Don’t Destroy Homelands, Says Amnesty

Amnesty International's report into Indigenous homelands.

Amnesty International Chief Salil Shetty recently met with MP Jenny Macklin and opposition MPs in Canberra to demand an end to the Northern Territory’s Growth Towns policy, which encourages the removal of Indigenous people from their traditional homelands into regional hub towns.

After spending 12 days touring the country and meeting local spokespeople and community members living under the N.T Intervention in the Utopia region, Shetty said shocked at what he saw.

“I can’t believe I’m actually in one of the richest countries in the world and you have people, Aboriginal communities here who are living in conditions which are really almost inhumane,” adding “I think it’s quite shocking that you can have this level of poverty and this level of lack of basic facilities.”

Shetty’s visit coincided with last month’s release of Amnesty International’s report The land holds us: Aboriginal Peoples’ right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory, which recommends urgent political and financial support for homelands and details the ways in which current Government policies undermine the basic rights of Aboriginal people who wish to stay on their homelands, as well as directly ignoring aspects of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Government is currently funding the creation of 20 major growth towns or “mega shires”, which receive almost $800 million in housing, while on remote communities and homelands, no new houses are built and the minimum standard of repairs are maintained.

As Community Leader and Utopia resident Rosalie Kunoth Monks told Salil Shetty, that her people want to stay on the land, but are forced to deal with overcrowding, and lack of access to basic facilities like electricity and water. She believes the Government policy is about forced assimilation and the acquisition of land for mining.

“It’s not that they’re coming here with bulldozers or getting the army to move us it’s that they’re trying to starve us out of our home,” she said.

“They won’t support us becoming sustainable in our own right.

“If you’re made to feel a second class humanity, if it’s not ethnic cleansing please let me know what it is.”

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People James Anaya has echoed the report by Amnesty, saying the “health of Indigenous people living on homelands is significantly better than those living in larger communities.”

Amnesty International Chief Salil Shetty. Photo: Matt Writtle

As well as maintaining a spiritual and cultural connection to their country, Amnesty International have also supported the voices of many Indigenous Elders who oppose the policy, saying that homelands communities also retain some measure of community control and agency, quoting many examples of strong self-governance models.

“I think there is a fundamental problem. I think at one level the government doesn’t fully understand how central the relationships Aboriginal people have with land,” Shetty said.

“It’s not just the physical aspect. It’s a cultural aspect, it’s their identity, it’s their spirit, and it’s their ancestors.”

A 2005 research paper entitled Healthy Country: Healthy People? Exploring the Health Benefits of Indigenous Land Resource Management shows that Indigenous Australians living on their traditional homelands are significantly healthier and live a lot longer.

Further research conducted by Amnesty International Australia has also shown that homelands can be economically sustainable, forming a central part of the N.T tourism industry and contributing almost 6 percent of the Territory’s economy.

Paddy Gibson some impacts of the N.T Intervention.

Sail Shetty has said that during their discussion, Jenny Macklin admitted that homelands communities were one of the most disadvantaged in Australia, saying

“She has given us a commitment, from the guarantee that these homeland communities will not be pushed out of their land, and that they will get their requisite funding, with a clear plan and budget in the coming months,” he said.

“We have offered to work closely with them, to support and help them, and, at the same time, we will be holding them to account.”

Barbara Shaw, resident of Mt Nancy town camp in Alice Springs, on the effects of the Intervention.

For Professor John Altman’s discussion of the destruction of traditional homelands in The Conversation, click: here.

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