The cultural heritage cost of Kakadu tourism


Ubirr Rock We sat, perhaps 200 of us, Australian and overseas visitors, atop Ubirr Rock to watch the sun set over an ancient land. The sunsets in Kakadu are spectacular. It's as if the sun is absorbed into the landscape. The sky, trees, rocks and wetlands are all bathed in an orange glow. The beauty of it silences us all.

From Ubirr the wetlands, verdant and abundant with birdlife, stretch to the fringing escarpment whose rocky cliffs look to be crumbling with age. In a place so full of the beauties of nature, one feels keenly the absence of its traditional owners. For us to experience this view, they lost their land.

I recently visited the Top End. The Northern Territory is not like down south. Its vegetation is different, its weather is different, its people are in many ways different. It's a place that many Australians know little about. The wartime secrecy surrounding the bombing of Darwin seems to have never been entirely lifted. I never knew, until I visited the city, how many Japanese raids — over 60 — it experienced.

The Aboriginal presence in the NT is much more obvious than it is in Melbourne or Sydney. I feel sad and a little angry that I have to travel several thousand kilometres across the country to fill in the absences about Aboriginal history that Australians of my generation — schooled in the '70s and '80s — were never taught.

I don't know enough about Aboriginal history, culture, economy and environmental practices because I wasn't taught about them at school. I'm afraid that, in the very recent past, this ignorance has reached the highest levels of our political leadership.

The Howard approach to 'practical reconciliation' always betrayed a profound ignorance about the reasons for indigenous disadvantage, but also an extremely shallow understanding of how societies function. At an individual and societal level, lack of power — that is, lack of control over one's life — is deeply destructive. Disempowered communities quickly become frustrated and dysfunctional. Disempowered individuals retreat into despair or lash out in anger — dysfunctional communities, even nations, do the same.

One of the biggest problems for Australia's indigenous people is lack of power. The destruction of ATSIC, even though the organisation was a flawed vehicle for indigenous empowerment, only exacerbated the problem. 'Practical reconciliation' and the intervention into indigenous communities also reinforce disempowerment by doing things to or for indigenous people, rather than giving them the power and resources to do things for themselves.

The local people of Injaluk in Arnhem Land are proud custodians of an ancient and living artistic tradition, which is manifested in many forms, most spectacularly in rock painting. Injaluk Hill is a veritable open air art gallery, with rock paintings dating back thousands of years expressing everyday domestic themes and themes of great spiritual depth.

When I visited Injaluk and other Arnhem Land communities a permit was needed. This is, after all, Aboriginal-owned land, and, as the traditional owners frequently pointed out, you don't just walk into a suburban backyard without asking for the owner's permission.

The permit system has given the community some power over their land, over who visits, in what numbers, and, importantly, with what purpose in mind.

Significantly, and this is a point that has largely been neglected in the discussion about the former Howard government's intervention in the Northern Territory, the permit system gave the traditional owners control over their cultural resources. Having the power to control and manage their own cultural resources is important to the maintenance of cultural identity, social cohesion and vitality. It is also an important element of economic development. Retaining control over tourism to the rock painting sites ensures that traditional owners can reap some of the benefits of tourism.

Perhaps even more important than this, though, is that the permit system has allowed better management and preservation of a priceless, irreplaceable but extremely vulnerable cultural heritage site. In neighbouring Kakadu, with its national park and World Heritage status, rock art sites are carefully protected by barriers and rangers. The protection measures at Injaluk take the form of local traditional owners who guide visitors. This system of protection has been dependent on the permit system that allows traditional owners to control visitors to their land.

There is a great fear among the traditional owners in Arnhem Land and other parts of the Northern Territory about the dismantling of the permit system. To destroy the permit system would be a profound blow against indigenous communities. It would expose valuable cultural heritage sites like Injaluk to unsympathetic and destructive tourism, and prevent traditional owners from managing such sites for their own benefit.

More distressingly, though, it would further contribute to the disempowerment of indigenous communities and foster the kinds of social dysfunction Australian governments claim to be concerned about. The Rudd Government should at the very least overturn this element of the Howard intervention, and properly consult indigenous communities about measures to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

On the way back to Kakadu from Arnhem Land we detoured past the Ranger uranium mine. One can't help but compare that blighted landscape with the serene, breathtaking beauty of Ubirr Rock and all it surveys. One can't help wondering, too, if the stuff they dig from Ranger's pit will have more bearing on the future of the permit system than Injaluk's fragile art Injaluk — no matter which party rules in Canberra.

Colin LongColin Long lectures in cultural heritage at Deakin University. He is an urban historian with interests in Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian history and heritage, Australian urban and labour history, and heritage in post-communist societies. He is also the President of the Deakin Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union. Flickr image of Ubirr Rock by ciamabue.



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Existing comments

Excellent summary highlighting the near total absence of indigenous history and simple people-land interaction studies in our education system. I could repeat many other examples from personal experience in the related heritage area of Lake Mungo. This is an issue of national educational importance to be taken to the doorstep of the Rudd government especially relevant to changes in national curriculum agendas.

Jim Bowler | 05 February 2008  

it's all part of cul. hari.

arvind karnany | 07 February 2008  

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