After the bushfires: The absence of First Nations’ voices

Although there is a broader interest in the value of First Nations’ cultural burning for bushfire prevention, there have been limited resources published about First Nations peoples’ experiences during and after the most recent Australian bushfires. Carissa Lee Godwin, Editor, APO’s First Peoples & Public Policy Collection, reports on the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research’s investigation of how the 2019–2020 bushfires have impacted First Nations residents.

Garigal National Park, Saint Ives, Australia
Garigal National Park, Saint Ives, Australia

Euahlayi man Bhiamie Williamson, Jessica Weir and Francis Markham wrote the Aboriginal peoples and the response to the 2019-2020 bushfires exploratory report for the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) on how the bushfires have impacted First Nations residents in New South Wales and Victoria from July 2019 to January 2020.

Citing First Nations peoples’ accounts, census figures and geographic data, their research reiterates the significance of First Nations’ connection to land, and the extent to which they have been affected by the bushfires. In addition to this, the authors discuss how First Nations peoples have been excluded from past policy decisions regarding bushfires.

Key report findings

The report found that the impact of the bushfires for First Nations peoples was significant and very differently experienced compared to non-Indigenous people in a variety of ways. It is important to note that if, due to fire damage, Traditional Owners of the land were compelled to relocate to another Mob’s Country (Mob referring to different First Nations language groups), any respective formally recognised land and water rights would be left behind in their fire-affected Country.

The report makes the following key findings:

  1. First Nations comprise nearly 5.4 per cent of the 1.55 million people living in fire-affected areas. First Nations in NSW and Victoria are proportionally more highly represented in the residential bushfire-affected areas than non-Indigenous peoples.
  2. First Nations peoples are at risk of being overlooked in bushfire responses due to their low-recorded census numbers in affected areas.
  3. The diverse effects of bushfires on children is a significant concern, with more than one-tenth of children in the bushfire-affected areas identifying as Indigenous.

Key recommendations

The report states that although there was an interest in First Nations peoples’ input with topics like bushfire prevention, there needs to be an acknowledgment of how these bushfires effect Mob: “Recent public calls to learn from Aboriginal people’s fire practices should not be separated from Aboriginal peoples’ lived experiences as residents, distinct communities and First Peoples.”

The report makes the following recommendations:

  1. First Nations peoples’ voices need to be included in deciding what policy and practice is to be implemented in response to these bushfires.
  2. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the erasure of First Nations’ input in previous bushfire recovery efforts, and identification of where change is needed to ensure their voices are included in future processes.
  3. First Nations representation needs to be established and involved in decision-making, planning and implementation of disaster risk management alongside relevant government committees.

Taking into consideration First Nations peoples’ experiences and traumas during bushfires, this is an integral step toward not only improving bushfire prevention, but to ensuring that the past mistake of excluding their input is not repeated.

Foliage regrowing after bushfire: Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia
Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia

From crisis to collaboration

The report recommends that First Nations peoples’ voices be included in Australian disaster prevention, including but not limited to, future policy and program decisions surrounding bushfire prevention and management. This is a great opportunity for a collaboration across cultures in discovering new and learning old ways of managing bushfire-prone lands.

In the past, First Nations peoples’ input, and specific cultural impact in natural disasters, has often been overlooked or diluted and their voices lost in the broad term “community” with no individual needs identified. This report states that it needs to be acknowledged and respected that “the relationships between First Peoples and Country are not only a matter of legal rights and interests, but also form an important part of social, cultural and political life.”

About the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection

As part of its mission to improve Indigenous policy in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG)  is working to increase knowledge of Indigenous culture and history. One way that is is being achieved is through the support of the APO  First Peoples & Public Policy Collection, launched at the ANZSOG Reimagining Public Administration conference in February 2019.

The First Peoples & Public Policy Collection is curated from a broad selection of key Indigenous policy topics, and provides a valuable resource on Indigenous affairs, with a focus on diverse Indigenous voices.