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Special UN Report: Dumping down under

UNITED NATIONS - Everyone has heard of dumping toxic wastes in Indian country - ask the Skull Valley Goshute or the Western Shoshone. For those looking for something on a slightly bigger scale, now there's Australia.

Les Malezer addressed the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in May about an unprecedented offer. Days before, the Australian government had made a historic bid for Aboriginal land in South Australia where it intends to dispose of toxic wastes. Malezer, Human Rights Officer with the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Resource Action (FAIRA), spoke to the Forum about the price tendered: $90,000 to each of three aboriginal groups for a plot of 2.5 square kilometers.

"This is the first time that any form of compensation has ever been offered to Aboriginal peoples," says Malezer, "but it's still way beyond what we're prepared to even consider as reasonable in the situation. It would be hard to think of any amount that would be reasonable, but the fact that the government offered such a paltry amount for this land is shocking."

FAIRA, a non-profit indigenous group based in Brisbane, was founded in 1977 to fight discrimination in Queensland state. Traditionally funded by churches, unions, and charity organizations, it now carries on work in land claims, repatriation of human remains, and international indigenous rights. Only peoples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent are permitted to vote and serve in the organization, although others can claim honorary membership.

The land in question, Malezer says, is intended to store level one, low-grade waste, on the order of medical supplies like x-rays. But it's an area where people were exposed to high-level radioactivity after nuclear testing in the 1950s. People still talk about the "black mist," or radioactive cloud, that swept through the south after atomic weapons testing a half century ago.

In recent years the government has recognized Aboriginal title to these lands, located in the Woomera region. But the offer is "simply bringing a problem back in for the indigenous peoples," warns Malezer, who suspects the government has bigger plans in store.

With less than half the population density of Nevada, Australia is a prime candidate to store any waste. Britain has expressed interest in burying nuclear waste in South Australia and Western Australia. The government has already agreed to accept 100 tons of organic pollutants from Pacific islands for eventual destruction in the outback.

Given that the Woomera region has been subjected to atomic testing already, Malezer reasons, the gates are open for nuclear storage, too. Since "the country's paid well to take [waste], it'll go where indigenous peoples are living because of space."

Poor communities are often targeted to store high-tech refuse. And the poorest are usually rural, removed from health services and urban amenities, vulnerable to governments that stash hazardous materials in remote areas where votes are few and protests barely audible.

Aboriginal health is shaky as it is without having to worry about toxic dumping. Indigenous communities suffer from a high incidence of diabetes and heart-related problems. Infant mortality is high. Self-injury, domestic violence, and alcohol abuse are common.

Life expectancy is so low (55 years) that last year the head of the Australian Medical Association called the Aboriginal condition a "national disgrace."

Health problems, which began with smallpox in the colonial period, were aggravated by removal. Aboriginals who lived on the densely populated east coast were scattered far and wide under the reserve system in the early 20th century. Malezer, who lives in Brisbane, has great uncles and aunts separated by hundreds of miles to the north, south, and west, typical of the psychic cost exacted from Aboriginal families during their dispersal.

Reserve land was set-aside in trust in the remote interior. But the early belief that Aborigines were fast disappearing, and that native people wouldn't be there to hold the land for long, proved false. In the past 30 years, there's been a push to give lands in title to Aborigines, especially in secluded regions like Woomera.

"Very few areas have actually been recognized by the government or by the system as being Native-title held," says Malezer. "Even though people might hold title under common law, that title is not recognized until those people go through a court process and prove that title beyond all doubt" - which is not a happy process, he adds. "You could say no more than 15-20 percent of indigenous people in Australia have title to land."

Australia has no Aboriginal treaties. Recognition of Native rights has been a slow, contested process. Experiments with land have been limited to far-flung areas - much as they have, for example, in Canada, where Ottawa granted self-government to the Inuit of Nunavut in a place far removed from demographic and economic pressures.

The failing health of Native communities is also tied to cultural collapse. "The language for our group was banned from the turn of last century," recounts Malezer. Now about 3,000 strong, the group was scattered during removal across a couple thousand square miles, stretching an already fragile language across much of a continent.

"The biggest problem we have for the majority of Aboriginal people is the population of the language speaking group is not big enough to keep a language viable." His group language, Gubbi Gubbi, has been recorded and written down, but only two or three elderly fluent speakers remain.

The government not only created divisions in Aboriginal communities, it capitalized on them, too. "One of the problems we have in Australia," Malezer continues, "is that we have so much diversity in languages." Unlike the Maori in neighboring New Zealand, Aborigines lacked a common language, making resistance to conquest difficult. While as many as 260 distinct tongues existed in Australia before colonization, half have disappeared entirely. Only 10 to 20 remain as first languages.

Though not a Gubbi Gubbi speaker himself, he agrees that "language is one way in which people can actually gain pride and identity. With their language comes appreciation of cultural ties, of attachments, of relationship with land and other people." But he doubts that learning another native tongue, at this point, is even viable.

"[Aboriginals] would rather not learn another language than learn it for the sake of setting up a pan-indigenous identity," he contends. "You're really giving away your culture and your identity by learning somebody else's." Group ethnicity, he suggests, remains a powerful bond even when a language has disappeared.

Despite removal and fragmentation, Aboriginal communities persist. Three of them must now decide whether to sell their land in Woomera for toxic storage. Malezer, with some misgivings, says they just might do it.

"There's no concept for us that we can actually lose our land ? You can do things to make the land sick, and you can do things that are taboo that break laws," he explains, "but you can't change it. It's quite possible that indigenous groups will take money ? but at the same time not believe that they're giving up their relationship with the land."

The problem, as the FAIRA rep sees it, is much broader. "In dealing with these issues internationally, the states are still very keen - particularly in the Canada, Australia, New Zealand, U.S. experiences - to not deal collectively in relation to a common issue.

"But [they] deal individually, saying ? 'nobody's to interfere with the way the state deals with it.' And yet the experiences are common deliberately because policies were shared."

Malezer, his universal pitch wrapped in a broad Aussie accent, offers a caution: indigenous politics, even when tied to the land, have gone global.