Rich in Land, [Australian] Aborigines Split on How to Use It – by Norimitsu Onishi (New York Times – February 12, 2011)

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BROOME, Australia — Australia is experiencing a natural resources boom, driven by China’s headlong modernization, that is often described as a once-in-a-century phenomenon. It has minted billionaires out of businessmen who deal in iron ore and coal, and it has enriched many Australians by increasing the value of their homes and creating well-paying jobs.

But it has conspicuously left out Aboriginal Australians, whose home ownership and education levels fall below the national averages. High unemployment and widespread alcoholism have continued to debilitate isolated Aboriginal communities here in northwestern Australia, on the other side of the continent from the major cities along the eastern coast.

As resource companies push ever deeper into Australia’s remotest areas, however, Aboriginal leaders are leveraging their rights as traditional landowners to negotiate deals with companies and governments that are seeking to develop their holdings. They say the potential windfall — hundreds of millions of dollars — will rescue their communities from their long dependence on welfare and state subsidies.

“These resources booms come along maybe every 50 to 100 years, big ones like this,” said Wayne Bergmann, 41, a lawyer and executive director of the Kimberley Land Council, the largest Aboriginal group here. “So if we don’t get positioned during this next stage, the chances are we’re going to be locked out of the opportunities that are going to help build the economic basis for our families in the future. We can’t sit back.”

The Kimberley Council has strongly backed a plan to build a $30 billion liquefied natural gas plant in James Price Point, an uninhabited spot 37 miles north of here and accessible only by a dirt road. But the project has drawn fierce opposition from environmentalists, who say it will destroy a pristine area of the country and hurt Broome, the major tourist town in this part of Australia. Environmentalists and other critics have also supported a different group of Aboriginal leaders who oppose the plant because of the location’s spiritual significance.

Because of the standoff between the two Aboriginal groups, the government of Western Australia State has moved to seize the land through “compulsory acquisition,” a procedure similar to eminent domain. Coming two decades after Aborigines won limited control over their traditional lands, the decision has led to accusations that the government is involved in neo-colonialism, “invasion” and the “theft” of Aboriginal land.

Aboriginal leaders are now under pressure to come to agreement within six months. If they fail, the National Native Title Tribunal will deliver a ruling — most likely in the government’s favor, experts say. But the process could take more than a year and amount to a public relations setback for the government as well as the politically connected developer, Woodside, Australia’s biggest oil and gas company.

Woodside and its partners would ship natural gas from the Indian Ocean about 250 miles west of here through a pipeline to the proposed plant in James Price Point, where it would be liquefied for export, most likely to China. According to a preliminary agreement between the land council and the government and Woodside, the project would bring in an estimated $1.5 billion in royalties, contracts and other forms of compensation to the Aboriginal community here over the next three decades.

James Price Point’s red craggy shoreline is on the western coast of a peninsula that juts into the ocean. It is untouched except for a “No Gas” sign.

For the Goolarabooloo community, the Point is also the nexus of a “songline” whose path was recorded in Aboriginal songs, dances and other cultural activities, said Joseph Roe, a leader of the group.

Mr. Roe, 44, the most prominent Aboriginal opponent of the gas project, said he was defending his culture and “sense of country.” Aboriginal supporters of the gas plant, he said, are just “out for the money.”

“They don’t know how to connect to country anymore,” he said. “They walk around with a dead feeling, these people, inside them.

“People make choices — I didn’t go anywhere for schooling. I stayed here and practiced and studied my law for 24 years of my life,” Mr. Roe said, referring to Aboriginal customs and traditions.

Supported by environmentalists, Mr. Roe has spoken out against the project here and in Australia’s major cities.

Mr. Bergmann has accused the environmentalists, most of whom are not Aborigines, of paternalism. The project’s opponents, he said, wanted Aborigines to remain “museum pieces” bound to their land. Supporters, he added, have been unfairly accused of “selling out” when they simply want Aborigines to benefit from the mining boom the way white Australians have.

Frank Parriman, who is an ally of Mr. Bergmann’s on the land council, said that economic development was the only way for Aboriginal communities to become independent.

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