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Remote Aboriginal Communities in Western Australia Are Facing Closure

"What the rest of the country takes for granted, we're fighting for now."

All photos by Kepa Lousi photography.

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.

Ardyaloon is a small Aboriginal community in northern Western Australia. It's located at the point on the Dampier Peninsula where the Indian Ocean meets the King Sound. Also known as One Arm Point, Ardyaloon has a population of around 330. The traditional owners are the Bardi Jawi people, who have a seafaring culture.

The community at Ardyaloon is living on country, practicing traditional customs and obligations to the land. They're also one of 274 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia that could have their municipal and essential services cut. Last November, state premier Colin Barnett announced that up to 150 of these communities could face closure, deeming them economically unviable.

"All communities face closure until such time that the government tells us what criteria they're going to use to determine which communities are viable," said Dean Gooda, chief executive of Ardyaloon Incorporated, the elected governing body of the community.

Last September, the federal government—which for decades had been providing funding for 180 of the communities—announced it was handing over the responsibility to the state government on July 1 of this year, with $90 million in funding to cover a two-year transitional period. Barnett said the funding was not enough and that over half the communities could be shut down.

However late last month, two leaked documents revealed that the state government had been researching the option of closing some of these communities since 2010.

Following the leak—which implied the closures have little to do with the cut in federal funding—Western Australia Aboriginal affairs minister Peter Collier said a new framework to determine which communities will survive is being considered and that consultations with communities will take place before any closures.

Barnett turned his rhetoric to claims of child abuse in remote communities, asserting that closures were needed due to child safety. On March 19, he announced 39 cases of gonorrhoea in Aboriginal children had been found, but later admitted he didn't know if any of these cases were from remote communities.

According to Gooda, the state government is proposing the closures solely due to budgetary issues. The $90 million provided by the federal government is not enough for all the communities to continue. And subsequent talk of child abuse, education, and employment is a case of the government attacking Aboriginal people to further justify their decision.

"This is about the provision of essential services. All we're saying to the government is we want clean water, functioning sewage systems, rubbish collection, and waste management," said Gooda, adding that what the rest of the country takes for granted, "we're fighting for now."

But while Indigenous community leaders agree that moving people from these remote communities will have detrimental effects—such as homelessness, dispossession from land and culture, and a rise in suicide rates—not all agree the closures are due to budgetary concerns.

Kurni Nelson Bieundurry, a Walmatjarri and Wangkatjungka man, believes the real reason the government wants to move people from these areas is due to mining interests. "Most of those communities that he wants to close are all in the Kimberleys and there's a big push for mining companies to come through here," he said, citing the recent case of Buru Energy securing agreements with three Aboriginal communities to gain access to the Ungani oil field.

Wangkatjungka is an Aboriginal community of about 130, located in the central west Kimberley, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. It's part of the Kurungal communities: three communities with close ties to the desert that hold native title over the local area. Its largest employer is the remote community school. At present new houses are being built, which a few young men are working on.

Bieundurry, who lives in Wangkatjungka, is the chairperson of the Kurungal communities. He says it's important for people to stay on the land because cultural practices take place there and it's where their ancestors are buried. He explained that due to the uncertainty of the situation, most people in the communities are living with a large element of fear.

Last month, 18,000 people turned out to marches around the nation to protest the closures. Bieundurry initiated this protest movement on social media. "I suggested we have one coordinated march across the Kimberley in every major town, then things just moved along really quickly from there," he told VICE. The Stop the Forced Closure of Aboriginal Communities rallies are set to take place again in capitals and regional centers across Australia on May 1.

Jimmy Bieundurry, Nelson's father, was one of the leaders of the 1979 Noonkanbah standoff. This was the first Aboriginal resistance to mining in the Kimberley and the Kimberley Land Council was born out of this movement. Last week, two representatives from the council attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York and presented a submission condemning the proposed closures, which contravene the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Ebony Hill is a Gooniyandi and Jabirr Jabirr woman from Broome who lived at Ardyaloon on and off as a teenager. She credits a lot of her cultural knowledge from her time spent amongst the Bardi mob. "There are 20 communities from the Gooniyandi nation that are going to be closed around the Fitzroy Valley area, that's 20 communities just from my people," she said.

Many of the remote communities were part of the 1970s homelands movement that saw Aboriginal people returning to the land they'd previously been moved off. "It was people saying, 'I want to live on country. I'm happier and healthier living on country. I want to go back,'" Hill said.

The reason people are now being pushed off their homelands once more, Hill believes, is due to the drive toward the industrialization of the Kimberley. "Mining and industry are talking about making the Kimberley the next food bowl for the country. Up Kununurra and the Ord, they're still talking about damming our rivers," she said, going on to explain that the longer people are not occupying their land, the more diminished their claims of native title become due to the connection criteria.

Hill has heard rumors the unions might attend the rallies on Friday. "May Day is about a national response to Colin Barnett, to Tony Abbott and to the state of indigenous land justice in this country in general," the Sydney University law student said. "I hope to see Aussies out there: black, white, and brindle standing up to the government saying this is not right."

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