Date: Tuesday, February 14, 2023
Perth, Australia — Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited Perth, Australia, this week where she delivered remarks at an event hosted by the Perth USAsia Centre on the importance of Indigenous-led conservation and co-stewardship partnerships as key tools for addressing the climate and biodiversity crises.
The life-threatening impacts of the climate crisis are being felt in communities across the world – from severe drought and wildfires to devastating flooding and crop shortages. During her remarks, Secretary Haaland highlighted how identifying global solutions and incorporating Indigenous Knowledge are essential for protecting public health, safeguarding national security, and ensuring a livable planet for future generations to inherit.
Remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Thank you, Ambassador Kennedy, for that kind introduction. And thank you to the Perth USAsia Centre for hosting today’s discussion that is so important for Australia, the United States, and the entire planet.
Hello, everyone! It is such an honor to be here with you today and thank you to those who are joining us online.
Before I begin, I would like to join Ambassador Kennedy in acknowledging the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation as the Traditional Custodians of the lands we stand on today. Guw’aadzi haupa.
My name is Deb Haaland, and I serve as the 54th Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior under President Joe Biden. I am so proud to be here in Western Australia as the first Cabinet Secretary to visit in over a decade.
We all have lived experiences that we bring into this work. For me, some core perspectives are that I nurtured my child as a single mom; I’m a public servant, a marathon runner, and I was raised in a military family.
My dad was a third generation Norwegian-American, and my mother’s family can trace its heritage back 35 generations in the U.S. state of New Mexico. I’m a proud member of the Pueblo of Laguna, an Indigenous community that has called the Southwest United States home for millennia.
I am so thrilled to be here in Perth and visiting this beautiful country. Like many Indigenous communities around the world, much of my identity reflects the land my people come from.
Over millennia, my ancestors used traditional knowledge and practices that were passed down through generations of people who learned to survive and thrive in the high desert landscape. They migrated to the Rio Grande Valley in the late 1200s, which makes my 35th generation distinction a proud part of my biography.
My ancestors used their knowledge to manage and escape drought, to feed their families, to care for the earth, and to coexist with the land, water, and wildlife that sustained them.
I think it’s fair to say that, even to this day, no one knows my homelands better than its original stewards and their descendants.
As a child, I was lucky to have some of this wisdom shared with me. Living in Mesita – a small village on the Pueblo of Laguna – I spent many days with my grandfather as we tended our cornfield. While we hoed weeds and picked worms off of each ear of corn, he would tell me the history and stories of the land.
He taught me how the rain and snow that coated the mountains fed our river, which fed our cornfield, and, in turn – fed us. In that cornfield, he taught me how our actions are connected to the land, and the land to every single person.
Like my grandfather, my dad made sure my siblings and I experienced nature as much as possible. Whether it was a hike through a rolling mountain range or a walk across a sandy beach, I constantly saw the beauty of this earth and the countless reasons why we must protect it.
These lessons continue to inform the work I do at the Department. They taught me that our relationship with nature must be reciprocal, and that the land and its offerings are gifts we must never take for granted.
As Secretary of the Interior, I lead the federal agency tasked with – in many ways – stewarding the United States’ direct relationship with the earth.
The Department oversees 480 million acres of U.S. public lands, which is over two thirds the size of Western Australia. Along with federal waters, the Department oversees the energy development, conservation, and wildlife management policies that impact these vast and irreplaceable spaces.
Additionally, we uphold what we refer to as the federal government’s nation-to-nation relationship and treaty responsibilities with 574 sovereign Tribal Nations – the equivalent of First Nations here in Australia.
At one point in time, the Department I now lead was tasked with either exterminating or assimilating Indigenous people like me – a painful history that our two countries intimately share. I am the first Cabinet Secretary who brings the trauma of surviving federal assimilation policies to the decision-making table. As Secretary, I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me who survived those painful pages of our history so that I could be here today.
With so much responsibility for the health and well-being of the land and people, our Department is well-positioned to help address the greatest challenge of our lifetime: the climate crisis. But to do that, we must work across the globe to find collaborative solutions. Intensifying wildfires, historic droughts, disastrous flooding and disappearing wildlife threaten the futures and national security of every country on earth.
Our countries are both experiencing the devastating impacts of a rapidly changing climate – and have already created a model of collaboration to meet the challenge head on.
The United States assisted during the Black Summer bush fires of 2019 and 2020 by sharing wildland firefighters to stop the blaze, just as Australia did during our 2018 fire season.
Thirteen times in our history, our countries have come together to help each other fight fires. We owe a great debt to those who put their lives on the line – and those who give the ultimate sacrifice – to protect our communities.
Today, both our countries are experiencing, or bracing, for yet another season of devastating wildfires. We cannot deny this new reality. Climate change is impacting us all, and it will require all of us – using every tool we have – to address it.
This means creating and strengthening partnerships to meet the moment together. Thankfully, our countries can be a model for international partnerships around the world. Our collaboration literally spans decades.
Our governments are working together to secure essential components of our clean energy future – from critical mineral data and mapping to offshore wind – that will strengthen important supply chains and support good paying jobs.
We’re advancing breakthrough industries like offshore wind development through scientific knowledge sharing that is informing essential regulatory frameworks.
As we address drought and water management concerns, we benefit from sharing experiences and information on many issues. From improving dam safety and drought resilience to assessing river basin supply, we can bolster our resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Since entering office, President Biden has unleashed a historic all-of-government approach to building a clean energy future, uprooting and addressing environmental injustices, and responsibly conserving the lands and waters that sustain us.
We are doing this while ensuring marginalized and historically forgotten communities benefit from this effort. Many countries have established goals to address the climate crisis. Let’s all give Australia a hand for your passage of the 2022 Climate Change Bill that outlines greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets of 43 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050.
President Biden has also put forward an ambitious contribution under the Paris Agreement to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions between 50 and 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. We know that nature is our ally in the fight against climate change. That’s why we’re investing in the restoration and conservation of public lands and waters to help meet our climate goals.
In the United States, we have centered this work in an initiative called “America the Beautiful” – a decade-long challenge to conserve, connect and restore 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030 through voluntary and locally led conservation.
To help meet this goal, the United States is leveraging an essential – yet globally underutilized – tool to address our interlocking climate and biodiversity crises: Indigenous-led conservation and co-stewardship partnerships. I am here to tell you that not only is this work possible – it is necessary. And it’s already happening across the United States alongside dozens of sovereign Tribal Nations.
Through Indigenous-led conservation and co-stewardship initiatives, the United States is creating opportunities for the original stewards of our country’s lands and waters to participate in how they are managed.
What is critical here is that we are putting words into action. And the exciting part is that much of what we are doing can be replicated for a more equitable and climate-resilient future worldwide.
Last year, we announced the re-acquisition of 465 acres – or almost 190 hectares – at Fones Cliff, a sacred site on the east coast in Virginia, to the Rappahannock Tribe. I had the honor of celebrating this acquisition with Chief Anne Richardson – the Tribe’s leader – as we explored their ancestral homelands.
As we took a river boat tour together, the Chief explained to me the importance of this land to the Tribe, which was one of the first human encounters for European colonizers. While eagles soared overhead, she described how meaningful it will be for the Tribe to share their Indigenous Knowledge and storied history with our country. Her words were a testament to just how impactful our conservation work is for present and future generations.
Through the agreement, the Tribe will draw on its Indigenous Knowledge and practices to better manage the area’s habitat, which is a globally significant nesting location for resident and migratory bald eagles. The Tribe also plans to expand its river education program, which conveys traditional river knowledge and practices to young people and their surrounding communities. The results of this transformative approach to conservation are already being felt, and each of us stands to benefit.
As many of you know, the United States holds a vast network of public lands and waters. Conserving these iconic landscapes and their inherent ecological benefits is essential to reaching our climate goals.
For centuries, Tribes have been excluded from the management of the ancestral homelands they were removed from. Together, we are changing this reality.
The Biden-Harris administration celebrated a historic co-management agreement between the Department of the Interior and the five Tribes of Bears Ears National Monument. The monument is a culturally rich and recreationally diverse region comprising nearly 1.4 million acres – over 550,000 hectares – that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The five Southwestern Tribes: the Hopi Pueblo, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni. Each have cultural and ancestral connections to the monument’s iconic buttes and the thousands of sacred sites that dot the landscape. Through this historic agreement, the Tribes will participate in and apply their Indigenous Knowledge to the long-term management of the monument, which has suffered natural and human-caused damage from drought, erosion, looting, and high visitation rates.
When I visited this sacred site on my first trip as Secretary, I could feel the power of the earth beneath our feet. It was clear that this was a place we must protect – and that the Tribes whose ancestors built intricately-laid stone homes on the sides of cliffs, harvested the land, and lived their best lives according to the seasons – must participate in that work.
These Tribes now have a path to apply the knowledge and conservation strategies that they developed over generations. This irreplaceable guidance will benefit us all.
Centering Indigenous Knowledge also means empowering Indigenous communities, supporting their subsistence lifestyles, and honoring the trust responsibility the federal government has to sovereign Tribal Nations.
In June of last year, the Department announced the successful transfer of fish production and staffing at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery to the Nez Perce Tribe in the state of Idaho. Since 2005, the hatchery has been jointly managed by the Department and the Tribe. Each year, it produces millions of steelhead, spring Chinook, and coho salmon – fish that are culturally significant to many Tribes.
When I visited the hatchery to celebrate this transfer, I saw its importance to the Nez Perce people, whose ancestors maintained fishing villages and harvesting traditions that honored the cycles of the fish and the Clearwater River.
Witnessing this historic transfer was something necessary and pure. Through the full management of the hatchery, the Tribe will nurture and cultivate the fish that have sustained their people with knowledge incurred over millennia.
This knowledge is integral to our country as the Tribe and surrounding communities adapt to the growing impact of drought across the United States. These agreements are among 20 that have so far been signed during the Biden-Harris administration. And we have 60 more that we are working on.
But the United States is not acting alone. Australia is also making important headway toward this shared goal. Just as my ancestors cared for their lands, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have cared for the land that sustains communities across this country.
Here in Australia, members of the Queensland Indigenous Women’s Ranger Network are leveraging Indigenous Knowledge gained over tens of thousands of years to protect iconic and threatened ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef. By merging Indigenous Knowledge of the environment with modern tools like drones, the Indigenous rangers take a holistic approach to protecting the reef by monitoring coral change, forest fires, and land degradation that threatens imperiled species.
Last year, these Traditional Custodians were awarded the 2022 Earthshot Prize for their work to protect this culturally and spiritually significant region. This prestigious award is recognized across the globe. This global recognition will allow Indigenous women rangers to expand the possibilities for conservation work everywhere. As I often say – there is much to be gained when we respect and integrate Indigenous Knowledge into our collaborative conservation initiatives.
Many of the challenges we face today – a warming planet, the loss of habitat and wildlife, dying coral reefs – these could have been lessened or completely avoided -- if early colonists had valued the stewardship practices and environmental wisdom that Tribes have cultivated over thousands of years.
As Secretary, I have the distinct honor to travel to and visit with Indigenous communities across the United States who maintain their inherent connection to the land – a connection intrinsic to their cultures, languages, and ways of life.
The Tribes of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, for example, view the salmon, whales, birds, and bears as their own relations. These people were the sea bearers and navigators of this region long before colonizers ever set foot on our continent.
When you are of the land and the creatures that depend on it, you tend to it with future generations in mind. If we feed and nurture the land, in return, it will take care of us.
This is a lesson the entire world can and must benefit from if we want to save this planet for our grandchildren. Now, there are as many cultures as there are Tribes. We each celebrate life in different ways. Our belief systems, practices, and traditions differ from one another.
And the challenges we face as a planet are vast and varied and we all have something to contribute. Our solutions should be informed by thousands of years of observation, interaction and intimate understanding of our planet’s natural systems.
By centering Indigenous-led conservation, we can leverage the diversified and locally informed knowledge of the communities who have always stewarded the land and waters we all depend on.
But using Indigenous Knowledge cannot happen in a vacuum. It requires a fundamental shift in how Indigenous communities are treated, and how the tragic errors of our nations’ pasts are remedied.
This work requires all of us. It requires that every country and leader learn from and build off the progress of others toward our shared goal. It requires listening and learning.
It requires action. The future our children deserve is not out of reach. But we must act quickly to save it. And we must do it together.
Thank you so much to Ambassador Kennedy, to the Perth USAsia Centre, and to each of you for being here today.