Aboriginal Australians may be forced from land By Stephen de Tarczynski | Last updated: Jul 13, 2009 - 10:44:56 AM What's your opinion on this article? Printer Friendly Page MELBOURNE (IPS/GIN) - A government plan purporting to improve the lives of people living in isolated areas of Australia's Northern Territory will be implemented at the expense of surrounding homeland communities and ignores the cultural and health benefits for people living on those traditional lands, warn critics. The "Working Future" scheme is headed by the proposal to develop 20 remote Northern Territory communities into regional hubs and will cost more than 160 million Australian over five years. "They will be towns like anywhere else in Australia, and like elsewhere they will service the surrounding areas of smaller communities, properties, outstations and homelands," said Northern Territory Chief Minister Paul Henderson at the launch of the plan. But while the NT labor government's strategy has received backing from its Canberra-based counterpart—the Australian Labour Party is also in power at the federal level—the shift in focus towards developing hub towns has drawn criticism from other quarters. Detractors anticipate the plan will adversely impact communities living on homelands—the traditional clan lands of indigenous Australians. Under the "Working Future" idea, government funding for homeland communities will face severe restrictions. The establishment of new homelands or outstations will not be financially supported, while existing communities must meet certain prerequisites to qualify for current levels of funding—including being the principal place of residence for occupants, as well as commitment from residents to increase their community's self-sufficiency. The Northern Land Council, a prominent NT land rights advocacy body, has reiterated its support for indigenous people who choose to live on ancestral homelands while Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission—an independent statutory body responsible to Australia's parliament—argues that creating the regional centers should not be done at the expense of homelands. "The homelands movement is a powerful expression of Aboriginal self-determination and self-governance. Government should be assisting these communities in their quest to control their lives and their future rather than undermining them," said Mr. Calma. The movement of people back to their homelands began in the 1970s. There are now more than 500 NT homelands inhabited by about 10,000 people, out of a total remote indigenous population of 40,000. According to the 1987 report by a parliamentary inquiry into the homelands movement, the return to traditional lands represented "the desire of Aboriginal people to assert control over their lives by establishing communities that are better attuned to Aboriginal needs." Although the funding allocated to homelands remains at 36 million Australian dollars annually under the new scheme, Ric Norton from the Laynhapuy Homelands Association Incorporated (LHAI), said this level of support is not enough and can only maintain the current situation on homelands. Laynhapuy consists of some 25 homeland communities with a total population of around 1,200 people in eastern Arnhem Land. "The status quo in terms of homelands is a history of 30 years of neglect, so to maintain the status quo is to maintain a denial of services to Australian citizens," Mr. Norton told IPS. He says that the LHAI receives 650,000 Australian dollars—in addition to a further 300,000 Australian dollars for maintaining houses—from the government in order to undertake municipal services, including the maintenance of internal airstrips, roads and drains, as well as the collection and disposal of rubbish. Mr. Norton said this works out at around 780 Australian dollars per person annually. "The level of public investment in these people is very, very small," he said. Additionally, members of the LHAI have no access to public libraries, bitumen roads, recreational facilities or public buses and lack ready access to some public health services. Yet, they pay rent, have high power costs, and contribute tax on income earned by workers and others on government employment programs. The combined effect of these factors will force people to move from their homelands, argued Mr. Norton. But while concerns over the outlook for homeland communities continue to be expressed—copies of the "Working Future" plan were burned by demonstrators in Arnhem Land on June12—critics also point to recent evidence outlining the health benefits for those living on their ancestral homelands. A collaborative study titled "Healthy Country, Healthy People" by researchers from several Australian universities and institutes, published in June in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that people participating in customary and contemporary land and sea management practices—particularly those living on homelands—can benefit significantly through frequent exercise and better diet, leading to reductions in rates of obesity, diabetes, renal and cardiovascular disease, as well as a reduction in psychological stress.