In January this year, I was incredibly lucky to be a legal intern at Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK) on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. The work undertaken by GBK is diverse. My role involved reviewing and drafting key operational and strategic policy and conducting legal research.
The beauty of the Torres Strait
The highlight of my time with GBK was accompanying the Chairperson, Ned David, and other staff members in a tiny plane over to Murray Island, or Mer, the home of Eddie Mabo and a place of great significance for Torres Strait Islander people. The flight over the beautiful and pristine reefs was one of the most spectacular experiences of my life. Our welcome on the Island was warm and there was a huge turn out to the community consultation we were there to host. Uncle Ned and the rest of the team were able to engage with the locals in a genuine and familial way that ensured the consultation was engaging and productive. It was clear GBK was a trusted and respected body.
This experience made crystal clear to me the need for self-determination in the Torres Strait. GBK is composed of the representatives of the native title holders from around the region to be technical, the Chair’s from 21 Prescribed Bodies Corporate who manage Native Title Rights in their region. The representation gives GBK huge cultural authority throughout the region and allows them to interact and work with communities in ways that colonial institutions have failed to for generations.
The threat of climate change
From the team at GBK, as well as every local I spoke to, I was also constantly made aware just how immediate the existential threat posed by climate change is to these island nations. Rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events has already had devastating effects on some of the lower-lying islands. For a people whose identity is so connected with their lands and seas, climate change threatens the survival of culture. GBK is currently supporting a group of Torres Strait Islanders whose homes are threatened by rising sea levels to bring a human rights complaint against the Australian government over its inaction on climate change.
Returning to Melbourne and EJA, my biggest takeaway from this experience has been to realise how critical it is to our work that whenever possible we engage with traditional owners in a meaningful and respectful way. I’ve also been starkly reminded of the importance of taking drastic action on climate change before it’s too late. I’m hugely thankful to the team GBK, and everyone else I met, for so generously sharing their culture with me, and for taking the time to teach me stories, traditions, and language. I can’t wait to get back up to the Torres Strait again soon.