Opinion

Indigenous Justice in Times of Climate Crisis

The 2019/2020 fires that tore down Australia’s east coast took with them sites of incalculable importance to Indigenous communities. Here, Christine Winter and Jakelin Troy ask when the government, and the public, will choose to recognise the significance of this loss.

Ngarigu Snowy Mountains, smoky during last year's bushfires. Image by Kate Trifo via Unsplash.

It’s difficult, in light of the series of unravelling events, to remember how recent the devastation of the 2019/20 bushfire season really is: that only this year, stretches of Australia’s east coast were burning or smothered in smoke that travelled half the radius of the earth. If we don’t critically reflect, we’ll miss the opportunity to fully understand the scope of impacts that were overlooked, or ignored, at the time. What didn’t we see, and who wasn’t heard when the country finally took stock of the damage and loss? And looking ahead, what do we need to learn as we edge into another long Australian summer.

The loss of human and non-human life and damage to ecosystems caused by the bushfires has been extensive documented; the scale of loss calculated in terms of property damage, hectares of scorched landscape and an ever increasing running total of the number of animals killed. However, less attention has been paid to the specific or unique forms of damage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Within the lost and damaged landscapes were centuries old records of Aboriginal life, culture, spirituality, language and knowledge. The sheer expanse of the ecological damage has destroyed physical heritage – scar trees, birthing trees, markers etc. as well as eradicating significant species thus severing human-totem relationships.

“Within the lost and damaged landscapes were centuries old records of Aboriginal life, culture, spirituality, language and knowledge.”

The pain of these losses is incalculable, and yet there has been little recognition of these impacts in the public sphere. But this loss, all these losses are not simply lamentable – they are a matter of justice. Climate justice, Indigenous justice, intergenerational justice, environmental justice, linguistic justice and multispecies justice. When the government, and the public, fail or choose not to recognise the significance of relationships between and amongst people, animals and country, and what that means in light of ever more frequent environmental catastrophes, this action must be recognised for what it is; the intentional reinforcing of ongoing settler colonial oppression.

“When the government, and the public, fail or choose not to recognise the significance of relationships between and amongst people, animals and country, and what that means in light of ever more frequent environmental catastrophes, this action must be recognised for what it is; the intentional reinforcing of ongoing settler colonial oppression.”

This alone is sufficient reason for us to re-examine how we understand and record loss in times of environmental destruction – however that is not the extent of this argument. Climatic change has been linked to two recent and extensive fire events in Ngarigu Country in the Snowy Mountains – in 2003 from which the landscape was thought to have largely ‘recovered’ (despite the ongoing precarity of endangered species) and the most recent fire season from which recovery may take centuries. That these events occurred close together is an indication of changed environmental conditions, and signals that new knowledge and interactions will need to be developed.

The fires are part of a combination of climate change induced events, including drought, that work together in destroying the environment. Snowgums, an icon of the Australian Alps are also under severe threat due to climate change. An endemic wood boring beetle is killing the trees by ringbarking. Snowgums rely on high moisture content to protect themselves from insect invaders but over the decade since the 2003 fires they have become increasingly drought and fire distressed. They have been made extremely vulnerable to insect attack as a direct result of climate change and its catastrophic weather events. Scientists at the Fenner School, ANU are running a ‘citizen science’ project ‘Snowgum Dieback’ to collect information about affected trees to demonstrate the connection between the beetle’s impact on snowgums to climate change.

During these recent fire events, fire services focused on protecting human life and property. Fires away from built up and settled areas, were left to burn out. The exception was a cluster of Wollemi pine – an ancient remnant species whose habitat has been reduced to one small and secret area in the Blue Mountains. Classified as critically endangered on the IUCN’s Red List, it is legally protected in Australia and so is understood to be worthy of extraordinary actions to protect it. Within Kosciuszko National Park there are also rare and endangered plant and animal species, however the 2019-2020 fires may mean the fate of some like the corroboree frog, smoky mouse and ghost fish is extinction.

Ngarigu have longstanding relationships with these species, relationships that generate knowledge and cultural practices designed to ensure flourishing – the flourishing of the species, landscape and human beings. However, the sites of cultural property in which cultural, scientific, spiritual and linguistic knowledge is embedded burned this year, and were not viewed by the government as valuable enough property to warrant protective intervention. This knowledge is not lost – it lives in rare sites on country and in Ngarigu language, song, customs and ceremony. That knowledge could contribute to ecological, cultural and linguistic preservation in snow country, and could benefit the Kosciuszko National Parkand Snowy Mountains ecology, landscape and species.

Bringing Ngarigu knowing to the fore benefits Ngarigu knowledge holders and thus is a worthwhile national project. Indigenous knowledge has been systemically devalued by settler colonial land and fire management practices stripping the landscape bare of any protections against anthropogenic climate change. Knowledge revival is important, and handing real control to Ngarigu to take that knowledge and work with it to protect Country may save the landscape, species and the time-old relationships between them and Ngarigu.

This article was edited by Gemma Viney.


Jakelin Troy is currently focussing her research on documenting, describing and reviving Indigenous languages, including Indigenous languages of Pakistan, including Saraiki of the Punjab and Torwali of Swat. She has two Australian Research Council Discovery Projects one with Prof John Maynard on the history of Aboriginal missions and reserves in eastern Australia and the history of Aboriginal people who were not institutionalised. The other DP is about the practise of ‘corroboree’ by Aboriginal people in the ‘assimilation period’ of the mid 20th century in Australia. Jakelin is interested in the use of Indigenous research methodologies and and community engaged research practises. Jakelin is Aboriginal Australian and her community is Ngarigu of the Snowy Mountains in south eastern Australia.

Christine Winter is a lecturer in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses at the intersection of intergenerational, indigenous and environmental justice. Drawing on her Anglo-Celtic-Māori cultural heritage she is interested in decolonising political theory by identifying key epistemological and ontological assumptions in theory that are incompatible with indigenous philosophies. In doing so she has two aims: to make justice theory just for Indigenous peoples of the settler states; and to expand the boundaries of theories of intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of Indigenous Peoples and their settler compatriots. Christine Winter is the Research Lead on The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture.

Gemma Viney is a Research Assistant on the FASS 2018 Strategic Research Program Project developing the field of Multi Species Justice and is currently completing a PhD in the Department of Government and International relations. Gemma was an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute in 2017. She has a Bachelors degree in International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney, and a First-class Honours Degree in the Department of Government and International Relations. Gemma Viney is the Research Lead on Anti-Mining Community Movements at the Sydney Environment Institute.