The inaugural First Peoples Forum for Oceania, held in Mission Beach, attracted Indigenous speakers from the frontlines of climate change – Fiji, Solomon Islands, New Zealand and North Queensland.
They had a powerful message for governments everywhere: First Peoples must be included in climate change decisions and their traditional knowledge must be respected.
That call will now be heard at COP 27, the UN climate change conference to be held in Egypt this November.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) supported the First Peoples Forum, hosted by Girringun Aboriginal Corporation.
“We brought people together to unify as one group of First Peoples across this region, to have one voice in places that matter – at the United Nations, at the COP, at international forums. First Peoples need to be represented,” said Cliff Cobbo, Manager Indigenous Engagement, WWF-Australia.
Attendees shared their stories about life in the face of a climate emergency.
“In my village we’ve lost a lot. Many coconut trees have disappeared and the sea level rise is so high that it’s really damaged some of our mangroves. We feel very frightened,” said Rindah Melsen, President of the Nusatuva Women’s Community Saving Club, Solomon Islands.
Lavenia Naivalu is the first female community leader in Fiji’s history. All the women in the seven villages in her Nacula District plant mangroves once a month to prevent coastal erosion, relying on traditional knowledge from village Elders.
“Governments must involve grass roots people in decision making. At the end of the day, we are the ones who are fighting, we are the ones who are victims of climate change effects,” she said.
A message echoed by Seru Moce, Mali District Representative, Fiji.
“Governments need to listen to the traditional knowledge from the Indigenous community. They may have scientific knowledge, but not traditional knowledge which the traditional community has,” he said.
Patricia Hoolihan, Girringun Aboriginal Corporation Chairperson, said climate change is making the cyclones that batter North Queensland more ferocious impacting Girringun’s animals, fish life, rainforest and savanna Country.
“Governments need to involve Indigenous people in climate change decisions, our voices need to be heard, we have been looking after our Country for thousands of years. Our knowledge needs to be valued just as much as academics,” she said.
As hard as their land and sea Country has been hit, Girringun’s leaders know others at the First Peoples Forum are under immense pressure.
“Some other places around the South Pacific are less fortunate than us and they’re literally fighting for their survival,” said Phil Rist, Head of Girringun’s Process Unite Movement.
WWF will be holding a side event at COP 27 which will feature the messages from the inaugural First Peoples Forum and profile Oceania’s First Voices.
Separately, WWF and its partners will engage delegates and present them with the recommendations from the First Peoples Forum.
The importance of First Peoples leadership in conservation is being increasingly recognised. Indigenous people comprise less than 5% of the world's population, but they protect 80% of global biodiversity.