Aboriginal Communities Should Not Be Closed

05/01/2015 11:31 am ET | Updated May 01, 2016
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For over two centuries, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia have had to endure brutal agression against their societies. Every year on Australia Day, Australians celebrate the arrival of the First British Fleet, on 26 January 1788, on the coast of Eora Country. But today, the first peoples of Australia still call it Invasion Day. This difference in perceptions bears witness to the political and cultural gap which separates Aboriginal people from other Australians.

But invasion is not a linear process, it varies in intensity, moves, its ways of reaching its objectives constantly redefined: control of territories, and social control. In colonised settler states such as Canada, New Zealand, or Australia, invasion is not a historical event, but a structure, as historian Patrick Wolfe notes. It is this structure that continues to determine the relationships between Australian -- state and federal -- governments and the first peoples of the continent.

So just imagine one day getting told that your suburb will be closed. That you won't have access to electricity, water, health care and education for your children any longer, i.e. to the services that every other citizen of the country where you live is entitled to. The reason? Not a war, as is the case in many places where populations are forced to flee and hide, but the simple fact that the government has decided that you cannot live more than 100 kms away from a town, sharing with others a  lifestyle  in a community deemed unsustainable and unlikely to attract development opportunities for the future.

In November 2014, the Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, announced the imminent closure of more than a hundred Aboriginal communities in his state. The term  closure  defined as putting a stop to essential government services (water, electricity) to which all Australian citizens are entitled, whatever their situation. This sudden announcement, made without any consultation with the people it targets, comes after 10 years of negotiations between the Federal Government of Australia, and the governments of the States and Territories, regarding the financial support of Indigenous communities deemed "remote." It also occurs in a context of unprecedented mining exploration in the remote regions of the continent.

Balkinjirr, three hours from Broome, in the West Kimberley, is one of those targeted communities. This small community is completely self-sufficient (solar panels, sewerage system, maintenance, rubbish collection) -- everything there has been done for years by members of the community without any financial support from the government. Aboriginal people there have built the Majala Wilderness Centre (with an auditorium and seven cabins for visitors) where they organise youth development camps for young people in Derby, and other training programs to combat high unemployment rates. The community has also partnered with universities in France and New Zealand on diverse research projects, and hosted numerous visits of international academics. Other communities, between 30 and 700 people, do not perhaps have such autonomy, but all have houses and essential services. Since the 1970s, Aboriginal people have managed these communities with elected councils and other transversal organisations that support an alternative way of life based on their cultural heritage.

The "closure" plan, whose details (criteria, time frame, completion) the government team is keeping vague intentionally, is the last episode of an attack against these communities initiated under the government of John Howard (1996-2007) which unilaterally declared the failure of "self-determination" of Aboriginal Australia. (for Aboriginal Australia?). Indeed, these communities clearly bear witness to the will and determination of a great number of Indigenous groups to re-establish themselves on their own Countries and territories, according to their own modes of social organisation, with or without the agreement of the Australian public authorities: it is one of the most powerful expressions of their sovereignty. These peoples have 60,000 years of social, political and cultural construction to assert and express, and we have much to learn from them.

Over the past fifteen or so years the term "dysfunction" has been used by the government to label isolated Aboriginal communities and to justify their closure, without bothering about nuances or offering any sound evidence. The precedents -- the Intervention in the Northern Territory, the closure of the communities of Oombulgurri and Swann Valley -- are catastrophic. Indigenous communities are undeniably facing serious and real socio-economic difficulties, but it would be indecent and irresponsible to lay blame for this situation solely on them. While the Western Australian government, the richest of the Australian states, spends billions of dollars, it also has some of the highest rates of Indigenous incarceration and suicide in the world. What is dysfunctional is the relationship between the Australian state and federal governments and Indigenous peoples.

One of the defining characteristics of Australian-style settler colonialism is the reductionist notion that construes this relationship as a socio-economic problem only. For forty years, this socio-economic policy has mostly entrenched and perpetuated intolerable levels of inequality between Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the Australian population. The issue is by no means a new one. Australian governments have never seen fit to conceive of their relations with Indigenous people in a political realm. The absence of a political dialogue conducted in good faith between the Australian governments and the Indigenous population is quite blatant, and unworthy of a society which claims to be democratic.

We who are working, and for some of us have been working for decades, with Indigenous communities, with their members and their organisations, know that, in each of the communities, there are men and women who are acutely aware of their own difficulties and fight day after day to try to address these issues with appropriate responses, whether these involve art, bicultural educational pathways or micro-tourism initiatives, etc. We know that Indigenous groups, through their histories, their cultures and their relationship to the land, have particular and valuable resources to offer that can provide solutions not only to their own situation but can contribute to Australian society as a whole.

These people are not listened to and the funding provided to their organisations is whittled away with each new reform. Out of the billions of dollars that Australian governments spend each year, how much is actually spent in the communities? And with what results? For decades the reports and recommendations have been piling up -- each one identifies the involvement and consent of the local communities in the working out of solutions as a determining factor of success.

These recommendations, just like those of the United Nations, are not put into action. What colonial policies have not been able to bring to final fruition -- the elimination of Indigenous peoples -- Australian governments now entrust to social and economic policy, and to bureaucratic measures which are often an excuse to get around, and indeed to crush, different forms of Aboriginal resistance.

The goals being pursued are concealed beneath a thin veil of paternalist arrogance. The government of Western Australia has not succeeded in forcing Indigenous communities to negotiate the funding of their essential infrastructure (roads, municipal buildings, access to water etc.) with resource extraction companies, so it will use more radical methods. By closing communities and undermining the conditions necessary for the autonomy of their organisations, by emptying Aboriginal Countries of their inhabitants, the objective is to leave the field free to the mining investors, the main players in the state's economic boom. How else are we to understand the fact that the announcement of the closure of Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, in the complete absence of any evaluation of its impact and of any planning, is accompanied by a major reform of Indigenous Heritage protection laws, one that will weaken them further? Without an Indigenous presence on the land, both tangible and intangible, there will be no more legitimate protests against industrial projects of all kinds.

The Australian governments trample their international obligations on the rights of Indigenous peoples in their own country. Australia contravenes so many articles and principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples -- to which they were one of the last signatories -- that it would be tedious to enumerate them all. And this attitude does not solely apply to Indigenous peoples: across the board (refugees, environment, violence against women etc.), the federal government prefers to attack human rights organizations rather than step up to fulfill its own promises and responsibilities.

This May 1st numerous demonstrations are to be held in Australia against the forced closure of communities and against the Indigenous policies of present governments. We here declare our support for these initiatives and call on all Australian governments to urgently review their policies in relation to Indigenous peoples, to respect their basic human rights and to engage in a real dialogue with them, their organizations and their institutions, in order to identify with them the means of peacefully resolving their differences.

SIGNATORIES (in order of signature)  

Martin Préaud (anthropologist, SOGIP)

Barbara Glowczewski (professorial research tenure, LAS, CNRS-Collège de France-EHESS)

Jessica De Largy Healy (anthropologist, CREDO, EHESS-CNRS-Université Aix Marseille)

Géraldine Le Roux (senior lecturer, UBO, Brest)

Estelle Castro-Koshy (researcher, TransOceanik , LIA CNRS/JCU)

Magali McDuffie (PhD candidate and filmmaker, ANU)

Lise Garond (anthropologist, Université Montaigne, Bordeaux)

Arnaud Morvan (postdoctoral fellow, LAS/Fonds AXA)

Bernard Moizo (professorial research tenure, GRED/IRD)

Vanessa Castejon (senior lecturer, Université Paris 13)

Marie-Christine Masset (poet, translator, Marseille)

Vanessa Escalante (film maker)

Maia Ponsonnet (postdoctoral fellow, Dynamique du Langage, ASLAN CNRS/Université Lyon 2)

Laurent Dousset (professor, CREDO, EHESS-CNRS-Aix Marseille

Elodie Fache (postdoctoral fellow, ECOPAS, CREDO, EHESS-CNRS-Aix Marseille)

Isabelle Merle (research tenure, CNRS, CREDO et IREMAM)

Marika Moisseeff (research tenure, CNRS, laboratory of Scoail Anthropology)

Stephane Le Queux (senior lecturer, TransOceanik/JCU, ECT Business School of Tahiti)

Analysis by Nidala Barker, Australian Indigenous student at Macquarie University, Sydney, 20 years:

Though it cannot be denied that the proposed foreclosure of remote indigenous communities is a political act from the federal government (possibly to encourage a re-shift of the cost of running the communities onto state governments), it must not shade over the social insight it has triggered.

Australia's specificity around racism lies in that the vast majority of the population is neither racist nor unprejudiced, but rather lies in a middle ground of uncertainty regarding their views on indigenous Australians. [This is mostly due to the distance, both physical and intellectual, between the 'average' white Australian and indigenous culture and realities.]

As a result of this, most white Australians are happy to acknowledge the importance and value of certain aspects of indigenous culture (i.e. painting and dance), however become very uncomfortable when the accommodation of this valuing impedes on what they believe they are entitled to -- and that is mostly tax payer money.

The issue of the foreclosure of remote indigenous communities has created a very visible strain between these two areas -- on one hand this middle majority understand that there is some importance to the land in indigenous culture, and on the other they are very unsure if this is something that the state (and by extension their tax contributions) should be paying for. As this issue is finally being more mediatised, the middle Australian is being forced to think about where they stand in a society which leaks its subtle racism between generations yet, is being taught all about how harmonious and unprejudiced Australia is.

Translated by Stephanie Anderson and Magali McDuffie from HuffPost France.