country, while Traditional Owners gave insight into the cultural landscape the research comes from.

Ms McNeair said solutions focused on the Indigenous ranger programs on Country and Indigenous fire management, as well as the importance of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property rights (ICIP) in discussions about caring for Country.

"Science research runs in a very different timeline to our cultural protocols, so working around those and bringing those together, is a really big priority as well," she said.

"We may not prioritise the seagrass itself but the effects that loss of that seagrass is having on so many different cultural aspects is huge.

"So we're able to work with the scientists and learn a bit more about that scientific information about the seagrass too. It's a lot of two-way learning, and a lot of co-design from the very beginning."

The conference attendees have created resources with scientists which will be taken back to their communities.

“These products explain climate change and hazards in the face of extreme and accelerating events affecting Country, and the hope is that they will help communities put in place effective and tailored climate change adaptation pathways," Ms McNeair said.

The event was part of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP) and Earth Systems and Climate Change (ESCC) Hub.