Outlook and impact

Outlook

Statement from the authors

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived across this continent for tens of thousands of years. By practising culture, we have managed and cared for Country and shaped the environment and its biota. Indigenous Australians have a cultural responsibility of stewardship – making rules, administering resources and managing the environment according to Indigenous values, knowledges and practices. Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of Country entrusted in our care by the ancestral spirits and mother Earth – we are from Country, Country is mother and thus we are the stewards of Country – the land, waters and sky, and all things within it. If you take care of Country, it will take care of you. It is the law, and our responsibility; it is core to our culture and wellbeing.

We have adapted and innovated to survive huge climactic changes in the past, just as we have adapted to overcome the challenges of the present. Our connection to Country has kept us strong and provided us with relief and comfort. We have stepped lightly, living sustainably and ensuring that we live in harmony with Country. Always giving back as we take, knowing Country is our mother, and always with the knowledge that we must be good ancestors for those who come after us and, vitally, to honour those from whom we inherit, our old people.

Indigenous songlines link land, water and sky, covering areas of Country across state and territory boundaries. Songlines are the past, the present and the future, connected to law, story and knowledge that has been gathered, stored and transmitted since time immemorial. Songlines tell us how to sustain our environment to keep Country vital and strong.

For millennia, Indigenous Australians have known the seasons, animals, plants and elements of Country, and have spoken languages that transmit the knowledge and stories of Country. Plants, animals and elements are our totems, working in reciprocity with us – we look after them, they look after us, enacting deep scientific knowledge of biota, genetics and land management and so much more. Our waterways are our life sources, our lifeblood – without them we are nothing. In saltwater Country on our coasts in the deep water, we know the way of sea Country. The forests, woodlands, heaths and grassy plains were managed effectively and efficiently with fire. Aboriginal people lived across the Country, in sandy desert, tropical rainforest and alpine meadows, understanding the shifting seasons and how the environment provided food, shelter, healing, ceremony and kinship. Across our Country, the environment provides food, shelter, healing, ceremony and kinship, and we reciprocate, always – providing and caring for Country through complex systems of management that ensure balance.

Caring for Country is holistic, with the physical interconnected with the social, the cultural and the spiritual. Sustainable environmental practices are embedded in our culture through traditional hunting, harvesting, and managing plants and animals. Our cultural expressions reflect our symbiotic relationship with Country. Our stories are evidence of the countless generations of interaction with and nurturing of Country, and we continue to speak, sing and to enact our connections.

In Indigenous world views, the health of the land, water, sky and people are deeply interconnected. If Country is sick, our people are sick. Healing Country means healing ourselves. Western systems of environmental management and science divide things into categories. The structure of the state of the environment (SoE) report reflects this western approach of categorisation. Writing the report involved many challenges for Indigenous authors, because Indigenous knowledge systems and ways of knowing, being and doing are holistic and do not always fit easily into western categories and systems that are too often perceived as superior. The Indigenous co-authors have worked to raise many issues, such as the gaps in the data and reporting on what the challenges are to ultimately assess the state of our countries through our eyes.

There has been devastation of cultural practices since European colonisation began. Indigenous land and sea management has been greatly impacted. Colonisation continues to interrupt many cultural practices and the intergenerational transmission of our knowledge needed to keep us and Country strong. The continuing legacy of colonial management of Country has disenfranchised and marginalised Indigenous peoples in their stewardship of Country. Legislative regimes, and rights to land and sea, vary across the states and territories, perpetuating inequity for Indigenous peoples. Access to Country has been impacted. Indigenous peoples’ rights have been impacted. Our knowledge of Country, developed through scientific practice, careful observation and interaction over millennia, has been portrayed as myth and legend. People were taken from Country and treated as outsiders. There have been limited rights for heritage, water, land and seas – and we have often been powerless to protect our totems, plants and animals.

But we are powerful people, and our knowledge and culture remain strong. Shifts are beginning, but shifts in many areas continue to be uneven, sometimes impacted by remoteness, urban living, uneven resourcing, lack of access to intergenerational learning or other forms of deficit in opportunity. There is an increase in the Indigenous estate and the number of Indigenous rangers working on Country. Indigenous organisations that provide leadership and cultural governance are expanding, and strong governance and enhanced management capability are key to future successes. The numbers of Indigenous environmental professionals are growing, as are respectful collaborations between western science and Indigenous knowledge that show how we can work together, using all of our tools to rise to the challenges we collectively face as we move into a complex future. There have been a lot of changes in the right direction, and even being asked to collaborate as co-authors in the SoE report is a significant step. However, more needs to be done.

Future management of Country must be premised on Indigenous-led approaches to strengthening and sharing our knowledge of caring for Country. Sharing of knowledge must recognise our Indigenous cultural and intellectual property and respect the ancestors who gave us the knowledge. Management practices should be about revitalising and strengthening cultural practice and enable reconnecting to Country and kin, which delivers healing and rehabilitation of Country. Support for intergenerational transfer of customary knowledge and practices, and respect for cultural authority and customary law, are vital. Self-determination is a key focus, having our people employed in and leading data collection and monitoring projects as well as providing evidence of how to heal Country. There must be nothing about us without us. We must not just be given a seat at the table; we must set the menu. Empower us and you empower yourselves – no group of people are more invested in caring for the environment and keeping it healthy than Indigenous peoples.

The wellbeing of Indigenous communities is violently impacted when we cannot connect and practise culture. Poor health, low life expectancy and other social circumstances impact our ability to practise and maintain our stewardship of Country. People are strong and healthy when they are on Country, connected and fulfilling their cultural obligations. Country is healthier too. Colonisation has seen our people ripped from Country – the road to our collective healing is putting people back on Country.

We want to continue our stewardship of Country and share knowledge and practices. We want to have the opportunity for Indigenous-led research and for self-determination, so we can speak for our knowledge and our ways, and so we can speak for Country and keep her strong. We want to honour our ancestors and support the many future generations of Indigenous Australians, and all Australians. Our environment will be strong if we care for Country. We will be strong, if we care for Country. Country is our mother; we will never give up on her. It is not too late.

Indigenous community expectations from the state of the environment and government in 2021–26

All participants in the community consultations for this report agreed that Indigenous people need to have high expectations of the Australian Government SoE report. Key themes are emerging in what Indigenous stakeholders expect from the government and the report. These are:

  • inclusion of the Indigenous voice in the national environmental discussion, and increased participation in decision-making
  • actioning the SoE report recommendations
  • better valuing of Indigenous knowledge (from traditional knowledge holders and not just Indigenous scientists)
  • self-determination and decision-making on environmental work
  • genuine engagement with realistic timeframes. Governments should reach out to all levels of community to include the diversity of Indigenous voices and to recognise that traditional knowledge often sits at the grassroots level
  • community-led solutions tailored to individual communities
  • continual collection of information in the years between reports
  • use of language that is plain English, so everyone can read and understand it
  • long-term commitments from government, industry and community partners, in terms of programs and investments
  • removal of barriers that Indigenous communities are expected to overcome to access resourcing
  • more training programs to support caring for Country.

Governments need to actually do what they say they are going to do. Politicians need to be real. Governments need to commit to working through the complex issues and stop playing one group against another. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021c)

Impact

Indigenous people maintain their deep holistic relationship with Country through their living connections; the stories from the past; the observations and understanding of the lands, seas, waters, plants and animals; and the cultural customs and practices.

Indigenous peoples hold obligations to care for all the lands and waters in their traditional territories. Every part of Australia, except some remote offshore territories like Antarctica, has Traditional Custodians or Owners who belong to or speak for it.

As Indigenous peoples hold obligations to care for all the lands, seas and waters in their traditional territories, assessment of the state of the environment is about both the condition of Country and the condition of connection to that Country. Indigenous assessments in this report reflect the constraints on caring for Country imposed by the:

  • current nature and extent of the Indigenous estate
  • ability to access their land and waters throughout Australia
  • deteriorating condition of the health of these lands, seas and waters.

The continuing legacy of colonial law and policies disempowers Indigenous environmental management practices (Hill et al. 2020). Inadequacies in law and policy, including intellectual property laws (Poelina et al. 2020), limit Indigenous people’s ability to practise their customary obligations according to customary law. While there have been some positive trends in recognition of rights, there are still many limitations to access, to customary governance and to other aspects vital for caring for Country.

The poor overall state of Country and connection to Country has a negative effect on Indigenous people’s wellbeing. In turn, our environment is poorer because of the lack of Indigenous leadership, knowledge and management.