As it becomes clear that western culture is ill-equipped to adequately respond to climate change, demand for alternative forms of climate data is growing. In Australia the knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) peoples is attracting particular attention for its capacity to provide rich information about local level ecology and cross-generational ecological change. Indeed the diverse cosmological perspectives offered by ATSI groups, in which materialism and linearity are not part, evidence alternative and sustainable ways of being and draw striking parallels with new fields of science as well as various social and environmental movements. Moreover ATSI communities are increasingly ‘demanding a place at the management table’ and offering dynamic alternatives to the dilemmas we face.
Governments, however, don’t quite know how to respond to Indigenous Knowledge (IK). It’s a bit, well, messy and presents almost unfathomable complications to standard political procedures. However well intentioned, governments still rely largely on western science, statistics and economic ‘rationalism’ to inform their decision-making processes. When possible, policymaking is top-down, emphasises uniformity and requiring countless bureaucratic protocol. On the flipside, IK is often qualitative, oral and highly contextualised. Time and memory is cyclic, not linear. Knowledge is embedded in social memory as well as the very landscape itself.
Dialogue between these parties is difficult, not least because of language barriers. From an Indigenous perspective, painful histories, contemporary marginalisation and a certain sense of weariness when it comes to political promises may render communities somewhat sceptical of the idea. This is especially acute when governments attempt to apply contextualised knowledge to an alien environ or pick and choose only digestible or political palatable pieces of knowledge. From a government perspective, meaningfully working with Indigenous groups may mean relinquishing certain privileges, going against what is perceived to be mainstream interests and getting past generations of inherited prejudice.
Despite the distance and the politics separating Indigenous peoples and governments, more and more indigenous groups are demanding inclusion in decision-making. Likewise striking is the recognition at institutional level that Indigenous groups possess profound knowledge essential to respond to climate change. This is especially so given that Indigenous groups are often the most vulnerable to it.
Australia is no exception. Despite 200 years of hugely traumatic colonisation, ATSI people remain the custodians of at least 50,000 years’ worth of knowledge and expertise. Increasingly, there is interest from both ATSI communities and from government in collaboration and partnership. Given that scientific records of Australia date back only a couple of hundred years, ancient rock art – which dates back tens of thousands of years – is also attracting attention for its capacity to provide insights into Australia’s ecological history. The information embedded in this art is further enriched by the oral histories and living knowledge of ATSI people today and could prove critical to tackle the environmental challenges currently faced.
This interest is not only reflected rhetorically but has materialised into a handful of positive initiatives. For example, there are over 23 Indigenous Protected Areas, which see sovereignty handed back to indigenous communities towards both environmental conservation and community capacity building through a fusion of IK and western science. In a similar vein, ‘Sharing Knowledge’ hopes to increase the resilience of Indigenous communities to environmental change and foster holistic and collaborative responses to climate change.
Sharing the table?
However, institutional recognition of the value of the ATSI knowledge systems, and indeed understanding thereof, remains limited and allocation of funding and resources inadequate. With a few exceptions aside, indigenous people in Australia remain largely excluded from climate change research, planning and decision-making. Economic interests and fossil fuel based economy and infrastructure continue to dominate. Moreover, Australian policy at large has failed to significantly reduce Indigenous disadvantage or address its systemic racism and exclusion.
Australian federal policy is scarcely 200 years old. It is both arrogant and unrealistic to believe that the socio-ecological problems we face could be tackled with this embryonic system alone. Yet, with some notable exceptions, this is largely the direction Australia seems to be heading. The more we amble down this path, the more we risk further generational disconnection from knowledge and Australia’s capacity to cope with the inevitable changes that will confront us. Indigenous knowledge from Australia and beyond provides us with an alternative view of the world that is not slave to materialism or dependent on fossil fuels; in which collective wellbeing presides over individual voracity. As the threat of climate change grows, it is time not only for ‘partnership’ or ‘participation’ but for a restructure of these very processes so that Indigenous expertise can meaningfully contribute to a more sustainable and equitable future.