Indigenous Institutions and Climate Change Adaptation

Research theme: 
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Project background

Native title holders have communal responsibility for managing climate change risk, as well as cultural knowledge that can contribute to the understanding of and adaptation to climate change. The key agent for this climate change work is their corporate entity — the Registered Native Title Body Corporate (RNTBC). Emphasis in the literature has been placed on Indigenous peoples’ vulnerability to climate change without engaging with Indigenous peoples’ agency in climate change adaptation. As a new governance sector, the role of RNTBCs is little known, unclear in relation to existing bodies, and hampered by the absence of funding. The policy and funding marginalisation of RNTBCs, combined with their key governance role, has great potential for maladaptation. There is insufficient research being conducted into how native title holders have responded or want to respond to climate change. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) will investigate how current institutional arrangements can better facilitate Indigenous participation and decision-making through two collaborative community case studies in Bidyadanga in the Kimberley and Kowanyama in Queensland. The project uses interdisciplinary and community driven research to innovatively consider the role of native title holders as agents for effective and equitable adaptation to climate change.

Project objectives

The objectives of this research project are:

  • to understand the barriers facing native title holders and RNTBCs in facilitating community driven climate change adaptation
  • what will help them to achieve this goal
  • to develop best practice for climate change decision-making.

The project will investigate:

  • Indigenous understandings of resilience and climate change adaptation
  • the potential to express such values and practices in relation to resources
  • opportunities, and institutional arrangements that affect climate change decision-making.

In particular, the research will consider interrelationships between culture, social practice and forms of decision-making, and the legitimacy of the decision makers in the native title context. The project will engage with native title holders and their RNTBCs, through negotiated research agreements that ensure effective community engagement and that the research meets community aspirations, objectives and protocols. Strategies adopted in this project include support for community liaison officers, the 'work-shopping' of research design and research outcomes, joint publications and presentations, the development of a community report to inform Indigenous participants of project outcomes, and a series of stakeholder workshops.

Photo gallery

Project news

June 2013

Tran Tran, Jessica Weir and Anna Dwyer presented at the NCCARF Conference in Sydney, 25–27 June 2013. Their presentation titled ‘Indigenous intercultural governance and climate change’ was presented as a poster and a short speed-talk. There were many similarities between the AIATSIS project and other Indigenous research highlighting the need to engage with  holistic community-based priorities before issues of adaptation could be addressed.

Download a copy of the Indigenous intercultural governance and adaptation poster

March 2013

Joseph Edgar, Gordon Marshall Teddy Bernard and Rodney Whitfield came to Canberra in March to participate in a final project seminar on 26 March 2013. The seminar provided a great opportunity to speak to a policy and academic audience about project findings and outcomes. As Rodney said:  'lets hope Oswald does not have any brothers or sisters'.

February 2013

Claire Stacey and Anna Dwyer presented research findings to the directors of the KTLA in Bidyadanga on 20 February 2013. This meeting formed a part of the final community visit for the project where research materials and results were returned to the traditional owners. The directors were happy to see the project documented in the community report and were keen to have more research carried out into how the KTLA can better integrate their land management aspirations to meet the challenges created by climate change. The directors wanted to see the research contribute to better policy-making with respect to RNTBCs and their involvement in decision making processes affecting adaptation activities.

January 2013

On 21 January 2013, Tran Tran and Gabrielle Lauder travelled by plane to Kowanyama to return research materials and results to the Kowanyama community. Unfortunately, Tran and Gabe were unable to land due to damage caused to the Kowanyama runway by Cyclone Oswald.

December 2012

A Karajarri climate change meeting was held on the 14 August in Bidyadanga community, Western Australia. The meeting combined two NCCARF projects: 'Changes to Country and Culture, Changes to Climate: strengthening institutions for  Indigenous resilience and adaptation' (AIATSIS); and 'Learning from the past adapting to the future: Identifying pathways to successful adaptation in Indigenous Communities' (University of Melbourne).

The meeting focused on learning about Karajarri priorities and how they can be used in climate change adaptation strategies. This included understanding the impacts of increased risk of cyclones and storm surges from climate change to Karajarri country and learning about what the Karajarri people want to do about climate change, who they need to speak to and the things that need to be changed for action to happen (including the KTLA relationship with the Bidyadanga Community Council). Throughout the day the KTLA identified a range of impacts to Karajarri country from climate change. Each impact was then linked to a relevant government stakeholder and discussed in reflection with the current capacity of the KTLA.

The identified stakeholders were then invited to attend a stakeholder meeting planned for October 2012, but this was unable to go ahead due to a death in the community. However, discussions between AIATSIS and the KTLA continued, particularly regarding the decision-making process for the KTLA in deciding whether to declare an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) on their country.

AIATSIS has also employed Anna Dwyer from the Nulungu Centre for Indigenous Studies at Notre Dame University in Broome, as a community researcher. Anna has been busy interviewing KTLA directors, Bidyadanga Councillors and Bidyadanga council staff to collate in-depth perspectives on the current role of KTLA in decision-making processes for Karajarri country, as well as opportunities for the future.

June 2012

A project workshop entitled 'Changes to country and culture, changes to climate: reflections on Indigenous resilience and adaptation', was convened by Dr Jessica Weir and Tran Tran at the Native Title Conference in Townsville in June 2012. It was chaired by Professor Marcia Langton and included presentations by traditional owners from the Karajarri Traditional Lands Association (KTLA)  as well as Abm Elgoring Ambung and Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC (with Sonia Leonard from the University of Melbourne).

Dr Weir and Tran also presented on the interrelationships between native title and climate change, and the presentations were followed by questions from the floor. AIATSIS developed a workshop report, which was published in October 2012, discussing Indigenous adaptation to climate change; how climate change will affect Indigenous cultural practices; how the general institutional marginalisation of RNTBCs extends to the climate change context; and Indigenous challenges to climate change literature.

February 2012

Tran Tran and Jessica Weir travelled to Kowanyama to work with the Abm Elgoring Ambung RNTBC, which was formed in September 2009 after a successful determination of native title over the traditional lands of the Yir Yoront, the Kokoberra and Kunjen, in Kowanyama People v State of Queensland [2009] FCA 1192. Kowanyama has a long history of asserting its independence and practising ‘sovereignty’ in its decisions about land management, research, and the development of community capacity and resources. Before native title, a significant amount of land management work has been carried out and supported by the Kowanyama Natural Resources Land Management Office. Despite being, one of more developed and independent communities in the Western Cape the community is still threatened by the centralisation of community councils under the Local Government (Community Government Areas) Act 2004 (Qld).

Increasing government pressure on Indigenous organisations undermines the ability of communities to manage their land and natural resources. The health of Country and the strength of culture — and the important links between them — are also threatened by the changes to the climate and environment that are occurring in the region. Tran worked with the directors of the Abm Elgoring Ambung RNTBC, Darby Horace, Glenette Greenwool, Anzac Frank, Michael Yam, Teddy Bernard, Raven Greenwool and Charlotte Yam, Evelyn Birchley, and its general manager Rodney Whitfield. They discussed the vision and operations of the RNTBC, and the institutional environment in which their native title work is framed.

Native title holders are expected to maintain their traditional lands without adequate support or investment in their RNTBC. Rodney suggested that native title can be compared to a poorly made house:

Normally you dig in the ground, and put in the foundations to make sure there is good support and structure to build a house. But the Native Title Act has built the roof with no walls or foundations. There is nothing holding it up.

The trip was a great opportunity to meet with the directors of the RNTBC and learn about their experiences and aspirations as the traditional owners of Kowanyama.

October 2011

Dr Jessica Weir and Tran Tran travelled to Broome and Bidyadanga in October 2011 to discuss the research project and the outcomes that the KTLA wanted to achieve. They met with Mervyn Mulardy Jnr and Joe Edgar from the KTLA at Notre Dame University in Broome and with Thomas King, KTLA ranger coordinator in Bidyadanga to discuss the objectives of the climate change project and present the research agreement for consideration.


Last reviewed: 26 Jun 2015