The current debate about addressing climate change is becoming a choice between a carbon tax and direct investment of taxpayer funds to reduce C02 emissions. At the same time there are concerns about the social and economic viability of remote Aboriginal communities and the impact of their recent post-intervention migration to outback towns.

These issues may be far more strongly linked than is immediately apparent.

In 2009 Noel Pearson wondered out loud why the vast areas of bushland that store carbon on Aboriginal land are ignored”

“… The people out in the mulga country, who ball-and-chained their properties, can now participate in the new carbon economy when they replant their properties. They participated in the old economy and they’ve got an opportunity in the new economy. But the blackfellas, who have never participated in the old economy, because all the vegetation is still intact, won’t even be able to participate in the new economy and be given credit for the preservation of the environment, because they’ve got nothing to trade. All of the land is locked up already. So blackfellas lose out in the old destructive economy and they have no foothold in the new carbon economy. We’re dispossessed at both ends, from any economic participation. And yet if you destroyed your property in 1930 or 1950 or 1980, you’re completely allowed to go back, plant new trees and get green credits in the future. The lockout of indigenous opportunity to develop any form of economic base, even to be given credit for preserving the environment, is completely obscene.”

Pearson identified a chronic weakness in the approach to global warming to date — its failure to recognise the carbon carrying capacity of wild self-sustaining landscapes.  Aboriginal lands on Cape York stretch from the Daintree north to the tip of the cape and were “formerly … government or church-run missions and reserves”.

Covering some 1.14 million hectares, they have millions of tonnes of carbon already stored in vegetation, swamp peat, etc.  Though perceived as a wilderness in the south, Cape York has massive and growing populations of feral cattle, horses and especially pigs that increasingly compromise this landscape’s ability to store carbon. Addressing this issue has the potential to turn this loss of CO2 into the atmosphere into a massive gain in carbon capture and storage.

The impact of feral animal control can easily be measured by comparing stored carbon in managed areas to that in fenced areas that exclude them.

The remote location of Aboriginal communities combined with their local knowledge becomes an economic advantage rather than a liability when controlling feral animals.

With feral animals removed or controlled, native wildlife abundance will increase. Wetlands no longer ravaged by pigs will again have bush tucker, clean water and more fish.

Income generated from managing these landscapes will create opportunities for other employment to service the workforce in these remote communities.  Partnerships with educational institutions could develop a wealth of educational and research opportunities from monitoring and managing carbon sequestration across landscapes, etc.

An intervention of investing in Aboriginal communities for feral animal control on Aboriginal lands to store carbon and address climate change is also likely to generate widespread support.

Peter Fray

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