National

Waging a war over land rights

Ali Cobby Eckermann  

In her book of poems, Love Dreaming, aboriginal writer Ali Cobby Eckermann from Australia writes, “Every grain of sand in this big red country is a pore on the skin of my family.” Her writing and her new book, Too Afraid to Cry reflect the alienation of the ‘Stolen generation’ of children who were selectively taken away from their families and raised by white people and also the plight of her people who are waging a war over land rights.

Thousands of people from indigenous communities plan to hold massive protests over land issues on Australia Day on January 26, she says. Protests are continuing in various parts of Australia over mining uranium and minerals and even Kakadu National Park, on the UNESCO World Heritage Site is under threat.

In New Delhi to deliver the annual Navayana lecture, she told The Hindu in an interview that a serious lack of understanding between cultures persists in Australia at a political level and with mining it has expanded. “We worry for our children. Now the Western Australian government wants to use bulldozers and close 150 or 180 small aboriginal communities — they say it is not sustainable to keep these communities going. Where do these people go? They can wander to the city to become a makeshift community under tarpaulin as they are not going to rehouse them,” she says.

The sudden move, she suspects, is to do with mining and removing people from the area so that even that little bit of resistance is gone. That’s the scary part but the aboriginal people will survive. It’s all about land, the war is over land, she says and no one really articulates it like that. “Why would they want these remote areas which are mineral rich to be emptied of people. Western Australia is among the richest mining areas but why is not the government saying some percentage of that mining rights should go to the community. That doesn’t happen, the miners don’t pay tax and we watch the money fly away,” she points out.

Referring to the civil nuclear deal between India and Australia, she said, “Please consider when you support nuclear energy in India what happens to our culture. There will be a slow erosion of human rights but we will fight for the right of our children to have rights of lands.”

The government has given approvals for uranium mines in western Australia. Hailing from South Australia, she said this was a place of ancient knowledge. “In aboriginal culture we do not own the land, we belong to the land and the land does not belong to us, the land is our heart, “she says.

The struggle for land in the mid 70s when people drove to Adelaide and demanded their land back had resulted in some rights being restored. There was a strong law in place on mining but unknown to many communities the government in 2008 has sneaked in amendments which do not provide for negotiations as in the past. “So if a community agrees to exploration it has virtually given away the right to mining as well,” Ms. Eckermann adds.

In Northern Territory some ten years ago the government had proposed nuclear waste storage sites but a group of women pensioners living in old age homes got together with support from Friends of the Earth and fought the government and managed to convince them that this was not a good idea. Ms Eckermann who has learnt a lot from what she calls the “struggle of my grandmothers”, says the women essentially told the government from a cultural perspective their aversion to the nuclear waste dump on their lands and part of that was because they were young girls when the Maralinga atomic testing took place by the British in the 1950s. Many had lost their family in the nuclear fallout and for these women, it was an environmental war- and a cultural war and they were so dignified in their protest, she says.”I don’t know how they did it. They said never raise your voice except to sing traditional songs and they told the government to “get your ears out of your pockets.” It was a such a grass roots victory and there was no more room for lying and deceit. This was a jury of traditional women, against younger white men and the women won,” she grins.

Thousands of people from indigenous communities plan to hold massive protests over land issues on Australia Day on January 26 which many also call Invasion day for that’s when Captain Cook arrived on the country’s shores. Protests are continuing in various parts of Australia over mining uranium and minerals and even Kakadu National Park, on the UNESCO World Heritage Site is under threat. Forty years ago, four young men in protest put up a “tent embassy” on the lawns of Parliament. They squatted under the beach tent demanding their rights over land, Ms Eckermann said and till today there is no proper discussion with aboriginal communities over anything leave alone environmental impacts of mining . She said if at all mining has to happen, at least local communities should benefit from it.

“We are still waiting for a proper meeting with the government which respects our culture. We can’t do things in a hurry, you have to sit with us over three days, until the ego part of human nature melts and there is a true conversation and some honesty kicks in. That’s what the old ladies did,” she explains.

“It has been a long journey of legal and moral deceit and they thought if they kept it up for a few generations that we would fade away. But the stolen generation- they wanted to breed the black out of, came back and started to find their families,” she adds. “They thought we would be grateful for being raised in white families but most of us children as soon as we turned 18, we started looking for our family – they never factored in that we would go looking for our families. I don’t think they think things straight. They don’t know how to sit in the sand- that’s what my grandmothers used to say.”

It’s also about being allowed to heal from the depradations inflicted on the people over time. “Land is like my family, that rock is like my grandfather and that sand dune is my mother. We have our ways and they can be customised to modern life but the core wisdom won’t change. We have to stop the intergenerational social impacts but every time the government meets us they have no concept of land or the people. And then we are called ungrateful, “she concludes.


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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 6:53:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ali-cobby-eckermann-waging-a-war-over-land-rights/article6800001.ece

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