Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett plans to close up to 150 of the state’s 274 remote Aboriginal communities after a federal funding cut. Prime Minister Tony Abbott agreed, stating we cannot “endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.”
Since the Prime Minister made his highly revealing and profoundly ill-conceived remarks Aboriginal leaders all over the country have been loud and unanimous in their condemnation of the term “lifestyle choice” as a reason for remote community living, pointing to the cultural obligations of living on their traditional country, and the many health and social benefits of keeping out of towns and fringe camps where alcohol and abuse issues are far more common.
You don’t ‘Close the Gap’ by closing down the communities.
What has been less talked about are the very real loss of jobs and opportunities that having Indigenous people on country brings. Jobs and opportunities that have been slowly building from the ground up in ways that have built resilience, bearing and sustainability in both Indigenous peoples and the work they are doing.
The burgeoning livelihoods and opportunities that are the success story in remote areas, such as the Kimberley, are the Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) and the Working on Country (WoC) Indigenous Ranger programs. Originally an initiative of the Howard government, these projects have grown from the Indigenous peoples aspirations to look after their living country and culture.
In the Kimberley there are around 150 Indigenous Rangers from a dozen different Ranger groups and the numbers are growing. Their work includes management of significant Cultural sites, tourist management, feral animal and weed control, monitoring and maintenance of data bases. Other programs such as the Kimberley Fire Abatement Program are successfully supressing destructive Dry Season wildfires by carrying out a controlled burning regime in the cooler seasons.
In the 2014 fire season alone, more than 60 traditional owners were employed in the Kimberley Land Council’s, North Kimberley Fire Abatement Project. During the 40-day burning period the Rangers worked over an area of 35000 square kilometres of remote country. As well as employment and environmental benefits the project also generating a return income through selling carbon credits from the greenhouse gas reductions that the program results in.
While these programs are funded through government programs and grants, the work is real and adds value to the National estate. These jobs are of at least equal value to any other government funded department or private operation that work in natural resource management. In fact they are often more important due to the off-shoot benefits to community members.
Indigenous Projected Areas (IPA’s) and Working on Country (WoC) funded programs have been rolled out under budget and deliver improved social outcomes as well as contributing significantly to our national reserves. For example IPA communities report 95% economic participation, 85% improvement in school participation, a 75% improvement in substance abuse and contribute to maintaining strong community and family relations.
These schemes have often succeeded where more expensive government programs have failed. Money has been wasted because historically they are top down paternalistic models that create more employment and opportunity outside the community than within. Put simply they don’t talk to communities when they design such programs.
These programs results have been so strong because they build on the aspirations of Traditional Owners, give a sense of pride, offer training and capacity building and are owned by the community. Given more support and encouragement these opportunities can only grow with many more spin-off for Cultural eco-tourism, Bush tucker enterprises, Arts and Cultural services, Environmental services and other management opportunities.
Blaming Indigenous peoples for the costs of keeping open remote communities is simply wrong - but to threaten the foundations of the only real development and opportunities that remote Indigenous community peoples themselves have built is a massive step backward. You don’t ‘Close the Gap’ by closing down the communities.
Wade Freeman is the Broome based Kimberley Project Officer for the Australian Conservation Foundation.