Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

1 in 10 Children Affected by Bushfires Is Indigenous. We’ve Been Ignoring Them for Too Long

Insights + Opinion
1 in 10 Children Affected by Bushfires Is Indigenous. We’ve Been Ignoring Them for Too Long
A schoolchildren crossing sign is seen in front of burned trees in Mallacoota, Australia on Jan. 15, 2020. Luis Ascui / Getty Images

By Bhiamie Williamson, Francis Markham and Jessica Weir

The catastrophic bushfire season is officially over, but governments, agencies and communities have failed to recognize the specific and disproportionate impact the fires have had on Aboriginal peoples.


Addressing this in bushfire response and recovery is part of Unfinished Business: the work needed for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to meet on more just terms.

In our recent study, we found more than one quarter of the Indigenous population in New South Wales and Victoria live in a fire-affected area. That's more than 84,000 people. What's more, one in ten infants and children affected by the fires is Indigenous.

But in past bushfire inquires and royal commissions, Aboriginal people have been mentioned only sparingly. When referenced now, it's only in relation to cultural burning or cultural heritage. This must change.

Bushfire Residents

Indigenous people comprise only 2.3% of the total population of NSW and Victoria. But they make up nearly 5.4% of the 1.55 million people living in fire-affected areas of these states.

And of the total Indigenous population in fire-affected areas, 36% are less than 15 years old. This is a major concern for delivering health services and education after bushfires have struck.

Importantly, where Indigenous people live has a marked spatial pattern.

There are 22 discrete Aboriginal communities in rural fire-affected areas. Of these, 20 are in NSW, often former mission lands where people were forcibly moved or camps established by Aboriginal peoples.

Ten percent of Indigenous people in fire-affected areas in NSW and Victoria live in these communities.

And those living in larger towns and urban areas aren't evenly distributed. For example, Indigenous people comprise 10.6% of residents in fire-affected Nowra–Bomaderry, compared with 1.9% of residents in fire-affected Bowral–Mittagong.

These statistics are steeped in histories and geographies that need to directly inform where and how services are delivered.

Indigenous Rights and Interests

Aboriginal people hold significant legal rights and interests over lands and waters in the fire-affected areas. These are recognized by state, federal or common law. This includes native title, land acquired through the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act or lands covered by Registered Aboriginal Parties in Victoria.

Even where there's no formal recognition, all fire-affected lands have Aboriginal ownership held and passed down through songlines, languages and kinship networks.

Areas in NSW and Victoria burnt and affected by fires of 250 ha or more, July 1, 2019 to January 23, 2020, and Aboriginal legal interests in land. Author provided

The nature of these legal rights and interests means the bushfires have different consequences for Aboriginal rights-holders than for non-Indigenous landowners.

Many non-Indigenous landowners in the fire-affected areas face the difficult decision of whether to stay and rebuild, or sell and move on. Traditional owners, on the other hand, are in a far more complex and unending situation.

Traditional owners carry intergenerational responsibilities, practices and more that have been formed with the places they know as their Country.

They can leave and live on someone else's Country, but their Country and any formally recognized communal land and water rights remain in the fire-affected area.

Relegated to the Past

Clearly, Aboriginal people have unique experiences with bushfire disasters, but Aboriginal voices have seldom been heard in the recovery processes that follow.

The McLeod Inquiry, which followed the 2003 Canberra bushfires and the 2009 Black Saturday Royal Commission – were critical processes of reflection and recovery for the nation. Even in these landmark reports, references to Aboriginal people are almost completely absent.

There were only four brief mentions across three volumes of the Black Saturday Royal Commission. Two were cultural heritage protections discussions in relation to pre-bushfire season preparation, and two were historical references to past burning practices.

In other words, Aboriginal people – their cultural practices, ways of life and land management techniques – are relegated to the past.

This approach must change to acknowledge that Aboriginal people are present in contemporary society, and have distinct experiences with bushfire disasters.

More Than Cultural Burning

This year, we've seen strong interest in Aboriginal people's fire management, including in the early months of the federal royal commission, and in NSW and Victoria state inquiries.

But including Aboriginal voices only in regards to cultural burning is deeply problematic. Yet, it's an emerging trend – not only in these official responses, but in the media.

This narrowly defined scope precludes the suite of concerns Aboriginal people bring to bushfire risk matters. Their concerns go across the natural hazard sector's spectrum of preparation, planning, response and recovery.

Aboriginal people need to be part of the broad conversation that bushfire decision-makers, researchers and the public sector are having.

Amplifying Aboriginal Voices

To date, Victoria offers the most substantial effort to include Aboriginal voices by establishing an Aboriginal reference group to work alongside the bushfire recovery agency. But Aboriginal people require a much stronger presence in every facet of these state and national inquiries.

We identify three foundational steps:

  1. Acknowledge that Aboriginal people have been erased, made absent and marginalized in previous bushfire recovery efforts, and identify and address why this continues to happen.
  2. Establish non-negotiable instructions for including Aboriginal people in the terms of reference and membership of post-bushfire inquiries.
  3. Establish Aboriginal representation on relevant government committees involved in decision-making, planning and implementation of disaster risk management.

The continued marginalization of Aboriginal people diminishes all of us – in terms of our values in living within a just society.

It was never acceptable to silence Aboriginal people in responses to major disasters. It's incumbent upon us all to ensure these colonial practices of erasure and marginalization are relegated to the past.

Bhiamie Williamson is a research associate & Ph.D. candidate at Australian National University.

Francis Markham is a research fellow at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University.

Jessica WeirSenior is a research fellow at Western Sydney University.

Disclosure statements: Bhiamie Williamson is a member of the ACT Bushfire Council. Jessica Weir receives funding from Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Francis Markham does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

This image of the Santa Monica Mountains in California shows how a north-facing slope (left) can be covered in white-blooming hoaryleaf ceanothus (Ceanothus crassifolius), while the south-facing slope (right) is much less sparsely covered in a completely different plant. Noah Elhardt / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.5

By Mark Mancini

If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.

Read More Show Less
Flames from the Lake Fire burn on a hillside near a fire truck and other vehicles on Aug. 12, 2020 in Lake Hughes, California. Mario Tama / Getty Images

An "explosive" wildfire ignited in Los Angeles county Wednesday, growing to 10,000 acres in a little less than three hours.

Read More Show Less
Although heat waves rarely get the attention that hurricanes do, they kill far more people per year in the U.S. and abroad. greenaperture / Getty Images

By Jeff Berardelli

Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020

If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

Read More Show Less

A film by Felix Nuhr.

Thailand has a total population of 5,000 elephants. But of that number, 3,000 live in captivity, carrying tourists on their backs and offering photo opportunities made for social media.

Read More Show Less
Scientists have found a way to use bricks as batteries, meaning that buildings may one day be used to store and generate power. Public Domain Pictures

One of the challenges of renewable power is how to store clean energy from the sun, wind and geothermal sources. Now, a new study and advances in nanotechnology have found a method that may relieve the burden on supercapacitor storage. This method turns bricks into batteries, meaning that buildings themselves may one day be used to store and generate power, Science Times reported.

Bricks are a preferred building tool for their durability and resilience against heat and frost since they do not shrink, expand or warp in a way that compromises infrastructure. They are also reusable. What was unknown, until now, is that they can be altered to store electrical energy, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.

The scientists behind the study figured out a way to modify bricks in order to use their iconic red hue, which comes from hematite, an iron oxide, to store enough electricity to power devices, Gizmodo reported. To do that, the researchers filled bricks' pores with a nanofiber made from a conducting plastic that can store an electrical charge.

The first bricks they modified stored enough of a charge to power a small light. They can be charged in just 13 minutes and hold 10,000 charges, but the challenge is getting them to hold a much larger charge, making the technology a distant proposition.

If the capacity can be increased, researchers believe bricks can be used as a cheap alternative to lithium ion batteries — the same batteries used in laptops, phones and tablets.

The first power bricks are only one percent of a lithium-ion battery, but storage capacity can be increased tenfold by adding materials like metal oxides, Julio D'Arcy, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who contributed to the paper and was part of the research team, told The Guardian. But only when the storage capacity is scaled up would bricks become commercially viable.

"A solar cell on the roof of your house has to store electricity somewhere and typically we use batteries," D'Arcy told The Guardian. "What we have done is provide a new 'food-for-thought' option, but we're not there yet.

"If [that can happen], this technology is way cheaper than lithium ion batteries," D'Arcy added. "It would be a different world and you would not hear the words 'lithium ion battery' again."

Aerial view of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa, Panama, where a new soil study was held, on Sept. 11, 2019. LUIS ACOSTA / AFP via Getty Images

One of the concerns about a warming planet is the feedback loop that will emerge. That is, as the planet warms, it will melt permafrost, which will release trapped carbon and lead to more warming and more melting. Now, a new study has shown that the feedback loop won't only happen in the nether regions of the north and south, but in the tropics as well, according to a new paper in Nature.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during a press conference after a shooting at Forest High School on April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Florida. Gerardo Mora / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

A sheriff in Florida is under fire for deciding Tuesday to ban his deputies from wearing face masks while on the job—ignoring the advice of public health experts about the safety measures that everyone should take during the coronavirus pandemic as well as the rising Covid-19 death toll in his county and state.

Read More Show Less