Climate change is putting indigenous communities across the country in danger of extinction. It’s also the story of thousands of Aboriginal people and their lives on the margins of mainstream society, forced to live “off-grid” to survive.
“In a society where we’re told we’re nothing because of our culture, our oral traditions, our beliefs, it feels like we’re powerless to do anything about these things,” acknowledges Annamie Paul, a Q-warwanga man from in the Kimberley in Western Australia.
“The climate emergency has become such a disaster that it has led to me wanting to leave the country.
“At the moment, I can’t tell you why I’m leaving, but I know it’s a decision that’s going to have to be made because I just feel like there is a point that it has to come to for me to think.”
After 25 years of living with the impacts of climate change, Mrs Paul decided it was time to leave her homelands and seek a lifestyle more aligned with the conditions of Aboriginal life on the mainland, even as it proved to be a battle against frustration.
“That’s the big push now for my people, not to be as marginalised as they are now,” says Mrs Paul.
“We have to get our land back, we have to get our culture back, we have to get our way back onto the mainland so that we can live the life that our culture deserves to be living, with the same women with the same responsibilities.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are more susceptible to experiencing high rates of diabetes, unemployment, and suicide than other Australians. Native communities disproportionately represent health problems across a range of illnesses due to inadequate access to healthcare services and clean water.
At a national conference in Perth in May, the Child Health Institute released a new paper, Environmental Health in Indigenous People, which further explains how environmental issues such as climate change, fisheries collapse, and erosion are impacting Aboriginal communities.
One of the authors of the paper, Dr Alison Kennett, highlights the pressure to change their culture and lifestyles because of missing water supplies, health issues and the dismantling of rainwater tanks.
“People with Aboriginal heritage are already vulnerable,” says Dr Kennett.
“But they are making the connection to those environmental factors and not feeling so disconnected as much now.
“They don’t have any choice, the system is forcing them out on the streets.”
Mrs Paul has also strongly linked climate change and the removal of the rainwater systems in his homelands.
As part of the Kimberley Climate Emergency campaign, in August 2014 Mr Paul planted 300,000 trees in the Jerramungup National Park, with the aim of protecting the environment and providing drinking water to Aboriginal communities when the water supply dries up due to climate change.
The tree planting was a testament to Annamie Paul’s belief that forest health is vital to the way the Kimberley is managed and to maintain the ecological integrity of the environment. It is the first time indigenous people have worked closely with the Forest Department to protect the country.
“We don’t want the Kimberley to be a different place again,” says Mrs Paul.
“We want it to be a place that’s reflective of how our people were reintegrated on the land.
“That would mean really extending our communities and the ways that we manage our food, our environment and really care for our people.”
Annamie Paul and hundreds of thousands of other indigenous people are dealing with the significant impact of climate change in a cycle of denial. In choosing to leave their homelands, Mrs Paul, and her peers, are illustrating a pattern of action to save our climate that identifies Aboriginal people as key and critical players.
As she speaks about climate change, Mrs Paul and her generation need to look past the damage being done to their bodies and start looking toward tomorrow and the dangers that await us if we do not act now.
WATCH My War on the Mountain by Annamie Paul
Climate change has made a strong impact on Aborigines Read more
The truth about Aboriginal Australia and climate change – from Mucca Ralph of the Australasian Research in Aboriginal Peoples
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