Traditional knowledge facilitating climate change adaptation in the Torres Strait
Project Leader: Assoc Prof Kevin Parnell and Dr Karen McNamara, JCU
Torres Strait Islanders are experiencing inundation events, high tides, less predictable winds and currents, increase in disease vectors, loss of cultural sites, and reduced fresh water supplies. MTSRF-funded researchers have been working closely with Elders and Aunties on Erub Island to document traditional knowledge systems and their capacity to facilitate present-day climate change adaptation. Traditional ecological knowledge emerges through Islanders’ ongoing and direct interaction with the land- and seascape, and while it has been established and refined through generations, it is still continually being built upon. Elders were largely concerned with observed deviations from expected seasonal patterns in winds and tides, and the increasing challenges these environmental deviations pose for Ailan Kastom (Island Custom). Loss to or changes in personal and cultural identity were also reported as a consequence of changes in climate and land- and seascape. Researchers have now drafted a report on how the Torres Strait traditional knowledge and information systems are constructed (Different Way of Knowing). This process should help to safeguard the invaluable traditional knowledge supplied by community Elders of the Torres Strait, and allows culturally appropriate adaptation methods to be identified and developed.
The Torres Strait region holds special significance in the protection of Indigenous Australian culture and land rights, but is also gaining visibility as a site of climate change impacts and adaptation. While the 1992 Australian High Court decision to grant Native Title to traditional owners on Mer Island is probably best known internationally and nationally, the Torres Strait has more recently gained media and policy visibility in relation to unusually large tides and other inundations linked to climate change. This report examines how the Torres Strait region is constructed and represented, largely in relation to climate change, in a variety of forums: policy and discussions, popular media and public opinion. While not denying the impacts of climate change in the region, this report aims to interrogate how the Torres Strait is constructed in certain ways, such as being 'particularly' vulnerable to climate processes. This report identifies how the above three realms offer differing representations of the region. Both media and policy representations for instance implicate severe climate change in the identity of the region and as such construct Islanders as ‘particularly’ vulnerable subjects with low adaptive capacity. On the other hand, the results from the public opinion survey present alternative constructions of the region, based around culture, people and community.
Reading landscapes, seasons and environments has long been a tradition for Torres Strait Islanders through their close relationships with their islands and seas. MTSRF funded researchers worked with community Elders on Erub Island in the eastern group of islands in the Torres Strait to document the Elders’ knowledge of seasonal patterns, including winds, wet and dry seasons, and also patterns in plant, animal and bird life. This report examines and synthesises this knowledge. The information varies from details on the migration and nesting patterns of key totem birds, to the movement of the Tagai star constellation, to the onset of wind patterns indicating certain planting or fishing cycles. The importance of documenting and transferring such knowledge is that it begins the task of generating interest among the younger generation to identify seasonal and environmental indicators in their landscape. This ability of Islanders to identify indicators and 'read' their land and sea country becomes important in maintaining culture, livelihoods and their surrounding environment. To this end, the seasonal calendar, which was assembled from the knowledge of four Erub Island Elders, was also developed into a large wooden mural at the local primary school. The school's students were involved in the creation and installation of the mural, and its contents will now form part of their teaching curriculum. It is hoped that by documenting, safeguarding and transferring this knowledge, it will remain alive and valuable.
There has been growing concern over the exposure of Torres Strait Islander communities to the impacts of climate change. Across the Torres Strait region, impacts have included inundation events, high tides, less predictable winds and ocean currents, an increase in disease vectors, the loss of cultural sites, and a reduction in freshwater supplies. Some of these direct and indirect impacts of climate change have been recorded in the scientific literature, but to date there is a paucity of documentation as to how the communities themselves have experienced these changes and impacts. These 'experiences' (of changes and/or impacts) might stem from Islanders' memories, or from the present. This report documents and records Erub Island Elders' and Aunties' experiences of a changing climate, such as their memories of extreme weather events and historical environmental changes, to present day changes to their land and sea country.
Torres Strait Islanders have long been managing their land and sea country. In this vein, they have also been adapting to changes in their local environments since time immoral. This report examines and synthesises knowledge from Elders and Aunties on Erub Island, as well as the voice and views of young Islanders, who shared past and present adaptation strategies for coping with environmental changes. It contains traditional knowledge, including actions and activities that have been employed to adapt to seasonal and climatic changes. This information can shed light on Erub Islanders' ways of adapting to changes in the future.