The country is like a body

By Ellen van Neerven

15 minute read

On a night last year by the fire at kuril dhagan (water rat’s place) on the Brisbane River Nancy Bamaga, a Torres Strait Islander woman from Saibai Island, spoke to a small, interested group about rising sea levels and the effects on Torres Strait Islander burial practices. She spoke with great weight and sadness about the tide coming to her island: the reality is that her people’s “homes and way of life” are being compromised. It was an insight into the threat to our north and low-lying places.

In 2008, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Native Title Report for NSW warned that the Torres Strait Islands were facing “a real possibility of a human rights crisis.” Of more than two hundred Torres Strait islands north of mainland Australia, 17 of these are occupied. The Islanders that live in the Torres Strait make up about 20 per cent of Australia’s total Torres Strait Islander population, and live alongside the traditional owners of the inner island archipelago, the Kaurareg, who identify as Aboriginal. Torres Strait Islanders who live on these islands – and those who don’t, like Nancy, but retain connections – are very concerned about biophysical change to their islands, feeling the effect on local flora and fauna and to the land and sea, which are all entwined with Islander culture and identity. Disappearing land means disappearing culture.

The language of loss

We need new ways of speaking about uncertain futures. The term “climate change” is often too vague and removed for the here and now of rising seas, changing temperatures and species devastation to sink in. Australians’ habitats – our homes and our cultures – are at risk.

The changing climate will disproportionately affect Indigenous people, as well as affect them differently. Because land and sea are inextricably linked with Indigenous cultural identities, a changing climate threatens ceremony, hunting practices, sacred sites, bush tucker and bush medicine, which in turn affects law, home, health, education, livelihood and purpose.

But there is a second sense in which Indigenous people are being removed from the language of “climate change.” Indigenous people feel a unique sense of responsibility to the land and to their children. Many communities have unique cultural resources and knowledge in managing climate, as well as experience in cooperatively managing climate with neighbouring communities. And yet among those who recognise the need for urgent action to respond to a changing climate, there are few who look to Indigenous knowledges for solutions.

Writing is one kind of warning and Indigenous Australians are gradually having more of a voice and more platforms to speak about the issues that hurt them the most. One of these platforms is Uncle Tony Birch’s international climate-focused storytelling project, Weather Stations. The Weather Stations blog is an opportunity to ask for other perspectives of home. Individuals are invited to describe a place they love that may be lost to environmental change. Weather Stations hopes to show that we all can contribute to the debate and that we are most responsible and responsive about the landscapes that hold our hearts and minds. Indigenous Australians have a lot to say: As Tony Birch blogs, “For Indigenous people, the impact of climate change is not a future event. It has occurred in the past, and it is occurring now.”

The tide is coming

In 1948, severe flooding forced Nancy’s grandfather to relocate from Saibai to the mainland, Bamaga, on the tip of Cape York. A tropical cyclone combined with high tides to create a storm tide. The sea swallowed houses on Saibai and Boigu and people had to be evacuated. Many, like Nancy’s grandfather, never came back. Today the Bamaga community are descendants of these relocated Islanders. These were the islands’ worst major floods in living memory – elderly Islanders pass on stories of the fearful event.

Each new flood, like the ones in 2005 (Mer) and in 2006 (Boigu and Saibai, Poruma, Iama, Masig and Warraber), brings back old fears. The waters are coming closer and closer. Every aspect of life is affected, from subsistence hunting, to commercial fishing, to sewage and infrastructure. Churches and schools. An elder, well-versed in the sea, looks at the water and feels as if they don’t know it anymore.

In 2012, Saibai island was once again hit by high tides that swamped the cemetery, damaging sacred gravesites. Through Nancy’s voice I got a glimpse of the extreme community distress that results from the degradation of graveyards and other significant sites like story places and midden deposits. She described sandbagging graves to save their beloved dead from the sea. These desperate efforts are not always successful. On other islands, such as Iama (Yam), homes are frequently taken hostage by the sea. If no conservation measures are taken it could mean living here will no longer be safe.

Will Torres Strait Islanders again be forced away from their homes? It’s already happening in the seas around us about the Pacific Marshall Islands and Kiribati. Interviewed by The Guardian earlier this year, filmmaker Jack Niedenthal questioned what leaving might mean to island people: “If the land doesn’t exist, what happens to these people for whom the land is the most integral thing?

For many Torres Strait Islanders, moving off their islands is the “last resort”. Cultural practices and traditional activities cannot occur (ideally) without the context of the islands where these people’s ancestors were born. As Fred Gela, Mayor of the Torres Strait Island Regional Council, says in the Koori Mail: “the land and sea in the Torres Strait is a critical part of our spiritual and physical identity.” Islanders forced to move to mainland Australia, like the community that relocated to Bamaga, may create potential cultural conflicts.

A few months after Nancy Bamaga spoke in Brisbane, the residents on Saibai got some long-awaited news. To try and prevent a last resort action and to assist in the survival of cultures unique to Queensland and the world, the federal and Queensland state governments invested $26 million in seawall infrastructure for six islands most at risk. The process of building and maintaining the sea walls is ongoing and will be much needed for communities who had been campaigning for years. Recent administrative delays added to the frustration of communities who often feel their struggle to save their homes are going unnoticed. Despite efforts and constant campaigning to raise awareness of their growing despair, they feel their voices are being enveloped by the tide.

The magpie geese

what is the worth of

the sound of a bird

when the bird

no longer exists?

Tony Birch “Out There” (2015)

Like the Torres Strait Islands, the threat of rising sea levels and warmer seas will soon devastate northern Australia. This will mean a change of abundance or location of animals and plants and affect co-dependent relationships with Aboriginal people. The Murrumbur people from Kakadu are noticing the effect of salt-water intrusion on the availability of traditional foods. Balanced country is particularly important to sustaining populations of magpie geese in Kakadu.

Australia has many beautiful distinct birds at risk of population decline, not all of which can fit onto postcards. The magpie goose is one of these birds whose story goes mostly untold in mainstream Australia but has a central place for many Aboriginal societies. Magpie geese once were common in southern Australia before European settlement, abundant in swamps in places such as Melbourne, and in coastal areas and inland river floodplains in places such as central-west New South Wales. In the early 1900s clearing for agriculture and wetlands removal has made these regions unvisitable for the birds.

Today their range covers northern Australia from Broome to Brisbane, where I live. Bigargin is our Yugambeh word for the waterbird. Like the magpie, magpie geese are black and white. They are sturdy birds with long black necks and long orange legs and are referred to as a “living fossil” – the family diverging before the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction and preceding ducks, geese and swans.

The late wet season between February and April is a special time in the Top End wetlands, where up to 30,000 birds can gather. The birds develop family relationships of mostly two females and one male and raise their young.

The Top End identifies strongly with the magpie goose and they are a big part of culture. As a totemic bird, it has its own paintings and ceremonies, and they are important bush tucker. Hunting magpie geese assists the transfer of skills and knowledge from one generation to the next and fulfil kinship obligations. Murrumburr people hunt magpie geese by various means: throwing well-timed sticks while the birds are in the air, stalking and hand-catching underwater using hollow reeds as snorkels. They are usually roasted; the eggs are also eaten. Hunting trips play a great role in cultural cohesion, social interactions, and are part of looking after country. At the same time Traditional Owners monitor environmental threats and practice traditional burning around floodplains. Seventy per cent of the geese population in the Territory during the dry season live in habitats less than one metre above sea level. The northern coast is at risk of seas rising at four times the global average, partly because shallower seas are more prone to expansion through heat. As Stephen Garnett of Charles Darwin University explains:

As sea levels rise, the big spectacles will go. The wetlands of Kakadu will no longer be much of a tourist attraction. They will be invaded by sea salt. There’s some evidence that it is already occurring.

The birds will also stop visiting as frequent cyclones change their habitat. It took three decades for the mangroves of Darwin to recover after Cyclone Tracy, as further research conducted by Charles Darwin University has discovered. The findings show forests are dependent on an exact tide elevation which means “even small rises in sea level will throw the balance into chaos, diminishing marine, plant, mammal and bird biodiversity.”

The harvest of magpie geese has been estimated to contribute as much as $1.2 million a year to the NT economy, based on a market value of $20 per bird and 60,000 birds. Bush tucker is nutritious and food that does not have to be transported in. Loss of tourism is also big concern for many Aboriginal communities, including the Murrumburr people.

Twenty per cent of the bird population in northern Australia are at risk of dramatic decline in the next few decades, and the magpie geese are one of them. They have already lost their southern habitats – will they lose another? How will First Nations people cope with the loss of totemic species so integral to their lives?

Many eagles protecting our country

First Nations Australians often look at our totemic animals for guidance in tough times. On my way to a white learning institution in inner-city Melbourne I stopped to notice a statue dedicated to the eagle totem Bunjil towering over the street. I paid attention as Yugambeh people also see our Mibin as looking over our country from the sky. Eagles – big, majestic birds – high-flying over land have provided inspiration for nations across the country from coast to desert. Uncle Tony Birch explains the widespread message of Bunjil in Victoria on Weather Stations:

The story simply stated, within Aboriginal culture, is that Bunjil the Eagle watches over all children from the sky and endeavours to keep them safe. This is not simply a “fairytale” or folklore (in a dismissive sense). The story of Bunjil has vital meaning in contemporary Australia for Aboriginal people. The story also acts as a guiding point for the sustenance of all peoples and the environment. The Bunjil story within Koori (Aboriginal) communities in Victoria comes with a high level of responsibility. It is incumbent upon adults and parents to care for our children. It is important that we provide them with education. That we nurture them both emotionally and intellectually. In return, we hope that when our children grow, they will accept the responsibility of caring for each other and the environment.

With interconnected relationships to land, identity is island, river, mangroves, forest and desert; identity is magpie geese, emu and spinifex.

When a child’s learning is the land, disappearing land means knowledge can no longer be passed down. A child loses its education – the equivalent of libraries, textbooks turning to dust. Murri writer Melissa Lucashenko speaks often about how important identity is to the mental, physical and emotional health of all Indigenous Australians, but especially the young. With interconnected relationships to land, identity is island, river, mangroves, forest and desert; identity is magpie geese, emu and spinifex.

It is fundamental that future Indigenous Australians can receive knowledge about how to live. This can only occur if we take the right steps to ensure our places are protected. “Language is fossil poetry” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, and indeed Aboriginal languages hold the most valuable and longest record of land and how to live on it. We must endeavour to retain language as if it is water.

A different kind of weather

Aboriginal knowledge and land management practices may have prevented recent natural disasters, or at least reduced their impacts. Kaurna philosopher, Uncle Lewis O’Brien, is critical, for example, of the lack of a coordinated approach to contemporary flooding events:

The Pitjantjatjara knew in 2008 the River Murray would flood in 2010. The Pitjantjatjara knowledge wouldn’t have stopped the flooding, but it could have reduced the flood damage by way of more time being available to take precautions. And if Indigenous environmental knowledge was more readily available they would have been forewarned and let the water go from the Wivenhoe Dam and this would have reduced the damage to the flooded areas of Queensland.

Indeed, to only look at a 250 year-old weather record where Indigenous Australians have kept oral records of such events is short-sighted. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders ideas of weather, and the weather in most parts of Australia, don’t fit into the neat, European model of four seasons. Like Goanna Season (in Arrernte country after “winter”, around September, when goannas come out) all First Nations have their own concepts and ways to talk about the weather.

In the desert country in Central Australia what are countrymen and women noticing? What uncertainty has crept in the homelands? Have soft eyes seen everything or is this “a different kind of weather”? Like the elder who gazes at the unrecognisable sea in the Torres Strait, reading testimonials of desert people dealing with fast-changing climate, the sad confusion they are facing can be easily imagined.

There are different types of fire now because of the different grasses, like buffel grass. The fires are hotter and fiercer and this affects what’s happening up in the sky, it affects the weather. Now it’s hard to know when to burn. (Eastern Arrernte elder)

Sometimes plants don’t seem to grow back after fire now, or they take a long time to grow back. Even the little grasses don’t seem to grow so much after fire now. At the right time of year, the dew used to help them grow. (Eastern Arrernte elder)

In goanna season nothing was fat…. Bush tucker from trees is not coming in right seasons; not many bush bananas – not coming at the time we need them, after the wet. Wet was late bush tucker missed time to come out. Bush potato comes in winter-time. Last year we couldn’t see the cracks … Weather is changing, winter is shorter … One month ago went over 100kms to get kangaroo – nothing; and no goannas. No bush tucker – bush orange, bush banana. (Trisha Frank, Mt Isa region)

At some time last year the weather messed up the time we’d go for bush tucker. Normally when rain came in Dec/Jan we get Feb, Mar and April to go hunt goanna, bush tucker, but this year we got one lot of rain, brought all that bush tucker up and then next rain washed them off. We only had first lot. But our old people say that the first lot are for the birds and animals and the second lot are for us. But there was nothing for us because the second lot of rain came [and ruined them]. (Jennifer Mahoney, Alpurrurulam)

These are disturbing images of country changing too quickly. It now feels foreign to those who know it best. Despite a history of marginalisation, scientists are realising the powerful messages of elders and Aboriginal people living on country, and the benefit of adding their voices to facts. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction describes the recent theory that we are amongst the sixth extinction event and aren’t even noticing it. The book has a frog on the front cover, as frogs form an important part of the warning. But even forward-looking climate research like this is still behind, as Uncle Lewis describes:

I was influenced by my aunt, Aunty Vera, who used to say to me, “Lewis, where’ve all the frogs gone?” She said that to me for 40 years and I didn’t do anything about it. Then I realised the university was starting to talk about frogs missing and I thought she was well ahead of her field, 40 years ahead of her time.

Living connected to country, there’s no wonder Traditional Owners are steps ahead of science. Indigenous Knowledges are old knowledges. They are accumulated through years of trial and error. They should be valued for what they are, a tool to meet the challenges of a changing climate.

Traditional knowledge is an underutilised resource in national climate change mitigation efforts.

Multi-nation thinking

The country is like the body. You say your ankles are sore and stiff, but it originates in your hips and starts to affect your back and knees. Uncle Lewis talks of “a multi-nation” approach to climate, where Indigenous Nations worked together to care for the land and prevent disasters and waste. He points to the movement of wind and cloud from Western Australia to South Australia as just one way the country works like the body. First Nations engaged in “co-operative thinking” – the movement of winds and clouds across Western Australia to South Australia is dependent on growing trees in certain places and lighting fires in certain times: “When they cut trees down at Cummins (in WA), the rainfall fell or was reduced (in SA). So we got an indicator that’s factual and we got to look at this.”

Traditional knowledge is an underutilised resource in national climate change mitigation efforts. Not only is Indigenous knowledge rarely used for the prevention or lessening of natural disasters, the current legal system does not adequately recognise or protect Indigenous Australians’ knowledge. There is only limited legal opportunity to protect indigenous peoples’ rights to maintain biodiversity practices.

The inability to adapt to climate-related changes with neighbours is also a problem for the Torres Strait Islanders, as travelling between islands has also been affected by the sea levels. In the past, Islanders were linked economically and socially through a maritime trading network between the islands, just as they were linked with Papua New Guinea and Cape York Aboriginal communities.

Climate related problems require holistic thinking. There are examples where Indigenous knowledge and science are matching up to find solutions. In magpie geese country in the Top End, a collaboration between traditional knowledge and science has become a government-recognised model for “two tool box” approaches to climate change. Almost a decade ago, five Aboriginal land management groups from the West Arnhem land developed a plan to address the damaging effects of late dry season wildfire. Up to a third of the Northern Territory was burnt every year and burning is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases in the Territory. The West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project began in 2006 and draws on the thousands of years of local experience in expertly managing the tropical savannas. Strategic fire management practices protect the biodiversity of the land and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The WALFA project has met its reduction target by 140 per cent and the problems caused by the most fire-prone landscape on earth have been mitigated after being put back in the right hands. Similar strategies are being adopted in the Kimberley, Carpentaria and the Cape York Peninsula. There are many initiatives taking place today that use this model.

Greater understanding and application of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and practices will help with future challenges. The Njadjuri people of South Australia were described as “weather prophets” by early settlers for instinctively moving before the weather events like floods. We need our weather prophets now more than ever.

If Australia does respond to climate change, but does so without seeking the input of its Indigenous people, this response will be perpetuating this country’s colonial history.


The UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues is concerned about the huge challenges Indigenous people face and warns that these communities can’t do it on their own: “Indigenous people have the smallest ecological footprints in the world’s communities and should not be asked to carry the heaviest burden of adjusting to climate change.”

The Torres Strait and Northern Australia face threats to unique ways of life that will mirror challenges faced by our central and southern Indigenous Australians. Climate change challenges Indigenous identities.

Recognising the need for action to safeguard these identities is only the beginning. Indigenous culture needs to do more than just motivate a response to climate change; it needs to be a part of any response. Innovation and resilience have buoyed efforts in the past. They are needed now. If Australia does respond to climate change, but does so without seeking the input of its Indigenous people, this response will be perpetuating this country’s colonial history.

With advocacy, from Nancy Bamaga’s community speeches, Uncle Tony Birch’s persuasive writing online, Uncle Lewis O’Brien’s call for multi-nation thinking, there is a chance to combine non-Indigenous and Indigenous effort in the most useful ways for this time.

As I listened to Nancy Bamaga that night at Kurilpa, I also felt the Brisbane river’s presence, so close. So loud. This is a river I’ve spent my life near but in truth I know so very little about its survival.

Listening is a first act of learning, and through learning we become not only aware, but appreciative of what is, and always has been, around us. I sensed the other people around me that night, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, may have also found their own passages to water through her words.