Aborigines pushed to ever-farther fringes

August 1, 2001



DARWIN — Developers are seeking to move in on prime land which has for 30 years been the home of "long-grassers", a Top End term for those, mainly Aborigines, who live in the bush around Darwin.

Railway Dam camp is one of several leases around Darwin won in 1979 after an eight-year campaign for recognition and the right to live in camps around the town.

Aboriginal people who share the language group of the Daly River-Port Keats areas have lived there for more than 30 years. The camp is located close to the Darwin town centre.

Railway Dam used to be surrounded by oil tanks and mangroves. Now the land is prime real estate and developers claim the camp buildings are incompatible with proposed lavish unit developments overlooking Darwin Harbour. Developers want Railway Dam transformed into a public park.

David Timba has lived at the camp for nearly 30 years. He told Green Left Weekly that the "people who live here just live normal lives, it's a stable place."

According to Timba, the community's cohesion is increased because it comprises people from the same language group.

The lease for the camp, along with the other leases won in 1979, is controlled by the Aboriginal Development Foundation.

Timba says the ADF has failed to consult with the community. He has written letters to Aboriginal organisations and government bodies seeking clarification of plans for the area and has had no response.

Timba fears that the camp will be sold off without community consultation and approval and is seeking support for the community to be allowed to remain at the camp.

The case of Railway Dam camp is not unusual. Aboriginal people have consistently been pushed to the fringes of towns as they grow. In the past, official camps have often been forced to move further from town as the land becomes more valuable.

Unofficial camps are regularly broken up by police and the NT Department of Lands, Planning and Environment when they are close to residential or leisure areas.

Johnny Balaija has lived in many of these unofficial camps. Balaija worked as a carpenter and road worker in the 1950s. In the 1960s he worked on the failed rice experiments near Darwin. At that time, camps were tolerated because they were used as pools of cheap labour.

Ever since, Balaija has moved from camp to camp. He told Green Left Weekly that "the government is getting hard". In the last three months he has been moved on from two camps in areas that are now suburban developments.

Balaija told Green Left Weekly, "I am not a bird, not a kangaroo, I am a man [and] should stay in one place".

His current camp is in an area that floods during the wet season and has no water sources in the dry season.

Two complaints have been lodged with the Department of Lands, Planning and Environment who have again threatened eviction if Balaija does not move his camp in a given time period.

The recently passed Public Order and Anti-Social Conduct Act will give police further powers to move Aboriginal people on.

There is growing concern among some in Darwin about increasing police powers and harassment of Aboriginal people. A rally at noon on August 3 protesting the law and order approach of the Northern Territory government will coincide with a Senate hearing into mandatory sentencing.

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