Land rights surrendered in exchange for health care

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The Independent Online
AN ABORIGINAL group from Australia's remote Northern Territory has surrendered its claim to traditional land in return for a kidney dialysis unit and an alcohol rehabilitation centre.

In the first-ever swap of land rights for health services, the Jawoyn Association, which represents Aboriginal landowners from the Katherine region, has negotiated an agreement to give up their claim to about 2,500 acres of horticultural land. In exchange, they will receive a renal dialysis facility from the Northern Territory Health Services and an alcohol rehabilitation centre provided by the Department of Lands.

Robert Lee, Jawoyn executive director, said the decision was made after it was discovered there were no government plans to provide a dialysis unit for the region in the next five years despite a donation of A$20,000 (pounds 7,380) toward the unit from the Jawoyn people.

"It was a decision based on wanting to save lives now rather than waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy," said Mr Lee. "Despite having offered $20,000 of their own money toward setting up a facility, there was no response from government, apart from saying it was a good idea and they would look into it."

At present, Aborigines in the Katherine region have to travel more than 100 miles to Darwin for dialysis. Mr Lee says this is taking a high toll on family life and removing people from their traditional lands.

On average, life expectancy for Aborigines is 15-20 years below that of other Australians, with alcohol and drug abuse playing a significant role in poor health. The problem is particularly acute in the Northern Territory where the level of renal disease is 50 times higher than the national average.

The death of their deputy chairman through renal failure last year made the Jawoyn Association realise the urgent need for local health facilities. "The strain of living alone in Darwin and travelling so often to Kakadu and Katherine to fulfil his responsibilities surely shortened his life," said Mr Lee.

The Jawoyn Association is entitled to claim its traditional land under the 1993 Native Title Act, which recognises the ownership of Aboriginal groups who can prove a spiritual or genealogical connection to the land. However, of the 700 claims currently under consideration by the Native Title Tribunal, only two have been settled, with "just compensation" being awarded rather than the land itself.

Proving Native Title is an expensive and lengthy process which has angered rural communities, farmers and mine-owners who feel their livelihoods are threatened by the claims.

Farmers operating in the Katherine region have already expressed relief that the Jawoyn claim has been settled in exchange for health services. However, Mr Lee says he hopes this agreement will not become a blueprint for further land-rights settlements.

"I think it would be a tragedy if this were repeated. I think it is a moral reminder to the government that they shouldn't be waiting for Aboriginal people to trade their country. They should be providing services as of right for all citizens," he said.