The Human Rights Implications of Climate Change for Indigenous Australians

For many years, prior even to the 2000 Declaration of the First International Forum of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change in Lyon, France, Indigenous peoples around the world have been campaigning for a greater voice in local, national, regional and international approaches to addressing climate change. Indigenous peoples have been among the first groups to acknowledge that the planet is in a state of intense change as a result of human intervention in the form of industries such as mining, forestry, transport and large scale fisheries as well as the general conduct of activities which result in the creation of greenhouse gases. Indigenous peoples have recognised the unique threat that significant environmental change will have on communities; their culture, traditions and ways of life.

The global campaign by indigenous peoples has consistently and persistently called for inclusion of an indigenous voice in the conferences of the parties to the United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. In pursuing this campaign, indigenous peoples have argued that the direct impact of climate change on indigenous communities; the unique and specific traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples; and the moral obligation on indigenous peoples to protect and treasure the earth provide a unique set of circumstances which should ensure the participation of indigenous peoples in decision making processes.

In Australia, the voice and knowledge of Indigenous peoples has been sadly lacking in decision making in regard to climate change. On a micro level, Indigenous knowledge is at times given recognition for its application to sustainable development however on a national scale, this specific knowledge of the environment and ways to protect it for future generations is often ignored.

This project of the Indigenous Law Centre will examine the human rights implications of climate change for Australian Indigenous peoples through an analysis of international mechanisms and bodies and the way in which they may be used to garner a ‘seat at the table’. Issues relevant to indigenous peoples on a global scale (eg loss of traditional life and land; ‘environmental refugees’) will be analysed for their social and cultural implications and subsequently for the way in which other indigenous nations have looked to address them. On the local level, this project will look at current legislation which impacts on Indigenous Australians and the way in which climate change will affect or even alter this impact.

Action to date by environmental non-government organisations has operated from a principal concern for conservation and not from any form of mandate to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights, interests or knowledge. Indigenous Australians need to see comprehensive engagement by states, territories and the federal government for sufficient recognition to be given to the role that they can play in addressing such pressing issues of environmental and cultural concern.

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