Today I am flying in a small plane to Brewarrina which is in the remote North-West region of NSW, around 730 kms from Newcastle. It is about as far from the surf as I ever might go in Australia and there is not much out there. I am flying (via charter) because it takes over 10 hours to drive there. So why go there?
I am working in partnership with the Brewarrina Local Aboriginal Land Council, which functions to “to improve, protect and foster the best interests of all Aboriginal persons within the council’ area and other persons who are members of the council”.
We are working together (I am providing economic advice) to develop a sustainable employment plan based on natural farming methods along the Barwon River. This is part of the Federal Government’s Indigenous Employment Program, which aims to “… help Indigenous Australians that have viable business ideas to start their own business. It can build the skills to run and grow that business”.
The Barwon River runs through the North West region of NSW and is part of the Barwon-Darling Region, which accounts for about 13 per cent of the total area of the Murray-Darling Basin. The entire water system which ultimately runs out into the Southern Ocean near Adelaide is now highly stressed because of unsustainable land use and the irrigation practices that support the farming. Parts of the lower basin are now near dead as drought has worsened the damage arising from the poor agricultural practices.
The North West region has a population of around 50,000 people most of who live in 6 towns – Collarenebri, Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Cobar and Wilcannia.
So it is a very remote, sparsely-populated, hard to reach area – yet terribly important for the land and water use debate which is becoming central in public policy circles in Australia as we try to come to terms with our past imprudent use of our natural resources and also the impending impositions of climate change.
Australia’s indigenous population (around 410,000 or 2.2 per cent of the total population in 2001) are among the most disadvantaged of any demographic cohort in the entire World. You may like to consult the Australian Human Rights Commission for more detailed information about this group of people.
Around 29.4 per cent of the total indigenous population live in NSW. Around 30.2 per cent of Indigenous Australians live in major cities compared to 67.2 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. Some 26.5 per cent of Indigenous Australian live in remote or very remote areas compared to 2 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians. Brewarrina is very remote.
Remote-based Indigenous Australians are more likely to be bi-lingual with around 55 per cent of those living in remote areas speaking their native language (compared to around 1 per cent of those who live in urban areas).
In 2001, the life expectancy of a Indigenous male adult was 59.4 years (64.8 year for females). For non-Indigenous Australians the rates were 82 years for females and 79.6 years for males. Indigenous life expectancy is in line with those found in less developed countries, despite Australia being a high per capita income country.
While 30 years ago, Indigenous Australians had similar life expectancies to indigenous peoples in Canada, New Zealand and the USA a major gap has widened since as the governments of Canada, New Zealand and the US have improved conditions for their indigenous populations.
Life hasn’t improved very much for Indigenous Australians over this period.
Indigenous Australians have lower participation rates in the labour force, much higher unemployment rates, and lower incomes when they find employment. They have entrenched educational disadvantage and vastly inferior housing.
So we are working together to develop sustainable employment opportunities in the Brewarrina area with support from the Federal government. This is my first field trip under this brief and so I have nothing to report as yet.
I am unsure what sort of connectivity I will have out there (mobile phones work) but I will report back with some photographs of the projects if I can get connected tomorrow night.
I will be back near the surf on Tuesday sometime.