Amelia Telford is a name that should have big oil quaking in their greasy boots.
For the past six years, the young Bundjalung woman and her network of Indigenous climate activists across the country have been a constant thorn in the side of fossil fuel companies attempting to steamroll their way across Aboriginal land. As National Director of Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, Amelia works with communities and volunteers on the frontline of the climate crisis—whether it’s stopping fracking in remote areas of the Northern Territory or pressuring Australia’s big banks to boycott financing the Adani Coal Mine. And all this, at just 25-years-old. We’re running out of time to jump off this fiery highway to climate change hell, but something tells me with strong young Indigenous leaders like Amelia in charge, we might just be ok.
How did the idea for Seed first come about?
When I was a volunteer with the AYCC (Australian Youth Climate Coalition) back in high school, I was looking at the way climate change was affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It was evident to me that there weren’t many young Indigenous people involved and there wasn’t any talk about how these issues were impacting our people first and worst. Anna Rose, she was heading up the organisation at the time, and I said to her look—I love the power of this youth organisation and climate movement, it’s so awesome to be a part of, but there’s a really glaringly obvious gap to me in terms of Indigenous people being supported to not only be a part of this space, but also in playing a leadership role, because it’s our land and our communities we’re talking about. We are on the frontlines.
Can you tell me a little more about the fracking campaign that you and the Seed team have been working hard at?
It was about five years ago that we started doing this work in the Northern Territory. We identified gas as a really big threat to regional communities across the country, and saw the places that were going to be on the frontlines, what we sometimes refer to as a sacrifice zone—in terms of, this wouldn’t happen in the Northern Beaches of Sydney, you know?
Of course not.
It’s happening in places in where these companies and governments can get away with it. So we identified it as somewhere that we could not only help the communities that had reached out to us for support, but where our national volunteer network could be a part of it in solidarity. The NT government had run this whole enquiry process to assess whether fracking was safe, and the report came back with 135 recommendations that said, ‘if you can implement these recommendations, then you can safely frack.’ It was basically just a way to let mining companies get away with destroying our land and water, and putting in a bunch of red tape to say that they’re doing the best they can. But really, there’s no guarantee that people’s water won’t be poisoned. Even the impacts of climate change, the way that they were mitigating that was through shutting down coal power plants in other places—which is well and good, but you’re still emitting huge levels of methane and carbon dioxide.
You’ve been working at this for a few years now. What changes have you seen as a result of all your efforts?
There’s still a really long way to go in terms of being able to see the changes that we need, but when you look back at the history that these gas companies have and the original plans that they had to be drilling and fracking gas all across the NT… they wanted to be a lot further ahead than where they are right now. Even though we have a really long way to go, we’ve also held off the companies for many years and I do really believe—and this is what I talk about with our volunteer network and the Seed team—and what I’m super excited for, is the day that we can say as young Indigenous people, together with the communities directly impacted by these big fossil fuel projects, that we took on one of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the country, and we won. That’s the moment. I know it’s going to happen, it might just take a few years. It’s a sustained pressure, and in this way it’s going to put them in a position where they’re going to see it’s in their best interests to walk away.
What’s been one of your biggest wins with Seed personally?
That’s a great question… I mean, since we launched in 2014, we’ve trained over 500 young Indigenous people across the country.
And just going from being one of the only Indigenous people in the room when I first got involved, to having a powerful network of young people all over the country, I think that in itself. The way that we’ve seen our movement grow and the support that Seed has now been able to provide makes me feel like if I was back in high school right now, it’d be awesome to know that there was this youth climate network out there that was full of young people that were aligned with the same values and vision for the change we need to see in the world.
Australia has so much to learn about the environment from Indigenous people. Is there one particular key teaching you wish people would take on board as soon as possible?
I think that ultimately people need to see land rights as a solution to climate change. And when I say that, I mean having our people have the final say about what happens to country and managing our land. There’s a misconception that we do get to decide on what happens to our land. It was only last year that we saw the Queensland government compulsory acquire the land of the Wangan and Jagalingou people, which means that the people said they didn’t want the mining to go ahead but the government are going to go ahead and do it anyway. It’s a tick box approach—we’ll tick the box to say that we’ve asked you, but regardless of what you say, we’re going to do whatever we want to do.
If our people were really managing our land properly, then that is ultimately a solution to climate change. That’s not to say there aren’t Indigenous communities out there that have said yes to projects, but more often than not, they’ve said yes because there’s no other alternatives and they’re bullied into it. When our people are in those leadership positions we’re not only going to create change that benefits our communities, but if our communities are thriving then everyone is thriving… because we’re at the bottom of the food chain, really. When there’s justice for us, there’s justice for everyone.