1983: Aboriginal self-reliance: finding a way back

The Lost Stories are Bill Mollison's articles published in the print magazine originally named Permaculture, then International Permaculture Journal and finally the Permaculture International Journal that was published between 1978 and 2000.

All stories and other content ©Permaculture Australia unless otherwise noted.

Story by Bill Mollison, May 1983. Edition 12.

Aboriginal self-reliance: finding a way back

RECENT STUDY OF ABORIGINAL CHILDREN in town camps at Alice Springs showed that over 50 percent were suffering from severe nutritional deficiencies and three-quarters had skin disease. About one-third had clinical chest disease, half the children with teeth had active caries, only one-fifth had two normat ear canals or drums, only one quarter had two normal eyes without conjunctivitis, trachoma follicles or scarring.

Leprosy, a disease of antiquity in the old world, was probably introduced into Australia via miners in the Northern Territory  in the 1850's. It affects one Aboriginal in a thousand in the  Pilbarra and Kimberiey regions, perhaps one of the highest attack rates in the world.

Since its introduction following white settlement, syphilis has had serious and disabling effects on the Aboriginal population where it has now reached epidemic proportions.

Such diseases have followed the colonisation of Aboriginal tribal lands and the resulting destruction of Aboriginal economic self-sufficiency.

Imagine you are an Aboriginal adult in a remote settlement, once a church mission. You are unemployed, badly educated, almost certainly sick and yet have a lot of family responsibilities. There are 80-200 people in the settlement but only about 10-20 fit adults. They are old, sick, kids or single parents. All your energy is needed to keep the fences, wood, water, and vehicles moving. For 100 years there has been no help and no money.

However, help is now on the way! Here come the relief teams:

  1. OAA — the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Federal). See 4 — do not confuse

2. ADC — the Aboriginal Development Commission.

3. DCW — the Department of Community Welfare

4. DAA —  the Department for Aboriginal Affairs (state) — see 1 - are you confused?

5. DPB — the Public Buildings department

6. DMR — Department of Main Roads

7. DEYA — Department of Employment and Youth Affairs

8. DCE — Department of Commonwealth Education.

Not to mention:

9. TAFE — Department of Technical & Further Education (Aboriginal  section)

10. NAC — National Aboriginal Conference

11. WOMA — Alcohol and Rehabilitation

12. AHA — Aboriginal Hostels Associations

13. ALR — Aboriginal Legal Rights

14. AHO — Aboriginal Health Organisation

15. NAEC — National Aboriginal Education Committee

And not to forget:

16. DSS — Department of Social Security

17. PD — Police Department

And to include:

18. Church and mission groups, mainly Lutherans, Catholics and Uniting Church.

There are also a lot of other volunteer groups, local progress and district, council and parish people willing to enrol, enlighten, obfuscate, legalise, make illegal, reform, deform, shout you a drink or cure you of drink. The suspicion creeps in that you have been discovered.

Several academics also wonder through, collect urine, legends, blood, bones, teeth, names, stones and sacred objects. They then leave and write papers, gaining fame and money. Craft and retail groups ask for woomeras, pitis, mulga, snakes, baskets, paintings, spears and skins.

Unions have the decency to keep away — they don't want Aborigines anyhow. But various groups seek your vote, consensus, agreement, signature, disagreement, protest and genealogy. No one is interested in your life story.

Radical hippies, primal screamers, feminists, permaculturalists, communists and anarchists attempt to enlist you to the cause but by now you are feeling a bit apathetic and, as well as your old problems, you feel mentally confused and somewhat harassed.

You realize that nobody listens, but everybody talks. Not a day goes by without consultants; developers, engineers, plumbers, surveyors, and contractors are busying about. In the confusion, miners, millers, graziers, shopkeepers and liquor retailers dash in for their traditional exploitation. You are too busy to notice.

There are classes in literacy, finger painting, tankmaking, mud patting, stone lifting, dust shifting and the pan and broom. You try hard and partly qualify as a deepsea diver, high rigger, personal secretary and parachute jumper, but there are no job offers. This makes you sick and confused and tired.

At this stage, the chiefs outnumber Indians by 10 or 12 to one. For most people on setttements, this is too much to take and they move to town or have a nervous breakdown. Some, however, get educated in town and join the chiefs, while a great many give up and join the cowboys.

As well, of course, the police and probation officers always take a keen interest in Aboriginal settlements, more so as the roads are improved, and have become a real problem. Some of these people now build homes, hospitals, offices and park modern caravans in the settlement.

The state, of course, has always maintained a teacher (who may once have been a policeman, traffic registrar, JP and what have you), a small school and now a nurse-resident. Meanwhile, you are still living in the same old house (concrete and galvo) or camped under trees.

The old missionary has formed an Aboriginal advancement group in the church and they all come out to oversee new developments on the old mission. They also retain a perennial lease on the farm and the church block and the water area.

Much of the settlement has been leased by various authorities, mainly to white graziers or given to a national park group or sold off.

It occurs to you that all these visiting people drive cars, have nice houses and that most of them draw some salaries for helping you. Some, of course, get very big money from helping, especially civil engineers, architects and construction crews (hardship, isolation, dirt money and weekend rates are paid). After all, they don't have to live here as you do. They need special allowances to even come this way.

This has not, however, managed to change your health or house, garden or water (which was always at 1100-1400 parts per million salt, and now has chlorine added). A dreadful thought starts to creep unbidden into your mind. You make a few enquiries, and this is what you find.

  1. There are many more salaried helpers, lessees, contractors, bureaucrats and staff in town than there are Aborigines.
  2. The amount spent on Aboriginal settlements during the last decade was more than $1,000,000 per Aboriginal adult.
  3. There are no Aboriginal millionaires.

An even more dreadful thought occurs. If they had given you the money or invested it in gilt-edged bonds or built you a block of flats in town, you would have gotten a doctor, built a new house and retired to the Gold Coast. But — what would they all do in that case?

A great weight of guilt descends. If you get the money they are out of work. And there aren't many jobs so they would be poor. You are used to being poor, sick, fly-tickled and mosquito-bitten. They aren't. If they had to live like you they would become alcoholics, wasters, layabouts and probably smell bad as well.

It is obviously your duty to Australia, to the state, to decent people everywhere to remain sick, poor and unemployed. But you don't have to worry, they will see to it themselves. After all, your poverty is their industry. They can make it in Australia, but only if you don't.

We have successfully demonstrated that good gardens can be created in the worst of conditions, and even the aboriginal population itself is a good market for gardeners. Kids need plenty of high-vitamin food to develop their bodies and brains and stale, imported, processed food will never allow that to happen.

A better approach

Our approach, therefore, is to concentrate on the houses, gardens and general settlement amenities. Koonibba people have demonstrated that very small expenditure and group action can get gardens and nurseries working to provide fresh food and long-term pleasant surroundings in houses and settlements.

Due to the Aboriginal section of the Department of Further Education of South Australia, permaculture designers (chiefly Dave Blewett and myself) have been able to get these programmes going and keep up the essential continuity. We are not a year off seeing capable Aboriginal self-design groups able to teach and demonstrate good settlement ecology.

The miserable, expensive, unsheltered housing on settiements is a shameful waste of Australian tax money and a worse blow to Aboriginal hopes. We can design cheaper, comfortable, locally built and environmentatly sound structures that reflect the needs of specific communities and the way the group and family wants to organise itself.

I believe it to be in everyone's interest to set up wholly Aboriginal design, planning and technical teams to assist other Aborigines with housing. This needs early training and experience but would later develop into a specially-skilled and sensitive group.

Similarly, the barren appearance and dustiness, the lack of fresh food and sense of hopelessness in settlements needs a vigorous Aboriginal permaculture team to teach and to help provide basic nutrition and shelter, forestry and forage systems for animals on the general model of the older, skilled environmental management systems of the tribes.

This will spread to good land management ecology as courses in water diversion, suitable tree trials and desert crop techniques are evolved. Aboriginal skills are evident and widespread. Tribal peoples are probably the world's best seed collectors. The next step is to get direct market links via the Department of Trade and Resources for Aboriginal seed, tree and animal products and to help groups self-fund their own suitable housing and settlement pattern.

It took 150 years to break the tribes and ruin the economy of the land.  We will not rebuild It in a day. We will never rebuild it by a divisive bureaucracy and by grand schemes but by long, hard, persistent and sensitive work in settlements, extending gradually to tribal lands.

All Aboriginal people have a place in this development of their lands to ecological health and there is plenty of room for all. The key is to find those Aboriginal people able to handle design,  bureaucratic systems and self-funding and to get the basic health structure (nutrition from home gardens and settlement  plantings) developed.

We must all of us aim to lend our efforts to this work, and to help spread the commonsense designs of permaculture in Aboriginal people as an allied skill to add to their own expertise in landuse and careful land management as evidenced in tribal peoples.

Aborigines in Australia and Indians in America have control of millions of hectares of lands, many of them deemed unsuitable for agriculture by whites, but in fact rich in a whole series of natural products from native and feral animals to seed. 'Special" industries are needed based on feral animals, wildlife management and forest seed collection (now worth millions of dollars in Australia). Ordinary tractor agriculture is what is recommended to Aborigines and of course on the competitive market and with dry and margined lands this can be a disaster.

Before any grand schemes are taken on, however, the basic nutritional and stress problems of settlements make any potential for such expansion difficult. We need a more relaxed and healthy population to even begin on the road to self-determination.

Commercial success may follow. It should not be our first aim but should arise first from sound landuse rather than follow the white model of land mining for short-term profit.

Healthy land will, in the end, be the rarest resource on earth and will out-produce the bash-and-burn economy in the near future.

As I write, Reny Slay and I are preparing a six-month curriculum for South Australian setttements. Dave Blewett and local designers will implement, and with any luck we should see some permaculture designers evolve in the Aboriginal nation.

Case study: Koonibba

Paul Keath (DFE) first requested a permaculture training program with practical work at Koonibba and invited the writers to Ceduna for this purpose.

There is no significant food grown on the settlement, no cheap energy sources or local self-reliance, no insulation, no solar, wind or wood energy commonly used and no on-going enterprises apart from three farming families in wheat and wool. There is no domestic evolution, hence no future in a world of failing external energy supplies.

The bush (what is left of it) is rich in kangaroo, wombat, lizards and rabbits and the nearby sea in a variety of fish and shellfish. Seaweed and wood are both plentiful.

Outward signs of civilization (church and football oval, school and offices) are abundant and capacious. Basic self-reliance is at a low ebb and Koonibba is losing population as the more successful, dissatisfied or vigorous people leave for town and paid employment.

Yet, this need not be the case and in a world where firewood, land and shelter are the privilege of the few, Koonibbans are lordly in possessions compared with most people in the arid-world.

What is lacking is any sense of the need to survive by personal effort: this has in the past been frustrated by preemption by whites or bureaucracy of Aboriginal enterprise.

Needs

Needs include:

  • a dynamic self-reliance movement which will attract capable people back to Koonibba
  • a modest program of energy self-reliance in housing
  • a trial of home food production
  • materials for close-in, intensive, interesting and essential
  • production of necessities such as seed, vegetables, food, dried products glasshouse crop
  • trials of sustainable, broadscale agriculture by way of forage trees and windbreak, no-tillage and low stocking rates
  • entrepreneurial forestry or exotics for special products (oils, honey, cork, processed materials)
  • community cooperation and self-help aimed toward self-support.

Windbreak

Cold and strong W/SW winds are the major effects on vegetation, as is evidenced by the many dying trees in the district, bent irreversibly to the N/NW. Hot, dry N/NW winds blow from the continental interior from Spring to late Summer.

Crops, livestock, people and plants are deleteriously affected by the excess temperature ranges and the desiccation and deflationary powers of these winds. Crops and surface water soon dry out.

Houses fill with dust because streets fan the hot north winds into the towns. People get sinus and asthma problems. We can dodge the streets in a dogleg and plant dust barrier plants towards dust sources in all towns, put quick-growing acacia or legume hedges around every house and screen doors with trellis. Cool, shady, and liveable places soon develop.

Windbreaks therefore need to follow an extended horseshoe pattern around settlements, grazing lands, crops and gardens.

It has long been evident, published and belabored that loss of trees brings low production, lost soils, lower rainfall and, ultimately, the desert. The evidence of archeology, history and modern ecology agree on this point.

Community involvement

In any small community, or in parts of larger communities, no ongoing programme is accepted without consultation and involvement — working with, not for people.

At Koonibba we started at the school showing garden techniques for sandy soils of low pH. Children from 4 -10 enjoy making these and can bring along a mulch of old clothes, wool, rags, paper, straw and suchlike.

They also enjoy gathering seaweed or sawdust for the final layers, hosing down and trampling each layer and planting seeds. Carrots and peas straight from the garden are popular and healthy foods and the main thing is to ensure that there is enough, for too few means too many kids try to share the goodies with bad results for the garden and peace.

Food

There is no doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of such people as Dr Kalikorinus and many health experts that the majority of Aboriginal illness, child death and lack of energy is rooted in poor food. In particular, adequate vitamin C is desperately needed. Oranges, peppers, tomatoes, parsley, greens and citrus generally are indicated.

This may be the basic revolution needed to bring people to full vigour.

In tribal days there was plenty of such food, now it is all fat, flour, coca-cola and sugar. Rickets, colds, lassitude and illness are the results.

Thus, home gardens are a more heroic act than a football win if we are thinking of Aboriginal morale and the full development of the childrens' potential.

Orange trees should be the priority of any scheme and should be plentiful, cared for and in the home gardens. I feel very savage about schemes which give Iip service to welfare and ignore the basics. What is needed as an absolutely basic priority is a serious, nutrition-centred, domestic, cooperative approach coupled with the essential education and ground implementation, not another pub, golf course, workshop or vehicle.

Glasshouse Crop 

Ceduna lacks local sources of tomatoes, paprika, eggfruit and chilli, as well as vanilla, ginger, turmeric, pineapple, pawpaw, papaya and grapes. All of these yield well under glass and would be a good domestic source of food.

Generally speaking, a glasshouse amortizes in two years by crop sales (tomatoes are $2-$3 per kilo here at present).

The soils suit all these crops, under drip irrigation and with sheep manure and seaweed mulch.

Uses of Domestic Waste Water 

Waste water is either:

  1. nontoxic and only slightly conlaminated with phosphates and potash (soap and detergents); eg. water from hand basins, showers, and washing machines
  2. slightly more conlaminated as from sinks and floorwashing
  3. unsafe for immediate use, as from toilets and sewers.

The first category is traditionally used on gardens as more of a fertiliser than a nuisance. Sink water so used is de-fatted by plants and soil bacteria, practically overnight if run into mulch or ring gardens.

Simple flexible pipes can be used to divert much useful water to gardens so that watering becomes an automatic part of daily life.

Civil engineers and health authorities spend millions of dollars to run this water away from desert settlements and mix it with sewage to make it unusable on gardens.

We cut these pipes at the house and lead them to mulch pits or mulch channels along which trees and high-value food is grown.

Domestic improvements

Modest glasshouse, shadehouse, seaweed insulation, venting and draught-proofing would make all houses comfortable and energy efficient if windbreaks were sensibly planted to obviate (and not accelerate) wind effects.

As for ring gardens, they suit any domestic situation and we made several trials on this trip. We plan to extend these and, also, waste-water soak gardens as they prove successful, for they are, in fact, low maintenance ways to grow vitamins from waste water.

All schools should develop gardens, teach nutrition and deficiency symptoms and put the system on drip or appoint a summer garden group over the holiday periods.

At home, if people just live there, the system grows.

At every settlement school the hand basins are in constant use and provide up to 800 gallons per day (as at Yatata) of slightly soiled water. This would grow 800 orange trees or grapes. Every house uses hand basin and kitchen sink, bath and shower water. This could provide all the water for tomatoes, parsley, watercress, citrus, and bell peppers.

Stress causes low blood sugar. Alcohol gives a sugar kick. So do grapes! Again, schools should teach the body's needs for sugars when stress comes — as it often does to Aboriginal adults in this society.

Grapes, figs and bananas relieve this sugar need and avoid the abuse and violence of alcohol or the tooth rot of sweet, processed sugar. Grapes, grapes and more grapes are eagerly eaten and should be trellised at every house to help shade and relieve stress. Figs, figs and more figs can be planted in every settlement.

These are the medicines we need for stress. Sugar has causes a lot of diabetes in Aborigines. Natural fruits have a less-harmful effect.

We can do this in a few months of busy work as both figs and grapes grow from cuttings.

Tree crop

Tree cropping at Koonibba, as elsewhere, has several possible forms and uses:

  • selected species for food and provision, eg. orange, date, apricot, almond, fig, mulberry, olive and pistachio
  • selected forage forests to buffer drought and cool winters, eg. carob, honey locust, mesquite, tree lucerne, coprosma and desert oaks (Quercus spp)
  • selected fuel forests of native species yielding solid (wood) fuels and species such as wild date (Phoenix sylvestris) for liquid fuels, or crops like sunflower as diesel replacement
  • structural timbers from bamboo to honey locust and cedar for future buildings, fences and garden uses (there is precious little straight timber in the district, imported posts cost $12.50 each).

The very act of assembling the most suitable species, instigating nursery growing and trying out plantings should make an arid land mecca. A laudable project would be to assemble a library of arid land books at Koonibba itself as a reference (not lending) collection, and to commence a card file of useful species, their uses, and the sources of supply.

An adequate botanist, in a few days, can list all trees and successtul shrubs and vines growing locally, giving accurate names, card and record many uses, contraindications, propagation and indicate which related species or associated species can be tried out.

Such a list would be invaluable for designers at Koonibba. It should include native, exotic, marine, saltland species; suggest new varieties and species and uses for trees. Later, new species for trial could be researched and grown. Some that come to mind are pistachio, jojoba, Chinese tallow tree, aloe vera, buffalo gourd, dryland millets, selected quandong, some of the African desert acacias used for fodder.

As cropland windbreak of durable fences, selected fruiting cacti (pitaya, cereus), Callitris (Rottenest or local or Tasmanian varieties for fence posts), selected palms (doum palm, peach palm, wild date, date, Afghan nut palm etc), tamarind, mondongonut and so on. All are desert or dryland successes elsewhere.

In commercial crop lupins, Chinese tallow, sunflower, castor oil and millet are probable futures.

Potential for Aboriginal self-help 

Glasshouse crop alone would support two to three families, egg productlon one or two, honey production one or two, seed production and processlng three to four, and if forestry and nursery were developed, increasingly more families would be setf-employed in meaningful, self-sustaining and creative work.

The place to start is in the backyards and on the open town areas, not in broadscale trials which may be expensive failures, but In small, people-centred schemes which can be handled by the present population.

Even one to two acre trial plots within and adjacent to the town would supply eggs, chickens, honey, grain and vegetables for local self-reliance, while windbreaks would provide seed and cuttings for extension of the sysem via shadehouse and nursery.

The settlement itself has empty acreage, good reticulated water, waste water, surplus building space, workshops and vehicles. If it were developed it could itself supply much of the district's needs.

Fenced gardens are normal and can be used for trials of crop technique.

The use of domestic waste water is critical to the establishment of species. Nursery, glasshouse, seaweed processing, and seed collection can all be spaciously accommodated in the unused buildings already standing, at minimal cost.

It is also clear that one or two responsible people should be paid on a full or part-time basis to keep public plantings and nursery stock alive and increasing. Given that so many people are employed in less-productive roles, a gardener would make all the difference to any settlement.

There are good potential incomes apparent and more can be evolved. Of immediate importance are the following.

Seed collection and growing

Selected desert seed gathered by the Pitjantjatjara nation, packaged in settlement and retailed directly, both locally and overseas, can be coupled with seed grown in settlements for those same markets.

Acacia sells for $20-$30 per kilo, eucatypt and rare seed $300 per kilo. Our Aboriginal lands provide the seed, but who takes the profit? We are trying to form a seed group at settlements to collect, export and develop overseas markets. The old people know the best quandong (ooti), the best mulga for wood, seed, the best acacias for grubs and food. They should also benefit most from the seed sales.

Goats from Nepabunna

Valuable goats are in the wild flocks gathered here. These are of mohair and cashmere strains (13-21 microns in downy wool) and the best yield 1500g, of which 750g (50%) is down of 13-20 microns.

Released in the early 1800's, these goats are hardy feral animals now available for export selection to stud flocks. They are browsers but do well on grasses such as paspalum and rye grass, native saltbush, acacia etc.

Selected animals bring very high prices for export and local wool sales. Fencing needs are for 5-strand (3 earth, 2 live) fences.

Goat husbandry is particularly suited to women, who now run many small stud flocks, and to settlement areas. Stud flocks could quickly be set up at Nepabunna and Koonibba.

Good nutrition is essential and low stocking rates on present Aboriginal lands will achieve this. Fencing and irrigation plus rested land are also essential. Shearing is not difficult using normal equipment at half speed or new (expensive) compressed air handpieces designed for goats.

Returns are as high as from the best merino flocks and goats run well with sheep as a mixed grazing enterprise. Does realize $34.00 per acre from shearing in selected flocks, live and yield longer than sheep and give reproduction rates averaging 150 percent kids per annum.

Live market exports to the Middle East are a probable venture.

This whole venture seems ideal for Nepabunna, Koonibba and Pitjantjatjara areas and could be entirely run and staffed by Aboriginal people.

Following a number of workshops with the Yalata Community, architect lan Hannaford drew up these housing designs.

Ian writes:

This camp house is fully flexible, leaving the family free to practice tribal culture in most ways while solving some of the key problems associated with a bush camp existence on the edge of a mission settlement.

It does this as follows:

  1. The extended family can all be housed white allowing privacy and private spaces, and without any person feeling left out. Extensions can be readily added onto the courtyard principle.
  2. Heat is minimised by having major through-ventilation, plenty of verandah and a shade-house potential on the south elevation to act as cool air suite. Heavily insulated walls and ceilings are essential.
  3. Cold is a serious problem and this is controlled by walling off the major cold wind directions and having a fully closeable wall and door system, while allowing internal camp fires for heat and communal gatherings and using heavy insulated walls and ceiling.
  4. Hot winds and dusts, mainly from the North, are very debidtating, and these are minimised by walling and construction on the North.
  5. Permaculture designed wind breaks associated with the U-shaped walls and buildings give protected courtyards with plantings to increase psychologically-essential outdoor living potentials.
  6. The claustrophobic effect of conventional rooms with minimum airflow is overcome with lift-up door/walls, floor to ceiling viewing window/doors and cross-vent doors. In average conditions these can all be open to give warning of visitors and view in all directions and a strong feeling of living outdoors.
  7. Sand or shell grit floors and verandah areas are much more acceptable to sit and sleep on in the traditional manner.
  8. Fully flexible traditional sleeping arrangements to suit the family structure and the prevailing weather conditions are possible.
  9. Traditional cooking over a camp fire is possible both inside and outside the buildings. A kitchen for washing up and storage is available, with space for refrigerators and a future stove.
  10. The house can be upgraded in the future, solid floors added, etc. Within well-sheltered areas, greywater from bathrooms and kitchen and tank overflow is used for permaculture gardens.

Shelter is essential to reduce the devastating wind effects in this semi arid 12" rainfall country.

Rammed earth and cement walls were suggested. The local supply idea and the natural earth finish had strong appeal to Aborigines.

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