Photograph by Trent Parke / Magnum Photos

COP15: Aboriginal Australians Connect Biodiversity to Human Rights

As the biodiversity summit COP15 takes place in Montreal, The Frontline asks Aboriginal Australians about what they want to see happen.

This week, nearly every country in the world is meeting for a climate conference: COP15. While the more-popular COP27 focuses on cutting emissions to stop climate change, COP15, or the U.N. Biodiversity Conference, centers on a critical related issue: conserving nature. 


COP15 seeks to create new international targets in an agreement known as the Convention on Biological Diversity on how exactly to protect nature in the coming decade. The last time world leaders created such a list as part of this effort was in 2010 when they set targets for 2020—like reducing habitat fragmentation and degradation. In the 12 years since, they have failed to meet each and every target. 


This time around, the goals are more ambitious—including 30×30, the plan to protect 30% of the world’s land and water by 2030—but advocates emphasize that, to be effective, Indigenous peoples must be empowered to take the lead on managing lands. Despite being only 5% of the global population, Indigenous peoples protect nearly 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Currently, the draft text of the agreement includes language that recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples as “custodians of biodiversity.” But Indigenous peoples want more than acknowledgment—they want action. 


These custodians are at COP15 to speak for themselves. From the Brazilian Amazon to the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indigenous leaders traveled to Montreal to advocate for their right to manage their traditional homelands. Alongside groups often forefronted in conservation talks is one that receives less attention on the global stage: Aboriginal Australians. Australia is full of ecological marvels, but without funding and support, Aboriginal communities are unable to protect these treasures—and the cultures to which they’re connected.


“I’ve been listening to a lot of people talking about goals and achievements that they’d like to see in 2030, 2040, 2050,” said Rarrtjiwuy Melanie Herdman, a saltwater woman of the Yolŋu people of Australia’s Northern Territory and board member of the nonprofit Country Needs People, which invests in Indigenous rangers and protected area programs. “That’s the same support that we need. If we’re going to make a difference in our region and improve these challenges, we can’t do that with short-term funding.”


Australia’s rich, unique biodiversity is in a precarious position. Because it’s an island, Australia’s biodiversity evolved in isolation for millions of years, meaning there are high rates of endemic species: species found nowhere else in the world. This seclusion has turned out striking, unmistakably Australian creatures: the emu (a giant flightless bird), the Tasmanian devil, and the inland taipan (the world’s most venomous snake). Amid an accelerating global extinction crisis, this one-of-a-kind biodiversity faces an added layer of threat: if a species disappears from Australia, it likely disappears from the world. Already, Australia has the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction. 

“I think my voice is being heard more.”

Rosemary Nabulwad
Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area

One of the big threats is invasive species: water buffalo, cane toads, camels, and cats alongside ever-encroaching non-native vegetation. In northern Australia’s Arnhem Plateau, invasive water buffalo do more damage to the land than uranium mines once did, said Conrad Maralngurra, a land management director at the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area.


Introduced species are one of the many legacies of colonization that Indigenous land managers face. Another is wildfires. Before Europeans arrived, Aboriginal Australians managed bushfires by burning early in the dry season to prevent late-season fires from growing as large. When white settlers removed Indigenous peoples from their lands, controlled burns stopped. Now, with hotter temperatures, invasive grasses, and a century of interrupted management, Aboriginal rangers struggle to control the size and scope of fires. 


The bushfire season of 2019 and 2020—nicknamed Black Summer—burned over 42 million acres and killed an estimated one billion mammals, birds, and reptiles and hundreds of billions of insects. The disastrous fire season had a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal people, researchers argue, as they watched their homes and traditional lands destroyed, and then suffered insufficient or culturally insensitive relief efforts. Though climate change promises more intense fires in the future, fire management is key to reducing the risk of entire communities burning.


“Slowly, we’re bringing back native animals and keeping down feral populations,” Maralngurra said. “Fire managing is the whole way we bring things back in care.”


Then, of course, there is climate change, which exacerbates all of the above. It threatens terrestrial landscapes along with ecological jewels like the Great Barrier Reef. As the world’s largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef is home to astounding biodiversity: 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish, and countless other mollusks, crustaceans, anemones, and more. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities in Australia have been at the forefront of preserving the reef, which has suffered widespread coral bleaching in recent years. The reef’s stewards are still granted limited access for fishing and other traditional practices. This year, the Queensland Indigenous Womens Ranger Network won the Earthshot prize for its work protecting the reef.

“We all have human rights, and our human rights should be working together.”

Conrad Maralngurra
Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area

Indigenous land management is grounded in caring for country (as Aboriginal communities refer to the land) as kin, grounding their approach in ancestral connections. Now, Australia is starting to recognize the value of this work. In 2017, the federal government put $15 million toward its Indigenous Protected Areas Program, including 19 new projects. The 2021 Australia State of the Environment report emphasized the connection between the health of the land and Indigenous peoples and advocated for their right to manage the land according to cultural practices. 


“I think my voice is being heard more,” said Rosemary Nabulwad, a land management director at the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area. 


This is promising—and part of a global trend that recognizes the ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples, including the Aboriginal communities in Australia. But governments need to turn recognition into action: Aboriginal groups all over Australia require funding to meet their goals, and they still don’t have rights to the land that remains in the hands of federal and local governments. 


Even if all of Australia’s land was returned to its original stewards today, the legacy of colonization looks different in different regions. In the Northern Territory—where Rarrtjiwuy, Maralngurra, and Nabulwad all live—Indigenous people have rights to about 50% of the land and 85% of the coastline. Rarrtjiwuy grew up going to a bilingual school, speaking both English and Yolŋu matha, her native language. In southern Australia near Sydney and Melbourne, the situation is very different. Rarrtjiwuy said that many Aboriginal people there were removed from their land and punished for speaking their languages, so their process of managing land means first reclaiming their traditions. 


So what can COP15 do about all this? Patrick O’Leary, CEO of Country Needs People, warns against adopting the latest fad in language without long-term, genuine investment in relationship building. At the biodiversity conference, he has heard a lot of acknowledgment of Indigenous knowledge and stewardship, but he said this must be matched with funding and humility on behalf of governments around the world. Too often, partnerships with Indigenous communities end up being one-way, Rarrtjiwuy said, with scientists or researchers or governments dictating how things should be done. Rarrtjiwuy wants to work across Indigenous and western cultures but emphasized that Indigenous knowledge must be respected first. 


“This is our system. This is how we operate,” Rarrtjiwuy said. “You come to us. You work to understand.”


The international community can also assist Indigenous peoples by cleaning up the mess they made. Aboriginal Australians have contributed very little to causing climate change, and yet they are especially vulnerable to its impacts given how intimately they live with the land. What’s more, many can’t—or won’t—leave their traditional homelands, even in the wake of massive disasters. 


Instead of abandoning the land, Aboriginal Australians try to nurse country back to health by cleaning up plastic from the shore, rebuilding after devastating wildfires, and saving species from extinction. Meanwhile, one of the countries most responsible for the climate and ecological crisis—the United States—is notably doing the least about the issue. The U.S. has the largest cumulative emissions of any country, but it is one of two states that has not ratified the convention. 


Preserving biodiversity is both a local and a global fight. It can’t be done without Indigenous leadership, but they can’t lead without government support


“We’re trying to show a good pathway to other people and other countrymen,” Maralngurra said. “We all have human rights, and our human rights should be working together.”

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