In attempting to understand the true value of the natural environment and its importance to Indigenous people, researchers and policymakers must be led by Indigenous knowledge and practices, Ana Manero, Virginia Marshall, and Quentin Grafton write.
Australia’s environment is in a state of continuous decline, under the pressures of climate change, unsustainable development, and resource extraction. This is affecting our rivers and our bushland, our native wildlife and our oceans.
As the environment changes, some fundamental human systems are also at risk: knowledge, identity, and a sense of place and being. But how can the value of such things be taken into account to shape public policy for the better?
This issue of placing a value on intangibles like culture is already being prosecuted in Australia’s legal system. For instance, in 2019, the High Court of Australia upheld a decision to award $1.3 million in compensation to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples of Timber Creek in the Northern Territory for ‘cultural loss’ and ‘spiritual harm’.
It was the first time the High Court assessed compensation for the extinguishment of native title rights under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), and has been described as “the most significant native title decision since Mabo”, the ruling that led to the creation of the act.
Of course, it’s difficult to put a monetary value on the cultural significance of land, but recognising the damage that been done in this case was a significant step for the community.
“While no amount of money can adequately compensate for cultural loss and its consequences, the High Court’s recognition of the implications caused by incursions and infringements on the fundamentals of our cultures are of some comfort,” said Dr Jackie Huggins, Co-Chair of National Congress of Australia’s First People.
Environmental valuation, which is the process of putting a value on environmental goods and services, can be useful in assisting policymakers to identify priorities and evaluate trade-offs. This is particularly important for Indigenous peoples, as land is intrinsically tied to traditional spiritual and cultural practices.
For one, quantifying the non-market value – the values of untradeable goods like clean air and biodiversity – may assist in communication with business stakeholders and in resource negotiations or advocacy by Indigenous peoples.
Resolution to legal cases can also be informed through valuation approaches, particularly for compensation purposes. This is crucial for Indigenous communities around the globe, who have fought back against dispossession and misuse of their land for decades through colonial legal systems, and will continue to do so.
In these cases, there has been mounting pressure to not only consider the material or environmental harms done to Indigenous communities, but also irreversible cultural loss and damage.
In parallel to this legal recognition, a growing number of studies have sought to find ways that valuations of natural resources can better reflect their true importance to Indigenous peoples. However, given the complexity and diversity of how Indigenous values are applied and understood, scholars, practitioners and policymakers should proceed with caution.
To advance knowledge in this area, our recent review critically analyses the existing academic literature and provides several key guiding questions for researchers in this space.
The first question that needs to be asked of any attempt at valuation is: what is the purpose? Is the real purpose the technical advancement of estimation methods? Or perhaps an intricate form of participation? We encourage research proponents to consider what the purpose of the research is and, consequently, consider whether it is appropriate.
How does Indigenous knowledge inform valuation? Study design should be directed by the Indigenous peoples affected by the environmental change in question. Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous-centric paradigms must inform research design, as flaws may arise from a non-Indigenous researchers’ choice of methods and assumptions.
Who will the beneficiaries of the research be? Researchers must consider whether Indigenous people, the general population, or they themselves will be the main beneficiaries of the work? When questioning who the intended or likely beneficiaries are, non-Indigenous researchers should identify who is negatively affected by the research process, its results, and its policy implications.
Whose values are being considered? Is the research grounded in the values of the Indigenous peoples affected by the environmental change, local residents of the affected area, or the general population?
What change is expected to come from the work? While material changes such as water quality or species density are relatively easily measured, extensive consultation is needed to understand what changes mean for affected Indigenous communities. This once again requires an understanding of how the environment, and potential changes to it, are understood within an Indigenous context.
Finally, limitations are inevitable, but it is necessary to ask how they might be handled. Indigenous valuation studies should be as transparent as possible. There is no single approach to respond to all limitations, and some approaches may be more useful in certain contexts than others.
A tailored approach to non-market valuation that is transparent about strengths and limitations, and is properly informed by Indigenous knowledge, is critical to this process. By utilising these key questions, scholars, practitioners and policymakers can adopt a best-practice approach that supports the voices of Indigenous peoples and the outcomes they need.