Indigenous walk-off spokesperson: 'We need to take the power back'

February 6, 2010

Richard Downs is a spokesperson for the Alyawarr people from the Ampilatwatja community in the Northern Territory. Last year, he travelled the country on a speaking tour to publicise the situation for Aboriginal people in the NT since the 2007 NT Emergency Response legislation (known as the NT intervention) was brought in by the previous Coalition government. Under the intervention laws, the military was sent into Aboriginal communities.

With the change to the Kevin Rudd Labor government, but with no changes made to government policy, the Indigenous people of the desert land have begun a campaign of resistance.

Specifically, the Alyawarr people staged a walk-off from Ampilatwatja in July, 2009. They walked beyond the boundary of the government lease forced onto their land, and back to their homeland. Downs spoke to Green Left Weekly's Jill Hickson.

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The situation since the start of the intervention back in 2007 has meant total disempowerment of the Indigenous people in NT. Since the intervention, consultation and partnership projects have been abandoned.

Aboriginal people now have no right to engage with the government at any level. The government makes no attempt to consult or engage Aboriginal organisations on any issue.

We have been shut out completely from any involvement in what the government does to the peoples living in the interior. All decisions are one sided, it's a top-down approach where the government force-feeds us policy, telling us that they know what's good for us.
This has taken us back 40 to 50 years.

It has taken Aboriginal people that long to build up our organisations, to implement programs (totally underfunded by governments) and establish a working partnership with the government. We had some measure of control.

It was still a real struggle to get enough funding and resources, but despite this we were able to run enough programs for our people that provided some opportunities for training and employment. We did all our own repairs and maintenance of the buildings in the communities.

But when those army tanks came to stay in our communities, we lost everything. Our offices were closed down. All have gone after decades spent building these organisations and associations. We've lost all of them.

At first, there was shock and fear in the communities. It appeared to us that the Australian government was going to war with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. There were tanks and military personnel with guns.

The federal police threatened a lot of people and quite a few people were threatened with guns and targeted with laser-sighted guns.

We couldn't understand why this was happening. We have nothing to fight with, we are a peaceful people. News of the violence spread like wildfire across the territory and people were really afraid of the army coming in.

People were saying, "what are these red dots on our chest here?" Then they realised, the red dots were laser-sighted guns trained on them. This fear of the military had people in its grip for nearly 18 months.

Then people got over their fear. They have begun to stand up against the government policy of intervention by walking off the communities where we currently live. These communities were created by previous governments, as they have herded us into smaller and smaller spaces, away from our homelands.

If the government wants to form a partnership with us, it is going to have to abolish the NT intervention and recognise that we are the owners of that country and we want respect for our communities.

The current situation with the NT intervention is not working and should end. We want the territory and federal governments to engage and consult with us. The original 2007 Little Children Are Sacred Report that was prepared by Patricia Anderson and Rex Wild has recommendations we should put on the table.

Part of what was implemented was the introduction of the green card, where you have to buy 50% of your goods from certain stores only, which may or may not be near where you live. You can't travel interstate or travel to shows or events. It prevents people from attending funerals or visiting family in hospital. There is no way to budget for fuel.

It's not just about control of Aboriginal people, it's also about control of people in general. In the future everyone on Centrelink will have the green card. Just like with "work for the dole", which was first introduced in Aboriginal communities, this is just the way the government brings in these policies.

This situation has led to a lot of breakups of communities and families as people move to get away from the restrictions. They moved to bigger towns like Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. Others have moved across the Queensland border. Dozens of different language groups all moved away to get away from the control measures that have been imposed on them, their communities and their homelands.

Part of the policy is the creation of 15 or 20 hub towns throughout the territory and the closing down of our traditional homelands. The hub towns will get all the new houses of the $672 million allocated in the intervention. These hub towns will mean the loss of over 73 communities.

They will force people into these hub towns, creating ghettos. There are 73 language groups in the region. A mixture of different tongues means that some will die away completely. Once you lose the language, the culture, traditions and ceremonies are also lost. This strategy of the government is about ending the traditional customs of our people.

The justification for the intervention was that sexual abuse of children was rife throughout the communities. This was a complete lie, like the "children overboard" lie. If you look at the 2007 Little Children Are Scared report, it clearly states that the sexual abuse of young Aboriginal girls and women is mostly committed by non-Aboriginal people living in the area.

The report also stated that the sexual abuse of young girls and children is not a black issue, it's a national issue. And the Australian Crime Commission confirms this. It was all lies — the federal government's excuse to send in the military and take control of Aboriginal affairs.

Why is the government taking this action? Well, it's all about a land grab. The mineral resources of the NT are very rich. This is much clearer when you look at the issuing of exploration licences. In 2006, there were 180 exploration licences issued, in 2009 there were 400. What is of great interest to the government — and mining interests — are the huge deposits of uranium, gold, oil and iron ore.

At first we did try to engage with the general business manager appointed to our communities as part of the government's intervention. We tried to work with them, give them advice about the communities but they wouldn't listen.

That's when we decided that we don't want to be part of it. We thought: the country outside of the townships is our traditional homeland, we'll move back out there.
I asked the old people again, "Is this what you want to do, because it's not going to be easy?"

"No", they said, "we want to do this. The way we feel now we feel we have gone back 50 years back to the welfare relations days, to the days of tea and sugar handouts.
"When you had Aboriginal protection managers based in all those communities, telling Aboriginal men, 'you 20 men over there are going to going droving this season, we'll pick up and take you there whether you like it or not'. They had total control."

Our walk-off is aimed at the governments to show them that we can create a homeland. We will be focusing on building the communities with renewable energy and permaculture where people will live off the land in a way where people are comfortable and happy. Relying on government handouts allows greater control by the government.

When we walked off, we had over 250 people with us. We said to the younger generation that they should stay in the community because of the children who need to go to school. They can support the old people by visiting regularly. Also the old people wander back and forth.

We are now planning to build a new community in our traditional homeland. We are working on getting buildings up and once we get the bore drilled for our water, more people from the towns will come out and live, deserting the towns.

The young men go hunting kangaroos, turkeys and bush birds for meat, bush food is collected and when the permaculture food gardens are established, we will rely less on the shops.

Our protest camp is on Honeymoon bore. Our presence in this area goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. This was our watering hole long before it was built into a stock-route bore about 80 years ago. It's part of my mother's country, my dreaming, that's why I'm part of the custodianship for this country.

This action is about our self determination. We want to show the government and the Australia people, both blacks and whites, that you can walk out of controlled conditions.
That you can set up a sustainable homeland with solar power, wind turbines and permaculture systems. That you can build your own mud brick hut, recycle water using dirty water to flow back through a pond system, where the frogs and the birds come to, and you create a little green oasis, where the water is reused on the gardens and so on.

This is going to happen at the protest camp as a statement on climate change, on moving away from fossil fuels, using clean energy. We want the site to be a model where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can say, "well, if it's happening there then why can't it happen here". And it's about telling the government to take up the challenge of climate change.

It's about going back and living with the Mother Earth in a way that is not about greed, about digging up everything we've got, for short term benefit and for big business.

The Rudd Labor government changed nothing. It was an opportunity for the ALP to show the way forward but despite the apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008, the ALP government has failed to do anything.

We want to tell Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that we will not meet with them until they abolish the NT intervention, only then will we meet together.

The whole northern part of Australia is a large wilderness, a large pristine part of Mother Earth. The government wants to lease the land to those who would rip it all out and pollute the waterways, the streams, the oceans and the air.

That's why it's so important for all of us, Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people to come together and stop this happening.

It's about solidarity. We want to connect with, and talk to, as many groups as possible both black and white. We want to invite people to come and stay, to assist the community. In February, many people are coming to help put up some buildings. We want to encourage this and bring communities together to see the way we live but also to educate our own people.

We want people to bring our young people technology so they can be empowered to look after their homelands and their people. We want to give the technology to our people in order to preserve our culture and our language, the animals and the plants.

We gave governments power and let them build on that power. We need to take the power back and say we put you people in to those positions. We need look at the justice system and how all people, black and white, are treated. We need to empower Aboriginal people.

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