'Tribes of the world, unite' in Australia

Indigenous tribe representatives from around the world are in Darwin for the first World Indigenous Network meeting.


    It was an ambitious aim: pulling together a new network connecting indigenous people from around the world - and hosting a conference for them within a year.

    Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the creation of the World Indigenous Network at the Rio+20 conference in 2012.

    Eleven months later, I'm in Darwin for the organisation's first meeting: 1,200 participants pulled together from over 50 different countries. On Wednesday, the throng of people outside the convention centre represented not so much the United Nations, but "tribes of the world, unite!"

    Mixing in the late afternoon sun were "first people" from geographically disparate places finding they had more in common with each other than they did with some people of their own nationalities.

    Maasai men from Kenya mixed with Maori from New Zealand. Deer-herders from Lapland talked with Canadian chiefs. A tribal leader from a Filippino coral island discussed wild food with an Australian aborigine.

    The focus of the week's conference was on land and sea management. In recent years, indigenous people have made striking progress in reclaiming traditional lands. But once in control, how is it best to preserve them - not just for environmental reasons, but so culture associated with land can be preserved too?

    As the conference organiser, Melissa George told me:

    "The story is the same with indigenous communities all around the world. There are high rates of substance abuse. We have high rates of incarceration levels, particularly for young people, and we have very high rates of youth suicide all around the world. Developing a process which helps young people regain their identity, regain their connection to their country and their culture is a way that can help alleviate some of those pressures on communities."

    Australia's constitutional battles

    In the lead-up to the conference there's been a ranger-exchange programme. Land and sea managers from right around the world have travelled to Australia's north-western outback to learn from aborigines, and aborigines have made similar trips the other way. Their experiences were shared in Darwin.

    But though organisers were keen to keep politics out of the conference as far as possible, it couldn't be avoided entirely.

    The key line Australia's media picked up from what the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples said, was how he supported calls to recognise Australia's first people in the constitution.

    Because, for all the prestige of hosting the first World Indigenous Network conference, for all the kudos, more generally, aborigines have as a key part of Australia's international image in the eyes of tourists, the truth is that indigenous Australians are still second-tier Australians by almost every measure. Most don't feel particularly included as players in, or beneficiaries of, the Lucky Country's success.

    For many, constitutional recognition is a key step towards addressing that. In January 2012, an expert panel made some key recommendations on changes to Australia's constitution which, combined, would formally recognise indigenous and Torres Strait islander people in a positive way. At the moment, the only references to Australia's first people are negative: that people can be excluded from voting on the basis of their race.

    Back in Januray 2012, it was thought a referendum to get a stamp of approval from the Australian people to make the changes would happen soon. But no referendum date has been set. And though virtually all politicians are united in supporting change, the regard politicians think most Australians have for them means they're not convinced their support will be enough to carry a 'Yes' vote over the line.

    Constitutional change rejected in a referendum would be a calamity.

    So Australia's indigenous people are forced to wait, proudly showing off their culture at this week's conference - but aware their biggest battles aren't over yet.



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