November 17, 1999


A Central Australian initiative could earn the region a billion customers world-wide, said Liz Davies, of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, during an upbeat launch of the Desert Knowledge Prospectus on Monday.It is the brain child of 40 Central Australians, representing local businesses, the chamber, research organisations, Aboriginal organisations, the Alice Town Council and the Territory Government.The prospectus seeks an investment from people of their knowledge and experience of life in the arid zone, making The Centre the "desert hub of the world".The region's 38,000 people share living in dry, hot and remote conditions with one billion people around the world, occupying one third of the globe's surface.According to the group we have a society, also in common with other arid zones, marked by poles of impoverishment and wealth, but we are better placed than many to solve the problems that that presents. We are politically stable, have well-developed infrastructure, access to sophisticated technologies and to significant resources.We have also accumulated, although often in a disjointed way, a body of knowledge, skills and techniques that have enabled us to survive in the world's most arid country: 75 per cent of Australia's surface is arid or semi-arid.The group says we can use this experience and set of advantages to make ourselves the centre of knowledge about how to live well in arid environments.We can invest this knowledge and experience – things that no one else can give us nor take away from us – to create a "desert knowledge economy", a new foundation for the future of The Centre."We need to evaluate where we are at and then look at the needs of people in similar circumstances around the world and see what we can offer them," says Bruce Walker, Director of the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs."I can't imagine that it would be different to the process that people have used in the past to develop a whole range of export industries."Many of these industries already exist, but, say the group of 40, they need to come together into a coherent image that is marketed to the rest of the nation and the world.Says Mark Stafford-Smith, Director of Research at the Alice Springs CSIRO laboratory: "This has to be a concept that is embedded in people's minds, so that when they are dealing with tourism advertising, or sign-posting down the mall, or speaking at conferences, or simply living in their communities, the image of inland Australia as the seat of desert knowledge is there as a backdrop, and they in their various spheres know they are all contributing to it." With Alice Springs already the hub of the Central Australian region, the town will have a special role and unique opportunities."Part of the evolution of this concept will be a two way process of Alice Springs getting better at living successfully and sustainably in our own environment," says Dr Stafford-Smith."That extends beyond the technological aspects of living in arid areas and beyond the sustainable management aspects. It also involves the social and cultural aspects."We can't claim to be a shining light of cultural sustainability unless all the issues of indigenous and non-indigenous people living together are resolved."That's obviously not an overnight prospect, but the two processes should go forward hand in hand."Says Dr Walker: "38,000 people is not a lot when we are developing new, viable economic directions to take us into the next 50 or 100 years, and when we are founding that economy on people's knowledge, skills and experience."We really can't afford to have any wedges or schisms in this drive. It needs everybody to be focused on it."If it's going to be sustainable, and equitable, it needs a more refined approach to working together, less political, a regional response to the environment and its opportunities."This more refined approach is likely to involve some adjustment to the way we are governed.Dr Walker: "We talked a lot in the early meetings about the imbalance that exists in the governance of Australia."Massive amounts of Australia's wealth are generated in Australia's arid areas, and yet they contain a large number of people who live in fairly impoverished conditions. "To be able to credibly sell your desert knowledge, you have to be able to address the economic, social and technological issues that sustain life for all the people in those regions."Dr Stafford-Smith: "When you talk about a desert knowledge economy, people immediately think solar energy."They take a step back and see the research aspects and management techniques, then the issues of training and remote area service delivery."All of those things are aspects of desert knowledge that we could be selling, but there's an even broader one which is remote area governance."Dr Stafford-Smith says the 200,000 people who live scattered across the rangelands of Australia have already evolved different ways of interacting with the different levels of government: he cites the shire councils of outback Western Australia and Queensland, as well as the Aboriginal community councils and land councils. "These evolving mechanisms for governance in remote areas are elements of desert knowledge that are much less easy to put your finger on than a solar panel, but they are also highly relevant to places elsewhere in the world."Dr Walker: "The governance for Australia occurs in places that are largely on the coastal fringe, and it's hard for people there to relate to and empathise with the spirit of the inland. "Once you live in the desert regions your experience is really outside the established political alliances of the coastal fringe."The group is attempting to bring a range of positions to the issues of our future, rather than acting as an industry group, or an Aboriginal organisations group, or as people from government. It's not intended to be a new power base or a new political movement or anything like that, it's really an attempt to bring everybody together, and say if we don't stand as one, this idea hasn't got a show."We have to find ways of progressing this basis for the future without getting tangled in a web of sectoral concerns or politics or other agendas."This move out of the Centre coincides with a growing national recognition of the need to re-empower regional Australia."It is an idea whose time has come," says Dr Stafford-Smith, citing the recent regional summit in Canberra, the development of a national set of principles for rangelands management, and in the Territory, the Chief Minister's Foundations for the Future and the Alice in Ten project.He says it is in the interest of "the coast" and "on their agenda" to support the development of a better economic base in inland Australia. It is too early in the process to be talking about financial investment. At this stage the group is focused on broadening the support for its concepts, both locally and nationally – the prospectus will be distributed to key players in government, industry and research around the country."The prospectus is an attempt to open up an area that is new," says Dr Walker."The world is changing, there's a change in the way that commodities are used, the way resources are used, with the sort of demand that exists for Australian product."As a nation we have got to keep up with those changes, and we are saying to the nation that 70 per cent of the country has a potential that we largely haven't investigated."There's potential to actually increase the economic performance of the country, to open access to markets that we currently don't access because people mostly live on the coastal fringe, in an urban tropical or humid environment and sell their products to other similar environments. "They simply don't develop products that are generically well suited to deserts."We found in our early research that, despite our geographic make-up, we in Australia don't network with other desert regions."This idea is about changing that."We'll get a sense of the needs that arise in those countries and say, ‘Look, we think we've got something that can respond to that need'."Until now much of the thinking about our future has been focused on development of the tourist industry.How would tourism mesh with the development of a desert knowledge economy?Again, the group argues that the two can go hand in hand: that the development of communities living well and sustainably in the desert environment would be a additional drawcard for visitors; and that the knowledge of how to manage large scale tourism, already well-developed in some areas, can be an additional export.Education and training relevant to arid and remote areas, as well as service delivery, particularly in health care, are also all exportable, "probably the least contentious and least harmful exports you could think of", according to Dr Stafford-Smith.There are small examples of activity in all these areas, as well as in the areas of renewable energy and arid zone horticulture, to name a few. However, the key to significant growth, argue the group, is to all pull together."If we don't try to make this effort , then our expertise will continue to be fragmented and many of our problems will perpetuate," says Dr Stafford-Smith.Says Dr Walker: "Identify the desert, which nobody can pinch from us, as the purpose and Alice naturally becomes the focal point, the hub of a thriving desert knowledge economy."For the people of Alice Springs and Central Australia this is much more than a couple of bright ideas, this is the opportunity to have a different type of investment in their own experience and their own knowledge."If they respond to the prospectus, then we will have no trouble in convincing government and the private sector to support us."


The possibility of appeals is certainly a consideration when the Planning Authority makes decisions about land development applications, according to one of its members, Alderman Geoff Harris.He says extending the opportunity of appeal to objectors would make the planning process much fairer than under the present regime which gives that right only to developers.He says: "In terms of worrying whether a decision might stand up under appeal, the Planning Authority only has to worry about whether the developer would appeal and whether that appeal would be successful."In a situation where you have third party appeals it would mean that authority members have to consider whether their decision would stack up under appeal from objectors as well as from the applicants," says Ald Harris."This would give more balance than the current situation where in effect you don't have to worry about whether or not an objector has good grounds for objecting."In terms of the final decision it's likely to be a major consideration."The authority takes the appeals process seriously."Third party appeals are available in most other Australian jurisdictions.However, NT Lands Minister Tim Baldwin has already ruled them out during the current review of the Planning Act, due to conclude later this month.Ald Harris also says similar to local government meetings and parliamentary sessions, Planning Authority meetings should be open to the public.Says Ald Harris: "There is no need for any confidential deliberations. The meetings should be open to the public."Why should the deliberation stage be behind closed doors? "It's quite rare that there would be a need for an in-confidence session, and should that need arise, there could be provision for it."Open meetings would "immediately make members of the Planning Authority accountable to the people they represent."He says a gradual hand-over of town planning to councils should start immediately."We've been asking for it for years."Ald Harris says the council has put a raft of recommendations for change to the government, most dealing with transparency of the process and accountability to the public.The Bill has recently been redrafted to give two of the five seats on the authority to local government nominees.The first draft provided for only one seat. Ald Harris says council nominees should have a majority, which would mean three seats.He says the current draft also fails to clarify whether council nominees are accountable to local government or to the community.However, the Bill makes it clear that local government nominees can represent the views of their councils without fear of being considered to have a vested interest.Ald Harris says there is much community concern about the town planning system and people should put their concerns before the government.The Darwin council spent $50,000 to campaign for changes in the planning laws.Meanwhile in The Centre, the Alice Springs Rural Areas Association (ASRAA) has put two matters before the government.LOT SIZESThe association says there should be no approvals for lot sizes smaller than provided for in the town plan.ASRAA is also seeking a change to the process by which the authority obtains information from the public.At present, a developer makes an application, followed by an opportunity for written objections from the public.Objectors are usually invited to give oral submissions to the authority.However, subsequently the developer can put before the authority further details and arguments about his project, to which objectors have no automatic right of reply.ASRAA says such a right should be granted.


Behind the stone walls and white crosses of the old Santa Teresa Mission on South Terrace, is the thriving Irrkerlantye Learning Centre seeking new ways of responding to the life goals of a number of Arrernte families.Irrkerlantye, the Arrernte name for the White Gate area, grew out of Detour, a program for Aboriginal teenagers who had dropped out of mainstream schooling, and funded by the NT Department of Education through Centralian College, Territory Health Services and Tangentyere Council .Detour struggled with some fundamental difficulties: it had inadequate and uncertain funding for dealing with young people who were often from very disadvantaged backgrounds; it was working against Aboriginal social organisation in trying to hold on to young people from different language groups; and it was trying to operate out of a place – Basso's Farm, across the river from the north Stuart Highway – that was difficult for many of the students and their families to get to.At the end of last year, meetings of staff and the core Arrernte families involved worked out a new approach: the focus would be on whole families and their aspirations for better, purposeful lives.The funding bodies endorsed the new approach, while at the same time the Catholic Church, through its Ngkarte Mikwekenhe group, offered the learning centre the use of its premises on South Terrace."As soon as we came here, enrolments tripled," says the program's academic leader, Nicole Traves."It's a community place, where people have a history and feel comfortable."At Basso's Detour was working with 15 to 20 students."We saw a lot more but we just couldn't keep them," says Nicole.Now they have 50 students from 10 families, from 11 to 47 years of age, with the bulk of them attending consistently.Says Felicity Hayes, the Arrernte assistant teacher who has worked with the program from its inception: "It's much better now, we are closer to town, a lot of the families drop in to see what is happening."That wasn't happening at Basso's, we were way out, too far for people to go there."A few mothers used to come in the morning, then leave. Now many family members come for the whole day, they do art or do something with the kids. "I find the kids are more relaxed than they were. "At Basso's they were fighting and teasing and walking away from school. Here the kids have all quietened down a bit."Some kids are working hard and all of them have settled down. You can get them to sit down and do something, instead of jumping up and going outside to muck around with a ball."Many of the students still live in very difficult domestic circumstances. Four case studies showed the students having the following factors in common:
• a lack of housing;
• a lack of money;
• a lack of previous consistent schooling;
• a history of substance abuse;
• a history of contact with the justice system;
• a history of exposure to physical violence; and
• all were grieving the death of someone close to them.
In response to such a student profile, Irrkerlantye has committed itself to helping with "family well-being", seeing it as a prerequisite to learning.One staff member works full time on income issues, especially on obtaining Abstudy for the students.There is also a full time counsellor, assisting with a range of practical and personal problems, sometimes in conjunction with other agencies.Says Nicole: "We can't run the program unless these things are dealt with."To do that takes a lot of money, it's an expensive program per head, but the flipside is that it's also expensive to provide health care and correctional services."There has definitely been less contact with the justice system this year. The worst offence anyone committed was driving without a licence. We are working on that, organising the kids to take a driving course and get their licence."Seeing Arrernte kids "getting into trouble with the law" is what got Felicity involved with Detour in the first place: "They were walking around town, they didn't fit into mainstream schools, and there was nowhere else for them to go."The Catholic school decided to have one big school, all mainstream, and the Aboriginal kids were left out."I thought I've got to do something about these kids but it was hard at the beginning, really stressful."It was hard for cultural reasons, there were different language speakers, I wanted other people to work with me who were language speakers. The kids were sniffing glue and paint, it was hard to get them doing one thing, to sit them down in a classroom."It's better now that we are concentrating on our own group of kids."Different language speakers need something like this for their own kids. I'd like to see this kind of thing happening for them."So, kids and their families are happier, they are coming each day, but how are they learning?The 11 to 15 year olds work together in an upper primary / post-primary class. They follow an intense literacy and numeracy program, which is extended by "hands on" projects that are purposeful and fun, while creating a lot of learning opportunities.One example was a bicycle trip to Ross River earlier this year.The students first built their own bikes! This involved learning a lot of Maths, Science and English.They then planned and organised the trip themselves, undertook training to get fit, learnt about road safety, and on the trip did their own cooking, maintenance and repairs.Another project has been establishing vegetable gardens, at the learning centre – where the produce is harvested to contribute to a nutritious lunch prepared on site each day – and at home, to create a better living environment.Students learnt the names of plants in both English and Arrernte and learnt about Western concepts like water reticulation.Nicole says this group has had consistent attendance, with 13 to 15 students coming all year."Their reading and writing has improved a lot."Some are preparing to go to mainstream schools, but the question is would they be able to get there? Would they have transport and clean clothes to wear?"The kind of support structure we offer is missing in mainstream schools."Older students are enrolled in Correspondence School at Years Eight, Nine,10 and 11 levels, with the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs providing funds for "in school" tuition.Next year one student will start work on Year 12 subjects.Last year two students passed Year 10 Maths, with a B and a C."The level of support to organise this little group is substantial," says Nicole."Everyone is on an individual program, and all require a lot of follow-up, but they are all working, and they know there are people who care about them and how they are progressing."If there's no personal relationship, nothing happens"That personal input is necessary because students are from such dysfunctional backgrounds."
NEXT WEEK: Skills training pays off as art show draws crowd.

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