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repossessing the songlines

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    One for Desert

    December 1, 2012
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    Marcia Langton

    Forty years after the Gove land rights case, the Yolngu people finally have an economic stake in their country.

    Ten years ago, I asked a young Aboriginal man working on a mine site if he enjoyed his job. He was on a team with a roster of 12-hour daily shifts for two weeks on the job, one week off, and his home was about four hours' drive north of the mine. Confronted by a nosy older woman like me, he mumbled his answer: "Yeah."

    "Why is that?" I asked. "I'm out of the community for a couple of weeks and I don't have to put up with the fighting." I asked him if he had saved any money. He had bought a house, he said. He was a member of a team that provided mechanical repair and other services to other units in the operation, and some of the team members were young Aboriginal men in training.

    I thought about the changes in his life that employment on this project must have wrought. It had given him some financial freedom and freedom from the Sturm und Drang of community life where interpersonal, inter-family and inter-clan conflict sweeps up everybody into a never-ending monsoon of suspicion, accusation, abuse and violence.

    Young men, as much as young women, all too often are the victims. His matter-of-fact declaration of his hard won ticket to freedom jolted me out of any sense of complacency about the benefits of jobs at the mine. Others there saw the extraordinary changes in the lives of young people who stepped into this world, and it motivated them to set bold targets for Aboriginal employment.

    But the absence of corporate social responsibility in the past and a long history of blatant injustice are part of the story.

    In 1973, Nabalco, a Swiss-Australian consortium started mining and processing a 250 million tonne bauxite deposit, one of the world's largest, and established the new town of Gove, later called Nhulunbuy, in the Northern Territory. The mine and town were built on land that belonged to the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans of north-east Arnhem Land.

    Whereas previously the only signs of incursion in this vast Aboriginal homeland was the Methodist mission at Yirrkala and some infrastructure dating from World War II era, now there were 1000 white men building the refinery, port, mine infrastructure, the town and the longest conveyer belt ever in Australian history.

    The clan leaders drafted a petition on bark to the Parliament in Canberra pleading that it should not proceed.

    After an inquiry - to no avail - the traditional owners decided to litigate. They brought the question of Aboriginal rights to land and the concept of native title before the courts for the first time in Australian history. The plaintiffs ''asserted on behalf of the native clans they represented that those clans and no others had in their several ways occupied the areas from time immemorial as of right''.

    They challenged the validity of the Commonwealth government's grant of mining leases over their territory.

    In the end, their case, called the Gove land rights case, was unsuccessful. Justice Richard Blackburn found that native title was incapable of recognition at common law.

    He upheld the decisions of previous courts that the Crown was the source of all title to land, maintaining the doctrine of terra nullius, and concluded that indigenous interests in land had not survived the acquisition of sovereignty and did not form any part of the law of Australia.

    The decision was a tragedy, just as much a tragedy as the destruction of landscapes and sacred sites that followed, because it denigrated Yolngu laws and traditions.

    The bauxite mine and its voracious culture poisoned relations between the Aboriginal people and each successive company that has owned it. The Yolngu people were marginalised in their own country. Their children became debilitated by alcohol, drugs, unemployment, and a new phenomenon, poverty. The elders rued the injustice and the impacts, especially the psychological impacts, with a growing sense of frustration and alienation, as each company that owned the mine refused to negotiate with them.

    This changed five years ago when Rio Tinto acquired the Canadian company Alcan. The Rio Tinto Alcan agreement was signed last year. The Yolngu at last have an agreement governing the operation giving them an economic stake in the region. It encompasses outstanding long-term financial terms and opportunities to tap into the regional economy. The downturn in bauxite prices globally has engendered caution among the parties and a sense of urgency. No opportunity can be lost in this precarious situation.

    Yet, only a handful of Yolngu people have ever worked at the mine. This refusal is attributable to the grief and anger of the elders whose world changed with a sharp shock, an emotive burden passed down the generations along with all the cultural wealth they have to offer.

    The clan leaders have been developing an economic strategy for some years, assisted by legal firms committed to Aboriginal people. They are transforming their traditional economy, culture and ceremonial life with the leverage that strong land rights has provided.

    They are reinstating the work ethic that underpinned their resilient society and building a diversified regional economy to free their members from the drudgery of poverty and indignity of welfare dependence.

    The Yolngu have also turned to the resource industry as a springboard for business development.

    This year, Gumatj executives signed an agreement with the goal of establishing a geothermal project on Gumatj land to provide a much-needed source of energy for local industry.

    Galarrwuy Yunupingu, whose presence throughout this history has been decisive, is like many of our generation: old school in his attitudes and habits. He has borne the mantle of conferred leadership with dignity and perseverance, taking his responsibilities seriously and working diligently. He has rejected the protectionist, welfarist path in Aboriginal policy and demanded a sensible approach to economic development, and parity in education and employment.

    The solution he devised to the sense of alienation and the discrimination that excluded two generations of Yolngu from employment at the mine was to establish Yolngu enterprises to create jobs. There are now 40 men and women employed in clan projects who would not otherwise be in work.

    One involves harvesting the timber removed from the mine site and other areas and mobile sawmills are in operation producing timber for construction of houses, buildings and fine hand-crafted furniture.

    It has been met with fierce opposition from environmental campaign groups - a slap in the face for the Yolngu who have run the most successful biodiversity and environmental conservation program for more than a quarter of a century. The Gumatj projects are an example of diversification and coexistence: custom and cultural traditions of kinship are accommodated in their workplaces, with cousins working together and teams harmonised by having men and women in the correct customary relationships. They enter the Gumatj workforce without sacrificing their cultural selves. The obligation to attend ceremonies is no longer an excuse not to work, and the leaders, although not always heeded, demand a full workday. During ceremonies, they start early in the morning, work until 3pm and arrive at the ceremony at 4pm when the yirdaki, or didgeridoo announces it is starting.

    The success of this model lies in the affirmation by leaders of their commitment to land, culture and ceremony, a work ethic, and economic drive; all these values coexist and strengthen the group.

    But this renewal has come after a 40 years of disappointment, anger and frustration.

    Galarrwuy and his fellow clan leaders have finally seized control of their destiny with a powerful vision of the future.

    Some might call this self-determination, but I have witnessed these leaders grow in intellectual understanding of their predicament, in their determination to solve problems, and to be their own agents, to join with committed people offering their expertise, and develop new institutions and cultural innovations.

    This is the third in a series of edited extracts of the 2012 ABC Boyer Lectures to be delivered by Professor Marcia Langton, who holds the Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. It will be broadcast on ABC Radio National on Sunday at 5.30pm and will be available online at
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