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By Ruth Dawkins 19 July 2022 7 min read

Eucalyptus woodland is part of the Ngadju Indigenous Protected Area in Western Australia. (Image by Keren Gila.)

Australia’s biodiversity and land environment face immense, compounding pressures from habitat loss, climate change and invasive species. A renewed focus on the environment that includes increased financial investment, more effective national legislation, and greater involvement of Indigenous communities in land, water and sea management will put the country on the path to a more sustainable and resilient future.

These are the conclusions of independent researchers and Indigenous co-authors who contributed to the federal government-commissioned Australian State of the Environment (SoE) Report 2021.

The SoE is an evidence-based review that is published and tabled in Federal Parliament every five years as a legislative requirement of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The report informs national environmental strategies and policies, and is also used by scientists, teachers, NGOs and the private sector as the definitive source of environmental knowledge in a national context.

Independent authors from across Australia worked across a range of environmental themes to deliver a comprehensive assessment of the state of Australia’s environment. The 2021 report marks an important first, with an Indigenous co-author contributing to all but one of the themed chapters, and Indigenous lawyer Dr Terri Janke[Link will open in a new window] taking on a role as co-chief author of the entire report.

Integrating knowledge systems

Indigenous culturally significant species include the bogong moth, a food source which migrates in large numbers each spring from the western slopes and plains of Victoria. (Image by CSIRO).

“Incorporating Indigenous knowledge systems into the report has been a real highlight,” said Dr Helen Murphy,[Link will open in a new window] a Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO Land and Water who worked alongside Professor Stephen van Leeuwen[Link will open in a new window] on the Biodiversity chapter of the report. “Stephen had an astonishing ability to come up with examples of Indigenous knowledge or culturally important species that were relevant to the points we were making.”

Professor van Leeuwen is Australia’s first Indigenous Chair of Biodiversity and Environmental Science at Curtin University. He agrees that the increased engagement with Indigenous researchers between 2016 and 2021 was an enormously positive development.

“Previously, the lack of engagement was our biggest criticism around SoE,” said Professor van Leeuwen. “That feedback was taken on board and having Indigenous co-authors on each chapter, as well as co-leading the whole report, has been a great outcome. In terms of the report content, we have demonstrated to the wider community what an important contribution land, water and sea Country people make to our environment. The role for Indigenous Australians in managing biodiversity and land is increasing all the time.”

That sentiment is shared by Barry Hunter, an independent consultant[Link will open in a new window] who specialises in Aboriginal Land Management and co-authored the Land chapter.

“I commend the Government for their efforts to include Indigenous authors,” said Mr Hunter. “I also commend the lead authors for their work and patience. Asking for Terri Janke’s involvement in a co-ordinating role was a masterstroke. I only hope that level of engagement continues in future. I’d like to see the process around the report become less rushed to allow for even better engagement by Indigenous consultants. The timeframe meant we weren’t always able to include the perspectives of everyone we hoped for.”

Improved data to identify knowledge gaps

A second noticeable improvement for authors working on the 2021 SoE was the availability of data. For the Land and Biodiversity chapters in particular, that growth in knowledge gave the authors a lot more information to draw on.

“All previous reports have noted the lack of data as a significant problem,” said Dr Kristen Williams, a Principal Research Scientist[Link will open in a new window] with CSIRO Land and Water who was lead author on the Land chapter. “That has been less of an issue with the 2021 report. We have access to a lot more environmental information and there’s now excellent national infrastructure like the Atlas of Living Australia[Link will open in a new window] (a collaborative online repository that pulls together biodiversity data from different sources) and TERN, Australia’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network[Link will open in a new window].”

Dr Murphy concurred that there has been a noticeable improvement in available information over the past five years, noting in particular the work of the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub[Link will open in a new window] – a six-year collaboration to deliver research supporting the recovery of threatened species and ecological communities.

“We now have more of the underpinning information we need to understand the state and trend of threatened species,” she said. “We also know a lot more about the pressures they are subject to. But there are major caveats. We still monitor threatened species very poorly and are a long way off documenting all of Australia’s species. Sometimes the growth in knowledge reveals how big the gaps are and how much work there still is to do.”

Largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) are an iconic but threatened species. They are reliant on rivers and estuaries for parts of their life cycle and water extraction from rivers is predicted to have serious consequences for remaining populations. Photo credit: Rich Pillans, CSIRO

Informing future policy

As well as providing a snapshot of the state of Australia’s environment, the purpose of the five-yearly SoE is to inform future action. An independently written, evidence-based and constructive report is vital for guiding Government policy and response over the coming years.

The Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae) is one of the endangered species referenced in the latest State of the Environment report released this week. Image: Dash Huang/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Biodiversity chapter states unequivocally that there are many areas in which immediate, transformative action is necessary.

“We face mounting pressures to manage the impacts on biodiversity across almost all areas of Australia,” said Dr Murphy. “Unfortunately, the lists of threatened species and communities are growing, but the level of investment in protecting biodiversity is not keeping pace with the increasing pressures from invasive species, extreme climate events and habitat loss.  We need to see substantial improvement and investment in current management approaches and more effective legislation and supporting strategies.”

“We have an extensive National Reserve System in Australia and a rapidly growing Indigenous Protected Area estate[Link will open in a new window],” Dr Murphy continued. “However, many threatened species and communities are not well represented in protected areas. Increasingly, we are relying on measures of last resort for preventing extinctions, such as translocating species or the creation of safe havens on islands or in large fenced areas to protect species from invasive predators. These approaches are costly and risky, and not sustainable in the long term.”

The Land chapter of the report also highlights a number of key areas where additional work is necessary - an improved ability to monitor and report change in soil health, and support for the anticipated growth in restoration activity, for example - although Dr Williams feels more positive that things are heading in the right direction.

“We are starting to develop a better understanding of the land’s response to our actions,” she said. “With the right leadership and collaboration, that understanding should be even more comprehensive five years from now, and it should allow us to see what’s happening from both perspectives – the degradation and the enhancement.”

Dr Williams also anticipates increased activity on restoration, with a new ‘economy’ that deserves recognition as a significant and ongoing contributor to GDP, and all the support and coordination that requires from government, industry and community to support that growth.

From Mr Hunter’s perspective, the most important change that needs to happen is investment in land management, including in Indigenous Protected Areas.

“If you look at the figures for the growth in Indigenous Protected Areas since 2015, it’s phenomenal – a real good news story,” said Mr Hunter. “The Indigenous estate has also grown through native title determination and other means. But that doesn’t always translate to investment in ongoing management, especially in comparison with other protected areas. Higher levels of investment and more Indigenous management of both land and biodiversity – whether that’s through Governments, research funding or philanthropy – is essential going forward. I’d encourage people reading through the report not to simply look at the headline figures in isolation, but to consider that broader narrative.”

Australia’s environment faces immense, compounding pressures from habitat loss, climate change and invasive species. Desert blooms along the North West Coastal Highway in Western Australia (Image by Flickr Murray Floubister).

A comprehensive approach

One of the most positive aspects of the process for the report authors was recognising that in the face of multiple, complex challenges – ongoing legacy pressures on land and biodiversity as well as increasing impacts of climate change and associated extreme events – local and regional scale actions are making a difference.

“When we were selecting case studies to include in the report it became clear that there really is good work taking place,” said Dr Williams. “It’s happening at all levels – state and federal governments, Indigenous-led initiatives, industry and the private sector, philanthropists and environmental NGOs. We might need to scale that up through better co-ordination nationally, but there is a very good base to build from.”

For Professor van Leeuwen, it’s essential that those actions include the centring of Indigenous rights, knowledge, and values.

“Five years from now, I’d like to see an even more significant Indigenous input into the report, both in terms of the process and the content,” he says. “One of the best outcomes for us would be to see programs that have demonstrated success – like Indigenous Rangers – taken out of the political cycle. We need to have the certainty of knowing that programs with proven impact will exist indefinitely, rather than coming or going depending on the changing priorities of government.”

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