Click on links below to read a selection of articles from Wai (Nov 2009)…

Many Voices of Concern: a letter from Ampilatwatja to the UN Special Rapporteur
Bilingual Education
Eight Years On, What’s Changed?

Welcome to the Red Planet

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Many Voices of Concern: a letter from Ampilatwatja to the UN Special Rapporteur

I bring with me many voices of concern, from my leader’s who are custodians of our traditions and customs, passed down over generations, for many thousands of years; leaders who are the caretakers of our lands through our dreaming, mother earth, and spirits – still with us to this day, watching over all of us.

These leaders saw our children with lighter skins (termed half caste) taken away, because they were of a different colour to our people. Some of these children were never to return, but were lost in a world of inhumane treatment perpetrated by the governments’ policies of assimilation and attempt to destroy our culture. Some returned in their late 50’s and 60’s, only to find emptiness, as the older generation had already moved on to join our ancestral spirits.

Since colonization we have endured much hardship, cruelty, theft, genocide, and destruction of our culture, traditions, customs and laws.

We are people who are very easy to forgive and move on; this we have done for over 200 years, with no resentment and hatred, but always willing to extend our hands and welcome our fellow human beings to embrace them as one with our spiritual lands.

Yet the governments and the agencies have always continued their false pretence of charity, giving a little, while still retaining the power and taking away everything they could with the other hand.

Indigenous people have always put people of different races and cultures first; above selfishness, above any personal wishes. We have always put our children alongside us so they may learn the ways of our people through teaching, listening, and stories from their elders. They learned about life, the interconnection of all living things, breeding cycles of all animals on our lands, and the songs that go with each animal; so they too have a place on earth. The songs and ceremonies were to ensure the continual survival of animals and it was our ownership, our responsibility to ensure no part of those traditions and customs were lost.

Today we see a great decline in all our species across the world; all the living creatures that we were to protect through our songs and ceremonies to ensure the cycle of life continues for all, and to ensure there was a place for them along side our human brothers and sisters across the world. But our friends have now moved on with others, continuing to follow, as we will all do one day.

This destruction across the world shows that we have not listened and we have not taken note of how best to protect our environment, species of animals and plants, cultures, languages, traditions and customs of all people.

Today, and since the introduction of the “intervention” in 2007, Indigenous people across the Northern Territory are facing a renewed and sustained level of destruction and denial of our basic human rights under the Federal government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response, introduced under the guise of protecting children. The policies that were developed, passed through parliament quickly, implemented with martial law, and which were supported by the Labor party while in opposition, are having serious and detrimental effects on Aboriginal people across the NT.

The NTER breaches many articles of the United Nations DECLARATION on the Rights of INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, which Australia proudly declared, through its minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, that it has endorsed or signed it, and that this shows “our faith in a new era of relations between states and Indigenous peoples in good faith, good will and mutual respect”. Yet it has not yet bound the Declaration to Australian government legislation or any process of implementation and continues to perpetrate racially discriminatory laws and increasingly so, across Australia.

We seek the support of the UN Special Rapporteur, Prof. James Anaya, and other international human rights bodies, to advise the Australian Government to recognize that, under Article 1, Indigenous people have the rights to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law; and Article 27, to ensure to establish and implement, in conjunction with the indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and resources, including those which were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used. Indigenous peoples shall have the rights to participate in this process.

There has not been one house built for Aboriginal people since the government’s announcement of $672 million for the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program across the Northern Territory, designed to alleviate the chronic overcrowding and the physical and social issues that result from this, and to address significant and persistent under-funding and under-resourcing for decades by all persuasions of government. This program is now being investigated by the NT government, and has caused at least one minister to resign from her party and very nearly lost Paul Henderson, and the Labor party, government.

We were told recently by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, that Ampilatwatja Community will not have any new house’s built – that there is not a great enough need. The sewerage system upgrades only commenced 5 weeks after our people walked out of houses and yards flooded with raw sewerage. The Government Business Manager has promised some housing upgrades and repairs to existing buildings – and the massive commitment of a “rubbish” truck. Yet we hear the Prime Minister and the Indigenous Affairs minister boasting that they are now closing the gap on all issues, under Council of Australian Government ministers’ agreements and the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

Release the chains of control; give us our freedom; let us walk once again as free human beings on this earth (our mother), with our ancestors, spirits, songs, and ceremonies.

Let us share our richness of cultures with others. We are all one blood and connected through our spiritual dreams of pathways, Earth, Water, Trees, Sky, and Wind, which carry our thoughts and spirits across all continents.

Let us once again embrace our younger generation into our folds to show and give them guidance, as these are our next generation of leaders who are lost between two worlds (cultures) but are at the cross roads between light and darkness.

We have an opportunity and one chance in our life time to get it right. Let your hearts guide you, not your government policies which are at the core of the destruction of Aboriginal people.

– Richard Downs

Ampilatwatja Walk-off Blog

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Bilingual Education

In early July, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts called on the government to reverse its decision to scrap bilingual education in remote Indigenous communities. In the N.T., most Indigenous children are multilingual, speaking one or more Indigenous languages, learning English as a second, third or sometimes fourth language. Following a conference in Canberra, education experts made it clear that bilingual education programs are the best way for children whose first language is Indigenous to learn, and especially the best way for them to learn English.

This comes as part of growing concerns around the impact of the March decision of the NT government to replace bilingual programs in remote Indigenous schools with a mandatory four hours of English per day, leaving only one hour a day for children to be taught in their first language.

The forum was attended by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma who said the decision has been “ill conceived”, and perpetuated by the federal government.

“Particularly in a bilingual teaching environment, it’s important that the first part of the day is devoted to [the first] language and to [then] progressively develop competencies in English.”

Mr Calma noted previous NT government reports show students who learn in a bilingual environment actually progress quicker in their later years of schooling and in their English competencies.

“Very clearly the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights in its latest report (May 2009) to the federal government, acknowledged the loss of Aboriginal languages and encouraged the government to look at bilingual education and to reinforce and to support bilingual education,” he said.

The commissioner also pointed out three UN conventions the Australian government has ratified in the past, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in April this year. All three UN instruments support the rights of Indigenous peoples to create their own education systems and teach and learn in their “native tongue”.

Wendy Baarda, a retired teacher and Yuendumu community leader said her school had already implemented the NT policy. She told the forum nearly all the children in the community begin speaking Warlpiri as their first and only language and only use English in school. Mrs Baarda was involved in the first years of implementation of a bilingual program in the community in 1974, and said that prior to the program only four out of 16 students could read or write in English. She said since the introduction of a bilingual system, the numbers of literate students has increased dramatically.

“Warlpiri people have changed and adapted at an enormous rate, way beyond generational changes in our society,” Mrs Baarda said. “But still the government thinks they haven’t changed fast enough. They think they can force Walrpiri people to conform to mainstream lifestyle, educational and employment levels by government decree. Even if they wanted to, people can’t change so quickly.”

Mrs Baarda, who still tutors and does voluntary work at the school, said that the Warlpiri value their language and culture and that “losing language and culture doesn’t mean you take on other language and culture…. They don’t want to, they don’t want to be the same as white people. All of the time it works really well giving children a realistic role model. They can be like an Aboriginal teacher. They will never grow up to be a white person. These are the best role models, they are good, hardworking, committed people of their communities.”

As an educator, the former teacher said that the benefits of bilingual education are numerous, adding that while bilingual programs do improve literacy, they can only do so if they are properly supported.

Connie Nugarrayi Walit, an interpreter for the Yuendumu health centre and a school counsellor, told NIT she agreed with critics who say there are consequences that come with employing disinterested non-Indigenous teachers, a growing feature of the English medium programs which are replacing bilingual programs. She said that there needs to be more Aboriginal teachers in the system to support Indigenous students’ learning. With all the current government’s talk of creating jobs for Indigenous people in remote communities, like most other jobs in service provision in communities, white people from the cities are being hired to work in schools. Often, these non-Indigenous teachers are not passionate about Indigenous education, don’t speak the local language, have no understanding of the local culture, and have no understanding of the lives, experiences and difficulties in education faced by their students. They also don’t stay long – people come from the cities to get a job that can give them work experience to be able to go back to the city and get the jobs they really want, creating a high turnover of inexperienced teachers which poses a significant disadvantage to the students.

“You have to teach [the children] in their mother tongue first. You are preparing them for that second language.”

Already there have been numerous reports emerging that strongly criticise the government policy, saying it ignores consistent evidence of the improved literacy outcomes as a result of bilingual education programs, the dismissal of community and teacher consultation results which showed students and teachers wanted to keep the system in place, and a significant body of opinion which demonstrates that health and social factors are the central factor in education difficulties for students in remote communities.

Former NT Education Minister Marion Scrymgeour, however, says that she doesn’t regret the decision to scrap the program, which has only ever operated in nine schools in the NT.

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Eight Years On, What’s Changed?

Reading and watching the news headlines the past few weeks- and months for that matter- it feels like we’ve travelled back eight years to the start of the decade. Although the word “queue jumper” is not as prominent as it was back round the Tampa period the public debate still seems to be stuck back in the same “we’ll decide who comes to this country and what circumstances they’ll come in”.  A xenophobic fear mongering of invasion from a country whom close to 98% are descendants of immigrants themselves.

As the facts put it more people are here illegally over staying their visas from flights than people putting their lives at risk by getting on a boat from Indonesia. Most people who arrive in Australia by boat are accepted as refugees, more than half of those who arrive by plane and apply for refugee status are rejected. And yet there is not the crack down. No, in spite of the facts and the figures we seem like we’re falling back into a debate that’s happened before (sadly it’ll probably happen again).

As David Marr pointed out in his September Monthly Essay it’s not only the framework of the public debate that seems to be languishing but also the Government policies. The Rudd Government although expediating the time in which asylum seekers are processed are still working within the framework of the Howard Governments policy and still in fact carrying out many of the same contentious and morally corrupt policies. As David Marr wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on 28th October there are still children living in detention on Christmas Island. They may not be living behind barb wire as they were out in Woomera but the Australian Government still has a mandatory detention policy that sees children living in prison.

As Greg Innes of the Australian Human Rights Commision put it to David Marr “…This government is stuck with a $400 million resource that they’ve got to use. They are making the best of it, but it still is a prison.”

And he’s right. Given that people, children, have to be escorted when they go to leave the Construction Camp or North West Point to come into town it’s hard to see how this is not prison; it’s hard to see how the Governments line that they are not in “detention” is nothing but spin.

The complex they are living on is a series of concrete fire proof buildings designed after the riots in other detention centres in the mid 2000’s to stop similar events occuring. The complex are hidden in the forest away from the community of Christmas Island. They are watched by 247 cameras. This is the humane stance that Australia has adopted.

As it stands Australia is one of very few countries that mandatory detains aslyum seekers.

Christmas Island is a place with the population of just on a 1000. It’s hardly Sydney or Melbourne. Google it. There’s not that many places one can hide. If ever there was a place in which people could live in the community easily then this is the place. It wouldn’t be hard to do. It wouldn’t be as costly either. Yes it’s true that the complex is there and that it should be used but there’s nothing to say the complex couldn’t be changed. Or at least with the expansion that the Government has announced those new buildings could be more communal and less like a prison. It would help Australia’s international human rights reputation.

The Indonesian Solution

It’s not just the detention of children on Christmas Island that echoes the policies of Howard but as many media pundits have written the Rudd negotiated “Indonesian Solution” is similar to Howards “Pacific Solution.” In fact as some have argued on places like Eureka Street and in the fairfax media at least with the “Pacific Solution” Australia was still in control, with the “Indonesian Solution” it’s out of Australia’s hand. And the problem of “illegal immigrants” is placed into the hands of a country that is not signed up to the UN convention on the rights of Refugees.

As Pamela Curr, from the Aslyum Seekers Resource Centre in Melbourne, said on ABC’s Lateline on October 27th there are currently 2107 refugees living in Indonesian detention centres and jails who have been recognised as refugees by the UNHRC. Some of these have been there for as long as 9 years and have yet to be relocated to another country or accepted by Indonesia. As it’s been revealed some of the 78 Sri Lankan Tamils aboard the Oceanic Viking have been living in detention centres in Indonesia for 5 years. Detention centres that Jessie Taylor – a lawyer and refugee advocate who spent time in Indonesia interviewing 250 people in detention there which lead to the report Behind Australian Doors: Examining Conditions of Asylum Seekers in Detention in Indonesia – describes as in some cases “nothing more than a third world prison.”

“In the worst places we saw babies and children behind bars with filthy drinking water, deprived of basic education, malnourished and very very frightened.”

“Particularly confronting were conversations with unaccompanied minors, many of whom are housed in immigration jails with adult male populations”, Taylor said.

According to the report, families are generally housed in more appropriate accommodation, when there are women and babies. However, there are many 13 to 17 year old children in adult jails, slipping through the cracks because they are alone and do not have parents or siblings to look out for them. The report observes that many are orphans with no family at all, while some have families who sent them away from home after older siblings were killed.

Taylor expressed her surprise at the hesitance of asylum seekers to get on a boat. “On one thing, the Australian government and the asylum seekers agree completely: that it is a terrible idea to attempt the boat journey to Australia. Asylum seekers are horrified at the prospect, and are driven to make an attempt only after they are convinced at the hopelessness of their situation. At the moment, there is just no viable prospect of a safe, formal resettlement into Australia”

Where to then?

A humane policy that actually is humane, that recognises the human story and courage of the asylum seeker. An approach less rhetorical. As John Pilger in his speech the Great Australian Silence noted “in an essay for The Monthly entitled Faith in Politics, Kevin Rudd wrote this about refugees:

The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst …. We should never forget that the reason we have a UN convention on the protection of refugees is in large part because of the horror of the Holocaust when the West (including Australia) turned its back on the Jewish people of occupied Europe who sought asylum.”

Nowadays he is making statements like the following:

“I make absolutely no apology whatsoever,” he said, “for taking a hard line on illegal immigration to Australia … a tough line on asylum seekers.””

Where’s the moral in that? Where’s the parable of the Good Samaritian? It’s hard to stomach at times the difference between the rhetoric and reality, spin and truth. Asylum seekers have become another point scoring opportunity. Just look at Kevin Rudd’s reaction to the drop in the opinion polls. It’s not that there is an urgency needed to ensure that peoples health, desires and well being are met it’s an urgency to ensure that the PR spin and face of the Rudd Government keeps it’s glossy face. Or the hasty reach out to New Zealand to accept the aslyum sekers on the Oceanic Viking on Australia’s behalf.

In a reflective piece in The Age Shaun Carney wrote that although the refugee issue has moral aspects, governments can never fully embody moral positions. Politics is about compromise, so that moral rhetoric betrays government action and only alienates its support base. To Carney governments should be expected to treat refugee policy as ‘just politics’, so removing the moral dimension in the way that business people do when they speak of ‘just business’. This would avoid the inevitable disillusion that attends politicians whose actions do not match their words. Countering this Andrew Hamiliton in Eurkea Street put it as such “we should ask politicians to consider the morality of their policies, and that to divorce politics from morality damages Australia.”

And it’s here where the asylum seekers ‘debate’ should be heading. We as a nation should be demanding our politicians to prioritise morals and ethics over the game of point scoring politics. It would help us break out of a cycle of misinformation. It would help us recognise the truth of the desperation of people willing to risk their lifes to get to some form of freedom and safety. Until we do we’ll continue to circle in the same pattern never moving forward. Malcolm Turnbull promising to re-introduce Temporary Protection Visa need we say more. And even though it seems like there is some resolution happening in the Oceanic Viking ‘saga’ whilst we still detain asylum seekers, whislt we still detain children in prison like conditions we are still not acting with morals at the heart of policy.

To read Jessie Taylors report click here.
For an essay about the history of refugees arriving by boat in Australia click here.

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Welcome to the Red Planet
Julian Cribb

While Sydneysiders, Canberrans and other urbanites were going “Wow! Cool! It must be like Mars!” as the recent dust storm enveloped them in its eerie extraterrestrial glow, few seem to have paused to reflect that they are – at least in part, if not completely – to blame for the phenomenon. Next time you hop into the supermarket for a loaf of bread or a juicy steak, you need to consider the damage you are doing to the continent, the planet and your children’s prospects on it, with your tiny economic signal.

Australia, say the scientists, is in a “dust age” – a period of accelerated erosion brought about, mainly by two things: the ten-year drought, which has dried things out incredibly, and the pressure which all farmers the world over are being forced to put on the landscape thanks to the rotten prices they get paid in the globalised food system. These compel many of them to take unwise decisions to overstock or overcrop, and when the drought comes, the country blows.

In all of human history, food has never been so cheap. The average Australian spends about half what their parents and grandparents did, in terms of disposable income, on food. That’s how we can afford all those 4WDs, plasmas and electronic trinkets.

The miracle has been achieved by farmers and scientists dramatically intensifying farming systems, raising farm productivity – and so reducing what it “costs” to produce food. And by great big food corporations and supermarkets who play one country’s farmers off against another in their efforts to extract the lowest possible price. Just to please you.

What most people don’t seem to get is that there is a real cost to this that every one of us is bound to pay sooner or later. It is coming out of the environment and at this stage there seems little chance of stopping it.

Think about cities. If you added together all the world’s cities and towns you’d cover an area of soil half the size of China or the USA with concrete and asphalt. At current rates of growth, the footprint of the “world city” will be larger than either the US or China by 2040. Since cities are, for the most part, located (for historical reasons) in fertile river valleys, it follows they permanently eliminate some of the world’s richest soils. The effect of their expansion is to force agriculture farther and farther out into drier, more marginal, drought and erosion-prone country. In effect, one hectare of lost river valley land has to be replaced by four or five hectares of dryland to grow the same amount of food. This then has to be trucked hundreds or even thousands of kilometres.

In 1990 a world study called GLASOD found 15 per cent of the world’s useable land area to be seriously degraded. In Asia, Africa and South America soil losses were 30-40 times greater than the rate at which soil naturally forms. Slopes and badly-degraded rangelands, were losing up to 100 tonnes of soil per hectare every year. In 2008 a world satellite survey found the degraded area had risen to 24 per cent – and it mostly appeared to be in new areas, additional to the old, clapped-out lands.

Current rates of soil loss are estimated at about 1 per cent a year, which doesn’t sound much, but add 1 per cent a year to 24 per cent, and then see how much food-producing land is left in 2050 to meet human demand for a doubling in the world’s food supply.

To illustrate, the picture below, taken by Charles Sturt University’s Professor of Farming Systems David Kemp, shows a Mongolian “grassland”. A generation ago the graziers were complaining they couldn’t find their cattle because the grass was too high. Now, they say, they can see the mice. This is happening in dry lands around the world as farmers desperately try to scrape a living amid falling returns by running more stock or planting more crops. The price signal to do this goes straight from the affluent consumer, often completely oblivious of where their food comes from or how agricultural markets work, to the world’s 1.8 billion farmers.

The money you have saved on food in the last 40 years is being subtracted from the world’s dwindling farm lands in the form of soil, carbon, nutrients and future food. When you leave the supermarket with bulging bags and gun up the urban 4WD, the scientific evidence suggests, you are also helping to ensure less rain falls over these already ravaged regions. The scientists I speak to say there is a clear link between human CO2 emissions and large-scale weather patterns like El Niño, the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southern Ocean Annular Mode, which all bring drought to southern and eastern Australia. The more carbon we release, the drier the world’s grasslands and grainbelts are going to get.

Now I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad here. After all, you maybe didn’t realise the full impact of your choices about tonight’s meal. But I am saying that the extent of the problem is now so large, globally, that there are no “quick fixes” other than for humanity to moderate its diet. And for supermarkets to stop screwing farmers. And for that to happen, alas, your economic signal has to change and you will probably end up paying much the same for food, in real terms, as your Nan and Gramps used to. They, after all, had a food system that was fairly sustainable. If we aren’t willing to make this little sacrifice, then we needn’t even bother to try to settle Mars. For all intents and purposes, Mars will come to us.


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