New houses are desperately needed in Parnngurr but cannot be built because it is in a national park. (ABC North West WA: Susan Standen)
Three remote West Australian Indigenous communities say they have been disadvantaged because their homes lie within national park and reserve areas — and they want out.
A quirk of legislation means the old and dilapidated housing in their communities cannot be repaired and no investment for new infrastructure can be obtained.
New houses cannot be built and new telecommunications infrastructure cannot be installed due to this law.
“We had a big meeting with people from Parnngurr and Punmu, talking about this,” Parnngurr community chair Clifton Girgibar said, in a statement read to WA Parliament.
“The Government has known that Martu want this since 2007.”
Parnngurr and Punmu sit inside the Karlamilyi National Park on the edges of the desert regions — which means they do not have tenure over the land.
Parnngurr Chairman Clifton Girgirbar with KJ Rangers on a bush trip to Martu country. (ABC North West WA: Susan Standen)
New hope for change in laws
Things are looking up, however, for a third community, Tjuntjuntjara, in the goldfields region of WA.
It sits within a Class A Great Victoria Desert Nature Reserve in the Shire of Menzies.
The WA government has passed new laws to excise the community from the reserve and give it a “general purpose lease status” — ending a 10-year fight.
While they were waiting for legislation to be finalised, this community managed to get 18 new houses built, increasing accommodation needs to around 80 bedrooms for the community’s 160 residents.
WA Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said the new status allowed the community to apply for funding to develop better facilities, such as a remote health clinic or new housing and other infrastructure.
“Because it was part of a park previously, the government didn’t recognise that the community had [the right to have] control of their own destiny and so they weren’t eligible for funding,” he said.
“As a result of the deal we passed in Parliament, it sets them on a path to look after themselves in the future and access other funding and philanthropic opportunities that exist already.”
Houses in Parnngurr Aboriginal community have been left to become dilapidated. (ABC North West WA: Susan Standen)
On-country housing vital to communities
The new deal for Tjuntjuntjara has given hope to people living in the other two Martu communities still in limbo in the Karlamilyi National Park — Punmu and Parnngurr — which have between 80-200 residents at any one time, depending on cultural activities.
“We need good houses,” Mr Girgibar said.
“We can’t move away from our country because our people are buried here and because there is land and culture and language here.”
The communities in this region are experiencing expansion of the population as more and more people decide to return to country for security of their health, away from the influences of alcohol and drugs in the adjacent mining towns.
Agreement needed between governments
Funding for infrastructure in these communities is a mixed bag of administrative responsibilities, often complicated by political rivalry between the State and Federal Governments and different departments within WA that change structure when new governments are elected.
In Parnngurr, there is no agreement with the WA Department of Housing to have maintenance done on the residential houses, even though power and water are provided.
New telecommunications facilities are also on the waiting list.
An old public telephone still in use in the Parnngurr community. (ABC North West WA: Susan Standen)
The issue was first raised in Parliament in 2007 but was a low priority and never brought to debate when the Liberal government lost office.
Environment Minister Mr Dawson said he is committed to working with the Minister for Lands and Heritage Rita Saffioti and the Department of Premier and Cabinet to work through the process of excision.
He and Ben Wyatt, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, will meet with members of the community this week in the hope of coming to an agreement.
As a local member of parliament in the Pilbara, Minister Dawson also supported the right of Martu people to live on country in their communities and receive services such as adequate housing.
“I’ll certainly work with my ministerial colleagues, both with this excision but also in terms of the need for expanded housing in those communities,” he said.
“I’m supportive of people going back to those communities and certainly by excising the communities from parks, it will allow them to access other opportunities and other funding streams that they can’t access simply because they are in a state park at the moment and the Federal Government or other organisations don’t recognise that as communities being in control of their own destiny or their own future.”