December 14, 2011
Mining boomtowns now dot the landscape of Western Australia, but in nearby Roebourne abject poverty still plagues a desperate population. As investment continues to flow into these new extraction townships, the opportunities for Roebourne’s indigenous population continue to shrink.
Below is an article published by The Guardian:
It's 11am on a Saturday and Sholl Street, Roebourne, shows few signs of life, aside from scores of empty beer bottles that have festooned the fence of a boarded-up shack. A man taps me on the shoulder. "Can't go in there, love," he warns, clutching a stubbie. He points to the dwelling's dilapidated extension and mouths: "asbestos". The symbolism of mineral contamination is remarkably convenient for Roebourne, a pocket of abject poverty nestled amid some of Western Australia's wealthiest mining townships.
At the heart of Australia's boom is the Pilbara, a region spanning 502,000 sq km, where jagged cliff tops and gorges flank the engine room of the Australian economy. More than $237bn was poured into mining projects this year  with the expectation of increased export growth.
Many commentators fear this economic growth is lopsided, deepening the chasm between the mining sector and the rest of the economy. It seems especially apparent in remote communities such as Roebourne, home not even to two-speed growth, but of development stuck in reverse.
Bedevilled by alcohol-related violence, high truancy rates and poverty, Roebourne's plight seems anomalous in a region where severe labour shortages have driven up average wages to more than $110,000 per year, notably in mining towns such as Karratha and Dampier.
Roebourne flourished in the gold boom from 1890 to 1912. An influx of European migrants made the settlement the largest between Darwin and Perth, but it also led to the swift dispossession and displacement of the town's indigenous community, who were subject to curfews and relegated to outlying camps. It was not until the 60s – when the discovery of iron ore created the towns of Karratha and Dampier, which drained workers from Roebourne – that Aborigines returned.
Today, the population of 1,000 is 75% Aborigine, home mostly to the Ngarluma people, but also to the Banyijima and Yindjibarndi communities. It has one school, a swimming pool and a youth centre. Healthcare and the community services sector are integral to the economy, although most workers live in larger settlements such as Karratha, some 40km away, and neighbouring Wickham.
The Roebourne report, released by the department of indigenous affairs last year, paints a stark picture of the town's problems: alcohol consumption three times the national average; a 12% high school completion rate; and some dwellings housing 15 to 20 people.
Rosie Clements, an outreach nurse who lives in Karratha, believes the solution lies in maintaining social services, although even that is fraught with difficulties. "Costs have gone through the roof," she says, referring to rents that have topped $2,000 per week and utilities costs of up to $1,000 a quarter. "It's hard for not-for-profits to retain staff, when mining companies are offering dream wages."
Some in the Aboriginal community, such as West Australian of the Year Mark Bin Bakar, blame political complacency. "There's no consideration for investment into Roebourne," he told the West Australian newspaper. "Roebourne is the blackfellas' town and Karratha is where the mainstream live".
Disputes over land access foster further resentment. The Fortescue Metals Group, which has acquired a limited right to mine in Yindjibarndi country, told the community they had to request permission to enter cultural sites. The company said it would photograph and video Yindjibarndi sites, as well as people performing rituals and paying their respects to the land. Michael Woodley, CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, described these rules as "apartheid-like". "We have come here to record our heritage, check on the safety of and purify our ancestral burials, and talk to the country," he said. "It was laws like this that tried to break the connections of our people to country and the rituals that are the foundations of our religious beliefs and language."
But others, such as head of the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi Foundation, Evan Maloney, retain a guarded optimism. "Roebourne is helping itself as best it can without much help from the outside," Maloney says, referring to community-driven initiatives on the restriction of alcohol, educating the community about child abuse and the engagement of a burgeoning artistic community as examples of self-determination.
There are other signs that hint at a turning tide. The state government has set up a Royalties for Regions project that invests 25% of mining royalties in regional areas. This has funded projects this year , including a 380-lot residential development for indigenous people, a youth centre and an arts studio.
Nonetheless, the cultural and geographical distance between Roebourne and the state's decision-makers is large. But Clements remains quietly hopeful. The policy is, at least, a "tentative step in the right direction. The last thing the community needs is a quick fix."
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