Australian mining boom leaves Aboriginal town behind

(Permission to post this story here was given by Marc Lavine, Bureau Chief, Australia, of Agence France Presse)

ROEBOURNE, Australia (AFP) - - The windows of Roebourne's once-thriving main street have been boarded up and its pavement is littered with the shards of shattered beer bottles.
Aboriginal elder Peter Jeffries gestures a weathered hand toward the abandoned banks and offices in the Western Australian town, their peeling facades bleached by the desert sun.
"This used to be the main town, it had all the agencies. All the companies did business here," he says. "It's a shell of what it used to be. Roebourne's been left behind."
Originally settled in the late 18th century gold rush, Roebourne was reduced to a virtual ghost town in the 1960s, when mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton developed the towns of Karratha and Dampier to accommodate their workers.
Farmers forced the local Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi tribes off the land and Aboriginal people were banned from entering Roebourne at all until the late 1960s, when it was reclaimed as a native township following the miners' exodus.
Today it sits just 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Australia's lucrative iron ore mines, but wealth and progress have passed the people of Roebourne by.
"In the last 20 years we've seen zero benefits," says local mine worker Vince Adams.
"The houses have slowly degenerated to nothing, they live in faeces. You go to any one of the houses in this community and you will find 15, 20 adults living in a three bedroom house. Alcohol, sexual, drug, child abuse, we've got the whole lot."
"We are either alcoholics or drug addicts, and a minority of us work," he adds, with a bitter laugh.
Adams' two-year-old nephew died last year after touching live wires which had been exposed by a hole in the wall of his family's rundown house during a game of hide and seek.
The toddler's family can only afford the rent by sharing the house with almost a dozen other families.
Plumbing and other infrastructure is stretched to the limit and disease is rife. Children quite literally sleep where they can find space, and live in highly dysfunctional environments, Adams says.
The town's 50-year-old school is in a state of disrepair and there is no doctor or X-ray machine at the local hospital.
Men live, on average, to just 52 years of age in Roebourne and women 63, compared with the national average life expectancy of 79 years for men and 84 for women.
"Indigenous people are still living in third-world conditions, they are still dying faster, their education rate is still lower than the rest of Australia. We die more often from curable disease," Jeffries said.
Optimism prevailed in the 1980s when mining companies promised local tribes a share of profits in return for using land, but a 2005 study of Aboriginal living conditions in the Pilbara found many deals had brought little benefit.
The indigenous employment rate is roughly half that of the wider Pilbara community and their participation in the booming mining sector has remained relatively marginal, while the cost of living has skyrocketed.
They account for just five percent of income earned in the region -- three percent of mainstream earnings -- despite making up more than 15 percent of the population.
As much as 36 percent of the Aboriginal population is dependent on welfare.
"As an Aboriginal person you're better off on welfare in public housing, that's the reality, because the economy has gone crazy," said Simon Hawkins, chief of the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC).
The very act of mining is anathema to Aborigines' deep connection to and belief in origin from the land, but they are powerless to stop it, explains Hawkins, who mediates between local tribes and mining companies.
"There's no land rights legislation in Western Australia, mining will occur," he said. "It's a matter for the traditional owners of trying to negotiate the best terms that they can."
The highly confidential terms of land use agreements vary widely from compensation in the form of a lump sum or royalties, to training programmes or job guarantees.
But mining companies enjoyed 40 years of unadulterated profits before laws were passed requiring them to recognise Aboriginal claims over the land, during which time YMAC estimates 340 billion dollars of iron ore was exported to Asia.
Of the 16 billion dollars in mining profits made in 2008 Hawkins said less than 0.25 percent went back to Aborigines, while more than 35 percent of future production would come from mines not covered by land use agreements.
Jeffries, who represents the local Aboriginal people in contract negotiations, blames pervasive ignorance for their continuing plight.
"The wider community will never understand the connection that indigenous people have to our country. (The miners) only give us what they have to legally and it means absolutely nothing," he said.
"They take, take, take and they don't give back, and they use the excuse that they're just here to take the stuff out of the ground, but it goes bigger than that."
Unease about potential loss of culture was identified in the 2005 study by the Australian National University as one of the difficulties for Aborigines in engaging with the mining industry, and Adams says companies have been slow to appreciate their needs.
Some firms now include "cultural leave" in their contracts with Aboriginal workers to accommodate ceremonies marking births, initiations and funerals, but most are forced to forget their traditions, he says.
"It affects the people who are trying to carry on our law and culture, our whole community," he said, noting the particular impact of lengthy stints in mines on their complex kinship-based family system.



roebourne, wa. the pilbara town where 16 year old john pat was kicked to death by five off-duty coppers. all, including john, were drunk. all had been in the roebourne pub when a fight broke out. during the melee, john was beaten by the cops and thrown into the back of the paddy wagon, along with many other aborigines. at the police station he was dragged by his feet from the wagon and bashing his head to the ground. then they really got into him. and why? he had tried to protect his mate from the police. how dare he!

witnesses later described that the screams of the prisoners seemed to go on forever as the cops went from victim to victim. as normal in these brutal and tragic farces it was john who was charged with assault and resisting arrest. as were the others, i presume.

john died on 28 september 1983 and when his autopsy was done it was found that he had died of heart failure. the then pathologist found that the police had no case to answer. a tragedy for the family of course but the police had been found not guilty. that pathologist then became a professor and finished up running the glebe morgue. we had several vigorous discussions on the death of john pat but he never wavered that the wa cops were not to blame. this same professor of pathology was in charge of the glebe morgue when the infamous 'ratting' scandal hit the media. 'ratting' is the practice of searching the dead for money or valuables and keeping the proceeds.

another worse practice, but one not so glaringly highlighted by the media, was the professor agreeing to body parts being made available for genuine medical research, as he described it. a leg, an arm, a brain, whatever was required. i believe that both practices no longer occur, or one would hope they don't. the professor retired years ago.

the five cops were charged and went through a mickey mouse trial, twice i believe, only to be, a la hurley, found not guilty by the all-white juries. i understand that these five were the first ever charged over a black death in custody. unless you would want to revisit the Coniston massacre during 1928 in the nt.

john's death though did spark off our collective righteous outrage and the committee to defend black rights arranged for national family tours from which the sydney town hall meeting in april 1987 then called for not only the ongoing demand for a royal commission but also the formation of the aboriginal deaths in custody watch committee.

the rest as they say is history.

but enough digression, to the mining story.

it comes as no surprise that when the mining industry wanted to move on, it just did. they hold no loyalty to anything but the bottom line. what's a few townships?

the iron ore mines are all on aboriginal land but very little benefit comes from the so-called compensation, a pittance, or from royalties, equally a pittance. the mines are 40k away and yet our people live in a ghost town, nearly all on welfare and in inadequate housing. inadequate education and health facilities. 40+ years of government neglect and degradation.

mining payments are as nothing, employment is minimal due to a lack of education skills. not very many, if any, aborigines are getting the $1000++ a week that is being paid to those skilled workers who flock to the mining areas. are the shops and other facilities owned or managed by our people? of course not. there is no wealth here for our mobs, just more of that widening gap.

governments and the mining industry make a lot of promises to the traditional land owners but there is very little follow through. for over 100 years the land has just been used and abused, raped for its mineral wealth. we got nothing. people who complain of the few billions of dollars spent over the years on aboriginal affairs, as it is known, must know that that is a bloody pittance. wouldn't even cover key money.

since the invasion our lands have produced trillions of dollars and we live in poverty and all that that entails. this country has grown fat and wealthy off us and yet all we have is the gap. all we have is third grade justice as they continue to want to assimilate us.

the wealth of this land is ours as the traditional owners and i will leave it to your imagination where we would be today had we proper access to that wealth during the past 50 years even. give us our lands and our resources.


in 2008, we are told, the pilbara mines profits were some 16 billion dollars. the so- called royalties that are governed by both the industry and the wa government to the traditional owners was less than 40 million dollars. but where is it? who has it? where's it gone? nobody is saying but it is being said that little is getting to our people.

the article is an excellent but horrific expose of the falsity of the secret english that is used by the multinationals and the governments of Australia at all levels when they want our land and our resources.

please distribute this article far and wide as it is rare for the media to tell the truth.


ray jackson
indigenous social justice association

Hey Ray if you want $1000 -$2000 try to get your people to work instead of being a pack of lazy drunken bastards and if you think you have been treated bad try fighting for yourselves you weak prick grow some balls and fight man get your hands on some guns fight for your rights thats how white man has gained respect so stop piss moaning and crying like a sheila fight like a man yourself instead of using white men like diet to fight for you the white man is the enemy he is on your land.

The aboriginal people let the town run down themselves who's fault is that?