Renewable Energy And Opportunities For Indigenous Empowerment

Reflecting on her experiences working alongside community leaders in the Torres Strait, Honours Fellow Phoebe Evans underscores the value of traditional knowledge and lived Indigenous experience in addressing climate change through renewable energy transitions.

Wind turbines on Thursday Island. Photo by Phoebe Evans.

In the wake of NAIDOC Week, there is no better time to reflect on how to create and support meaningful partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This is particularly important in building sustainable practices, to turn the challenges of the future into opportunities. In working towards shared goals, the value of learning from traditional knowledge and working collaboratively with Indigenous communities cannot be overstated.

In 2020, I took part in a Service Learning in Indigenous Communities (SLIC) project at the University of Sydney, working in close partnership with Torres Strait Islander community leaders on a climate change and health impact assessment. Placed in an interdisciplinary team of students, we were each challenged to put aside our existing academic assumptions, and instead prioritise a listening-based approach to learning. We interviewed community leaders from the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) and the Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC), learning from lived experience about the complex interplay of health and climate change. Moving beyond a vision of climate change as a strictly environmental phenomenon meant understanding not only the physical implications of a warming climate, with its exacerbation of chronic health issues, but also the deeply spiritual and socio-cultural impacts. Ultimately, when culture is so embedded in Country, health becomes impossible to delineate from the changing climate.

“An understanding of Australia’s future, in terms of addressing climate change through renewable energy transitions, is incomplete without incorporating traditional knowledge and lived Indigenous experience.”

Learning to understand the deep entanglements of health and climate through the centring of community voice in the SLIC project was an eye-opening experience for me. Learning from the lived experience and cultural knowledge of Torres Strait Islanders emphasised the multidimensionality of climate change in a way that would not have been possible without close collaboration with community leaders. This collaborative framework has informed my Honours thesis, as my experience with SLIC taught me that an understanding of Australia’s future, in terms of addressing climate change through renewable energy transitions, is incomplete without incorporating traditional knowledge and lived Indigenous experience. Thus, my thesis topic considers how renewable energy can relate to Indigenous empowerment.

When undertaking research in Indigenous communities however, meaningful collaboration and partnership must be the leading research considerations, to avoid a sense of external exploitation. Community consultation has been the centrepiece of my thesis so far. My previous engagement with Torres Strait Islander community leaders through the SLIC project led me to focus on the Torres Strait Islands as a case study for my thesis. Initial consultations revolved around gauging community concerns by reaching out to existing contacts, with the help of Professor of Practice in Environmental Wellbeing, Melissa Haswell. These early conversations worked to ensure that this topic of renewable energy and Indigenous empowerment aligned with community interests, and would therefore be of relevance and benefit to them. A collaborative research agreement was reached, to enshrine respectful practices and reciprocity, and the centring of Torres Strait Islander voice within my thesis.

These research agreements were reached with two governing bodies in the Torres Strait. The first was TSIRC, with whom I had an existing network due to the SLIC project. TSIRC was formed in 2008 as an amalgamation of fifteen local councils in the Torres Strait, representing the outer islands. Engagement with representatives from TSIRC were in close alignment with SLIC objectives of close collaboration with the community, to understand climate change impacts. A research agreement was also reached with Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK), which is the native title peak body, representing Traditional Owners across the Torres Strait. Both organisations were invaluable in providing insights into the lived realities of climate change in the Torres Strait, and how sustainable strategies such as renewable energy, when done right, can build a sense of community empowerment.

Last month, I travelled to Cairns and Thursday Island, to speak with representatives from TSIRC and the GBK, and conduct interviews which would form the basis of my thesis. This experience was made more exciting by the fact that my previous work with SLIC had had to be undertaken remotely, due to the risks of COVID-19 in 2020. Having the opportunity to meet with people face-to-face allowed for the building of stronger, more personal connections with interview partners from both organisations. With the GBK, I had the privilege of attending a conference in Cairns, alongside Professor Haswell, where I shared my thesis project with Traditional Owners from across the Torres Strait, who then granted unanimous approval for this research.

Travelling to Thursday Island, the administrative heart of the Torres Strait, gave my thesis an entirely new lens, in that I too was now grounded in the physical and spiritual reality of Country. Remote communication could not do justice to the unparalleled beauty of the Torres Strait, where the constant wind, searing sunlight, and pulling tides gave a new sense of meaning to the idea of renewable energy. There was something about sitting down with community leaders on their Country, and learning directly from them, that communicated a more profound and tangible meaning to what I had been researching from afar. This is something, as one interview partner remarked to me, that is difficult to express after the fact to those who have not experienced it themselves. Again, I am reminded of the importance of listening to the traditional cultural knowledge generously shared with me, to allow for the best chance of capturing these sentiments in my final thesis.

“The unfaltering commitment to Country is inseparable from Torres Strait Islander identity. The protection of Country through the maintenance of culture and support for sustainable practices is equally unwavering.”

Now, having returned to Sydney, I remain in the process of following up a handful of interviews remotely. Something that has stood out to me so far however, is the strong sense of pride in Torres Strait Islander heritage and culture. The unfaltering commitment to Country is inseparable from Torres Strait Islander identity. The protection of Country through the maintenance of culture and support for sustainable practices is equally unwavering. Torres Strait Islander voices are loud; the ‘Torres Strait 8’ has captured the attention of the world, in bringing a human rights case to the United Nations against the Australian government, for a failure to act on climate change. It is this kind of commitment to driving change on both a local scale, and on a broader international stage, that captures Torres Strait Islander determination to lead sustainable climate action.

I am left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunity to learn from community leaders, who shared with me their cultural knowledge and personal stories. More than a feeling of devastation from hearing the personal observations of change over time – the graves and sacred sites washed away, the changes in totemic species – I am left with a sense of hope from a community emboldened with the strength of their own local knowledge.

Over the remainder of the year, my thesis will continue to be a product of ongoing consultation with Traditional Owners and community leaders, as I strive to capture that sense of community strength, in understanding how renewable energy can be used and led by community in accordance with their culture and traditional knowledge.

Phoebe Evans is a 2021 Honours Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. Phoebe completed her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Politics and International Relations) in 2020, and is now undertaking her Honours with the Department of Government and International Relations. Her central research interest is in the practicalities of Australia’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and Australia’s immense opportunities to advance economically in the post-pandemic era, to become a global leader in renewables. Phoebe has been inspired by her work with Indigenous communities through the University Service Learning project, and her thesis looks to incorporate Indigenous traditional knowledge and perspectives on empowerment through harnessing renewable energy sources in remote areas.