NAIDOC Week 2021 - Healing Country - Solar Citizens

NAIDOC Week 2021 - Healing Country

Yesterday marked the beginning of 2021’s NAIDOC Week (4-11 July). Every year NAIDOC Week is a time where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ history, culture and achievements are celebrated in events across the country.

NAIDOC Week came about following decades of First Nations-lead campaigning and protests against the status and treatment of Indigenous peoples, and the celebration of Australia Day on January 26.

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme is Healing Country. This theme centres on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ ongoing connection to Country, which means more than just a place, it refers to family, kin, law, lore, ceremony, traditions, and language. Healing Country involves justice, Indigenous land management and empowerment, and protecting cultural heritage.

In the news headlines lately we continue to see sacred lands or ancient sites being desecrated or destroyed [1][2]. At the same time, the effects of climate change are altering ecosystems and driving more extreme weather events like bushfires and droughts across Aboriginal land and water systems. 

In this context, transitioning the energy system poses both risks and potential benefits to First Nations people and their ongoing connection to Country. In this blog post we discuss how renewable energy projects could be rolled out in a manner that’s compatible with Healing Country.

Throughout history we’ve seen that despite Australia’s resource booms and the considerable wealth that’s been extracted from Country, the lives of local Traditional Owners have not substantially improved [3]. As the world transitions to renewable energy and electric transport, there’s a genuine risk that this will continue to be the case, especially as metal deposits are mined for the use of batteries etc.

There are a number of ways that Indigenous communities can benefit from the rollout of small-scale solar and battery storage, especially remote communities that can switch from expensive diesel generators to solar and storage microgrids. This drives down electricity costs, reduces pollution, and creates a more reliable electricity supply. 

And as is noted by a study by the Australian National University, “energy self-reliance may also appeal to Indigenous communities for reasons relating to political and economic self-determination”. [3]

Large-scale renewable energy projects, on the other hand, need to be more carefully managed so that Traditional Owners have the opportunity to directly benefit if they consent to their progression.

The shift to renewable energy is exciting from the perspective that it means we’re transitioning from a very centralised energy system to one that can have dispersed ownership. Large-scale solar, wind and storage plants can benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities by offering cheap electricity, financial compensation for land use, or part or full ownership of the project.

So far in Australia we haven’t seen much progress in this space, but in Canada there are better examples of governments encouraging renewable energy projects that benefit First Nations people [3].  In Canada, it is now a regular practice that clean energy projects are about 25% owned by First Nations communities. This has been achieved by some of the following government initiatives:

  • In some cases provincial governments have legislated Indigenious involvement in new renewable projects.
  • Government funds that enable renewable energy projects specify how profits from these projects must be shared with First Nations people.
  • Funds to assist Indigenious businesses to get involved in renewable projects.

This NAIDOC week is a time to celebrate the rich culture and long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It’s also a good moment to reflect on how renewable energy projects can play a constructive rather than destructive role in Healing Country. 

[1] BHP reports damage to Aboriginal heritage site near Pilbara iron ore mine, 23rd of February 2021, ABC News.
[2] Solar farm developer METKA EGN fined $1,500 for destroying hundreds of Indigenous artefacts, 29th of January 2021, ABC News.
[3] Australian National University. (2019). Renewable Energy Projects on the Indigenous Estate: Identifying Risks and Opportunities of Utility-Scale and Dispersed Models.