In the heart of a massive new nature reserve in Australia’s far north, Aboriginal elder Dean Yibarbuk gazes reverentially at Dreamtime rock paintings created by his ancestors.
“This isn’t just land to us,” the dreadlocked indigenous leader says. “It’s part of our spirit.”
Yibarbuk’s people in Arnhem Land, east of Darwin, are part of a government program that aims to ease the poverty and poor health blighting many indigenous communities by rekindling Aborigines’ ancient connection to the land.
Under the scheme, the government last week created two adjoining nature reserves covering almost 20,500km² of remote wilderness in the Northern Territory.
As ochre-covered dancers performed celebration rites to the low drone of the didgeridoo, Environment Minister Peter Garrett declared the establishment of the Djelk and Warddeken Indigenous Protected Areas.
He said the declaration formalized management of the reserves by traditional landowners, recognizing them as custodians of their ancestral lands.
Garrett said Aborigines would control feral pests such as water buffalo and pigs and help minimize wildfires, while protecting rock art sites dating back 50,000 years and wilderness areas rivaling the nearby World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.
“Indigenous Protected Areas are one of Australia’s most successful conservation stories,” said Garrett, the lanky former frontman of rock band Midnight Oil, who is now one of Australia’s most prominent politicians.
“They protect Australia’s biodiversity while providing training and employment for Aboriginal people doing work that they love on their own country.”
Together the reserves cover an area twice as large as America’s Yellowstone National Park or almost two-thirds the size of Taiwan.
Yibarbuk said they would create jobs for Aborigines and give them the option to live a traditional nomadic lifestyle “on country,” away from the problems affecting many indigenous settlements.
“In too many communities our children run into trouble, a lot of drugs, a lot of violence,” he said .
“This is our opportunity for our people to get back to the bush, to live the real life.”
The IPA approach to alleviating grinding poverty and endemic ill health among Aborigines stands in marked contrast to the so-called “intervention” launched by the federal government in 2007.
Under that scheme, the government sent troops and police to help curb sex abuse and domestic violence in isolated communities, imposing alcohol bans and restrictions on welfare payments.
The program, which remains in force in many Northern Territory settlements, has been condemned as discriminatory by organizations such as the UN and Amnesty International.
Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation general manager Matthew Ryan said the Djelk and Warddeken Indigenous Protected Areas system gave Aborigines a say in the future of their communities and their land.
“It’s about us looking after our country in our way,” he said.
“It’s not about having someone dictate how we run our country.”
The Australian National University’s Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research described the IPA scheme as a “quiet revolution” in the way remote indigenous communities were managed.
“By providing livelihood opportunities on country, the enormous challenges of improving Aboriginal well-being and health and education are being practically addressed,” ANU’s professor Jon Altman said.
A return to the bush may not be a practical option for the majority of Australia’s 450,000 Aborigines, many of whom live in cities and regional towns.
But Yibarbuk said it was now a possibility for his people, reversing the drift towards settlements that began soon after whites arrived in the area in the 1800s.
“The land’s still empty up here, now we want our people to come back,” he said.
“We say empty land, empty people — healthy land, healthy people.”
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