Traditional owners in Australia are the creators of millennial traditional environmental knowledge – an understanding of how to live in a changing environment. Seasonal calendars are one form of this knowledge best known to non-Australian non-natives. But as the climate changes, these calendars are being disrupted.
How? Take the example of wicker trees that bloom at certain times of the year. This used to mean the beginning of the fishing season for certain species. Climate change causes these plants to bloom later. In response, traditional owners in the Yuku Baja Muliku (YBM) Country near Cooktown have had to adapt their calendars and make new connections.
This is not all. The seasonal time of cultural incineration practices is changing in some areas. Changes in precipitation and temperature change when high-intensity (hot) and low-intensity (cold) burns are undertaken.
Seasonal ties, vital to the culture of traditional owners, are separated.
To systematically document the changes, co-author Larissa Hale and her community are working with Western scholars to create a traditional owner-centered approach to climate impacts on cultural values. This process, published last week, could also help traditional landowners elsewhere develop adaptive governance for their indigenous heritage.
Climate change threatens the first nations – their views must be heard
The people of Australia’s first nations face many threats from climate change, ranging from food availability to health. For example, rising seas are already flooding islands in the Torres Strait with devastating consequences.
The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Impacts and Adaptation notes in the Australasian chapter that climate-related impacts on Aboriginal and Torres islanders, their country and cultures are “widespread, complex and complex”.
Although it is important to record these impacts, the dominant source of data is academic literature based on Western science. The impact and pressure that traditional owners see and manage on their country must be assessed and managed from their unique point of view.
Traditional owners have survived and adapted to climate change during their 60,000+ years in Australia. This includes rising sea levels, which flooded the area that is now the Great Barrier Reef, and extreme variability in rainfall. As a result, they have developed a fine-tuned sense of the variability of nature over time.
So what did we do?
Concerned about the changes they are seeing in their land and sea country around Archer Point in northern Queensland, YBM is working with scientists at James Cook University to create a new way to assess the impact on cultural values.
To do this, we used a value-based, science-oriented and community-focused approach to the Climate Vulnerability Index. This was the first time that this index was used to estimate values relevant to indigenous peoples.
The YBM people responded to key prompts to assess changes in their values, including:
- What did the value look like 100 years ago?
- What does it look like now?
- What do you expect the climate to look like in 2050?
- What management practices are related to this value and will they change?
We then discussed what problems have arisen from these climate changes.
Using this process, we were able to identify problems that directly affect the way people live in YBM. For example, traditional food sources may be affected by climate change. In the past, freshwater mussels in the Annan River were easy to access and collect. Extreme temperature events over the past 10 years have contributed to mass deaths. Mussels are now much smaller in size and are usually much smaller in number.
Through the process, we also documented that changes in precipitation and temperature have changed the time when certain plant foods appear. This is especially true for plants that bloom or sprout depending on the culture burns. This in turn means that the time for harvesting has changed.
These climate-related changes are challenging existing arrays of traditional knowledge, changing the links between different species, ecosystems and meteorological models across the country by land and sea.
A key part of this process was the development of a mutually beneficial partnership between traditional environmentalists and Western scientists. It was crucial to establish a relationship built on trust and respect.
The first trip around the country – seeing rivers, mangroves, beaches, capes, bushes, wetlands and views of the Sea Country – helped researchers understand the prospects of traditional owners. Respect for experience and knowledge (especially that possessed by elders and local rangers) was important. Local cultural and intellectual property protocols were recognized and respected during the evaluation.
Read more: Our earth is burning, and Western science does not have all the answers
Respecting and working with traditional owners as experts scientists in their own knowledge system was crucial to success. Any effort to incorporate traditional environmental knowledge into climate change assessments must protect sensitive traditional knowledge.
As climate change continues and accelerates, we must work together to minimize the impact on the cultural heritage of the peoples of the first nations.
Read more: Why the Australian Government Should Listen to Torres Leaders on Climate Change