Renewable energy and empowering Indigenous communities

16 December 2021
2021 Honours Research Fellow Phoebe Evans provides an overview of her dissertation examining the possibilities of Australia’s transition to renewable energy for Indigenous communities.

By Phoebe Evans, SEI Honours Fellow, Department of Government and International Relations

The connection between renewable energy and empowerment is not immediately obvious. I have often been met with confusion when explaining that this connection constitutes the focus of my Honours thesis, with many people correlating energy projects in Indigenous communities with extraction and exploitation rather than empowerment. Historically, this has tended to be the case, with external government or corporate stakeholders consistently overriding and silencing the voices of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities whose Country they disrupt with their energy projects. Why now, with the establishment of renewable energy projects, would there be a different outcome?

The difference now surrounds climate change, which has rendered the establishment of renewable energy projects absolutely necessary, to support sustainable development. Climate change spares no one in its destruction, yet it is often Indigenous communities that are most vulnerable, given the intertwining of traditional culture with Country. The natural world has shaped their cultural narratives and practices over countless generations, characterising climate change as an existential threat. Fully comprehending the gravity of this threat requires a reconceptualization of climate as not a strictly physical phenomenon, but one that also encompasses the cultural, emotional and spiritual dimensions.

Renewable energy presents a key opportunity to capture the strength of local knowledge and capacities to respond to climate change. This can be achieved through the establishment of community renewable energy projects, where the community is involved through ownership, employment, or educational and training programs. The means of this involvement is dependent on community capabilities and interests, and therefore must be based on extensive consultation1. Being involved in these kinds of projects can be empowering, not only in addressing climate change, but also in exerting control over the community’s future, through reducing external dependencies that have continuously impeded self-determination since colonisation. In this way, renewable energy can place power back into the community’s hands.

Understanding this complex interplay between renewable energy and empowerment is impossible without close engagement with Indigenous communities. Through my thesis, I was lucky enough to learn from Torres Strait Islander community leaders from the Torres Strait Island Regional Council, and the Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK). These leaders generously shared with me not only their insights into the empowering potential of renewable energy, but also their cultural stories, and personal experiences of climate change. Leaders clarified that to them, empowerment is predicated on power and respect, in the pursuit of self-determination and autonomy. They emphasised that holding power over their community’s future and being treated with respect for their knowledge and experience are fundamental aspects of empowerment. This orientation to ‘empowerment’ therefore covers multiple dimensions, including the cultural, political, social and economic arenas, each of which are co-dependent, and contribute to a necessarily holistic conceptualisation. Collaborating with these leaders on Country made their lived experience the focus of this research and solidified for me the significance of Indigenous leadership in any consideration of energy transitions and climate action.

It was clear that empowerment can be realised by mobilising the strong willingness to act on climate change that already exists in community. The immense desire to be part of the climate solution was emergent across interviews and characterises a commitment of the community to be climate leaders, in order to protect both Country and culture. Importantly, the existing capabilities of the community mean that many already have the skills, knowledge and interest to actively partake in these solutions. One former high-ranking councillor explained to me their view that, despite not significantly slowing global climate change, taking action on the local scale is empowering. It allows communities to take pride in the contribution they are making to protect their way of life. Community renewable energy enables them to continue safeguarding Country and culture through the use of their own local knowledge and capabilities.

Renewables can also enhance empowerment through their alignment with cultural narratives. This was perhaps one of the most interesting insights from my discussions with community leaders. Given the inherent interconnections between Torres Strait Islander Country and culture, it follows that harnessing the power of the natural world through renewable energy can allow for the application of traditional culture to modern technologies. One former councillor explained that technologies such as wind turbines can “keep stories”, as they inevitably interact with seasonal weather patterns, upon which important cultural practices such as gardening also depend. Moreover, he explained how technologies like battery storage similarly invoke traditional values, such as wisdom in preparing for the future. Again, this is empowering in allowing for a strengthening of cultural narratives, whilst simultaneously ensuring the longevity of culture in the face of existential threats.

Empowerment is also possible through renewables in prompting a mindset change on climate. Acting on climate change enforces community positivity, as they are actively harnessing this threat and transforming it into an opportunity. One Traditional Owner pointed to the example of the tides; currently, the water threatens to submerge the islands, yet if harnessed through tidal energy, the water suddenly symbolises hope in addressing climate change. This enforces the idea that local action is empowering and can prompt attitudinal change, despite not significantly slowing global climate change. It instils confidence, encouraging a shift away from a vulnerability mindset, and, according to a high-ranking GBK member, can furthermore empower communities to be vocal about their experiences and the greater need for climate action.

So what does all of this mean for Australia’s transition towards renewable energy? In my thesis, I concluded with three major recommendations for change. Firstly, using visual learning tools that resonate with communities is important in raising understandings of both climate change impacts and solutions like renewable energy. This awareness is vital, as informed decisions are key to empowering community renewable energy projects.

Secondly, mandating negotiated agreements and consultations in community renewable energy at the policy level is essential. This policy change could enhance empowerment, by allowing communities to hold the power in negotiations, with the right to negotiate elements that conflict with culture. Agreements should specify executive and withdrawal powers, and any benefits, such as employment quotas. This safeguards against external patterns of exploitation, in requiring transparent and respectful partnerships that prioritise Indigenous agency.

Lastly, this research made abundantly clear that any talk of energy transitions or climate action is incomplete without consulting Indigenous knowledge and lived experience. The establishment of state- and national-level bodies on climate change with First Nations representation is necessary, in shaping holistic climate strategies. Creating a forum where local knowledge can be directive of climate action is empowering, in ensuring Indigenous knowledge is not silenced, but rather centred.

Overall, a sustainable future exists at the intersection between environmental protection and social equity. Facilitating empowerment in Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through meaningfully acknowledging their rich cultural knowledge must be recognised as a central goal within climate action. The threat of climate change also presents an opportunity to finally grant the respect to our Indigenous communities that is long overdue, in recognising their adaptive capacities and resilience.

If one thing is to be taken from this research, it is the strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, from whom the rest of Australian society has much to learn. The most important thing to do, is listen.

Header Image: Lynda Hinton via Unsplash.

1. Consultation and negotiation with community is championed as the most important element across community renewable energy projects, due to diverse circumstances within different communities. Whether they are dealing with corporate stakeholders, or publicly funded projects, communities must have the means of expressing their concerns about a given project, and interest and capacity for being involved. For this reason, consultation has been emphasised in this thesis as the most important element within empowering community renewable energy projects, as it is necessary regardless of the stakeholder with which the community engages.

Phoebe Evans is a 2021 Honours Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. Phoebe completed her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Politics and International Relations) in 2020 and is now undertook her Honours with the Department of Government and International Relations.

Her central research interest is in the practicalities of Australia’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and Australia’s immense opportunities to advance economically in the post-pandemic era, to become a global leader in renewables. Phoebe has been inspired by her work with Indigenous communities through the university Service Learning project, and her Honours dissertation sought to incorporate Indigenous traditional knowledge and perspectives on empowerment through harnessing renewable energy sources in remote areas.