A couple of years ago, on a fact-finding mission for the Origins Festival of First Nations, I traveled from Perth to the remote town of Broome in the north of Western Australia, talking about indigenous culture with my friend Michelle Broun, who was Aboriginal Arts Officer for Arts, Western Australia, at the time.
On the other side of me sat a middle-aged, red-faced, overweight white man, typical of the plane’s occupants, who was silent throughout the flight. As we came down into Broome airport, Michelle pointed out the numerous little biplanes distributed beside the runway: ‘They use those to get out to the communities.’ Suddenly, the man could contain himself no longer. He turned to me and said very firmly: ‘We call them mining sites.’
I was reminded of this neo-colonial encounter by a recent New Internationalist blog post from Topsoil, about Aboriginal protests against a Liquid Natural Gas Precinct.
It’s a sadly familiar tale.
During that same trip, I met the indigenous playwright David Milroy, who is active in Native Title claims. David told me stories of multi-national companies persuading Elders, who do not read or speak much English, to sign complex contracts in which their land rights are given away.
Australia’s Native Title legislation was fiercely resisted by the mining companies; but its practical benefit for indigenous people is limited anyway, since the title to land does not include any rights to minerals in the land, or to trees and vegetation on it.
In the Northern Territory, the Howard government’s 2007 intervention suspended all Aboriginal land rights; it was done, ostensibly, to protect children from sexual abuse – though quite how that would work defeats me – but more likely to simply allow free access for corporations.
Colonialism is back with a vengeance. The only difference today is that the aggressors are not privateers and pioneers armed with beads and bibles, but international corporations, so powerful and so prosperous that they answer to no government, but rather expect governments to answer to them.
The effect of this 21st century land-grab on indigenous peoples is as catastrophic as that of the earlier waves of imperial aggression. Look through the cultures represented in the coming Origins Festival, and the story is the same time after time.
In West Papua, colonized by Indonesia with Western support since 1961, oil and mineral companies are given free rein to evict local people from their homelands. The Freeport mining operation is the world’s second largest copper mine, and the world’s largest known gold deposit. The region around this mine is closed off to outsiders, and last year there was a spate of shootings there, believed by many to be linked with the Indonesian military’s suppression of the independence struggle. The vast waste deposits of the mine are making river water toxic, destroying fertile lands to the extent that the Komoro people have been forced to stop consuming sago, their staple food.
Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony, illegally occupied by Morocco since 1975, with many indigenous Saharawi fleeing to refugee camps in Algeria. The activist group Western Sahara Resource Watch argues that Potash Corp, the world’s largest fertilizer company which exports phosphates from the land, props up this deeply oppressive colonization.
In North America, the Anishinaabe people are fighting to defend their sacred site at Eagle Rock on the shores on Lake Superior against planned blasting by Rio Tinto in pursuit of nickel and copper.
In the Arctic, the Inuit have been successful in securing a measure of autonomy and self-government (most notably the establishment of Nunavut); but with the melting of the ice cap, the land is being increasingly exposed, and the corporations are prospecting for oil, gas and minerals, which – again – results in the displacement of indigenous people and the destruction of traditional lifestyles.
In New Zealand, the Waitangi Tribunal is dealing with Māori assertions of sovereignty over lands the mining companies wish to acquire.
And so on.
As part of the 10 per cent of the world that consumes 85 per cent of its resources, the British people are pretty strongly implicated in all of this. What’s more, many of the mining companies – Rio Tinto being the prime example – are run from the City of London. It’s high time that the indigenous people come to London, and that their voices are heard in what remains a centre of colonial aggression.
That’s what the Origins Festival is aiming to do.
Origins: Festival of First Nations is taking place in London, UK, 28 June –9 July 2011.
Michael Walling is Artistic Director of Border Crossings and director of the Origins Festival of First Nations. He is also Visiting Professor at Rose Bruford College, and has published widely on theatre, interculturalism and human rights.