Natural and Unnatural Disasters: Responding with Respect for Indigenous Rights and Knowledges

Richard Howitt*, Olga Havnen, Siri Veland

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Citations (Scopus)


A key challenge for contemporary democratic societies is how to respond to disasters in ways that foster just and sustainable outcomes that build resilience, respect human rights, and foster economic, social, and cultural well-being in reasonable timeframes and at reasonable costs. In many places experiencing rapid environmental change, indigenous people continue to exercise some level of self-governance and autonomy, but they also face the burden of rapid social change and hostile or ambiguous policy settings. Drawing largely on experience in northern Australia, this paper argues that state policies can compound and contribute to vulnerability of indigenous groups to both natural and policy-driven disasters in many places. State-sponsored programmes that fail to respect indigenous rights and fail to acknowledge the relevance of indigenous knowledge to both social and environmental recovery entrench patterns of racialised disadvantage and marginalisation and set in train future vulnerabilities and disasters. The paper advocates an approach to risk assessment, preparation, and recovery that prioritises partnerships based on recognition, respect, and explicit commitment to justice. The alternatives are to continue prioritising short-term expediencies and opportunistic pursuit of integration, or subverting indigenous rights and the knowledge systems that underpin them. This paper argues such alternatives are not only unethical, but also ineffective.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-59
Number of pages13
JournalGeographical Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2012

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