Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners council protest Adani.

“They’re not listening to local people.”

Barkaangji Elder William “Badger” Bates had no hesitation sheeting home January’s mass-death of up to a million cod in the Murray-Darling river system to systemic mismanagement and arrogant indifference to local knowledge.

“Now we’re stuck in Menindee with the fish dying, the kids are getting sores all over them and we got no water just about.”

An expert scientific panel convened by the Australian Academy of Science concurred, finding river management had been deeply flawed and engagement with locals had been “cursory at best”.

Now, as the planet hurtles at breakneck speed towards a catastrophic extinction tipping point, a landmark United Nations report makes a compelling case for turning to Indigenous groups for knowledge and insight that could buy humans a little more time before complete biodiversity collapse. The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report makes an unprecedented case, at this level, for gleaning more strategies from the sustainable land and sea management practices of Indigenous populations.

A 40-page summary of the 1800-page report presses home the point that recognising the knowledge and practices of Indigenous peoples, and ensuring their participation in environmental governance, is essential to safeguarding biodiversity. The report’s authors highlight the notion of “reciprocal responsibility” as a counter to unsustainable over-consumption and resource extraction with little regard for the health of the land.

Current trends in Australian land use couldn’t be further from the respect for and application of Indigenous knowledge demanded by the report. These practices are of course not going unchallenged — Australia’s traditional custodians are fighting last-ditch rearguard actions country-wide — but the legal framework remains heavily stacked against their claims.

Despite the best efforts of groups from Adrian Burragubba and the Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners fighting Adani’s 60 million tonne Carmichael megamine to the Alawa fight against Origin Energy fracking in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin, the divide and conquer playbook and unfathomably deep pockets of global resource behemoths are time and again proving alarmingly effective.

These battles are far from new. It is 40 years since the Yungngora People occupied a parched Kimberley creek bed to block the passage of drilling rigs in what became known as the Noonkanbah dispute, a key stepping stone in the path towards Indigenous land rights.

A decade ago, Warwick Baird — then-director of the Native Title Unit at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission — issued a clarion call for a greater focus on human rights and Indigenous engagement with climate change policy.

In a prescient speech to the 2008 Native Title Conference in Perth, he predicted the government would sideline Australia’s First Peoples in its blinkered focus on the economics of the problem and fail to address the human impacts of climate change, particularly on traditional owners.

The speech presaged this week’s UN report, which reiterated the grave dangers posed to the world’s poorest populations and Indigenous communities as the ravages of climate change take hold. The findings confirm what many have long known — the areas of the world that will experience the most significant negative impact from climate change and biodiversity collapse are those home to the largest concentrations of Indigenous peoples and many of the world’s poorest communities.

“Because of their strong dependency on nature and its contributions for subsistence, livelihoods and health, those communities will be disproportionately hard hit by those negative changes,” it notes.

This is the message the indefatigable former Kiribati president Anote Tong is travelling the globe to drive home. Our Environment Minister Melissa Price, of course, has her own idea of what brought him to Australia last year. With a grand total of zero media events this election campaign, it is anybody’s guess what Price has in mind for tackling the looming extinction crisis.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison railing against “green tape”, barely a day after the UN report dropped, offers some clue as to what direction the current government might take should it retain power after May 18.

Peter Fray

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