Australian government blocks dam to protect aboriginal sites

CANBERRA, Australia -- The Australian governmnent has used heritage legislation for the first time to prevent the construction of a dam which would have destroyed sacred Aboriginal sites, officials said.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner announced Sunday the federal government would block the $15 million dam proposed by the Northern Territory Government as part of a flood mitigation program for Alice Springs in central Australia.


The decision provoked an angry response from the Northern Territory Chief Minister Marshall Perron, who accused the federal government of acting like 'big brother.'

Tickner said the government had acted on the advice of Hal Wootten, a prominent lawyer it appointed to conduct an independent inquiry into Aboriginal objections to the dam, which was to be built 3.7 miles north of the town, damming the Todd River.

'Aborigines can see no justice in their being asked to sacrifice their sacred sites, the only interest they are still accorded in their traditional land, to prevent infrequent damage to carpets and other property of white people who have chosen to build on flood-prone land, not to elevate their houses or commercial buildings to the small extent necessary to place them above flood level, or otherwise flood-proof them, or to buy buildings that are known to be subject to occasional flooding at prices that presumably reflected that,' Wootten said in his report.


Wootten was also critical of the Northern Territory Government's 'extensive and emotive play' on the plight of Aborigines who camped on the bed of the Todd River -- some of whom have drowned in previous flash floods. The river is dry most of the time.

'To justify a $15 million dam in the name of safety of a hundred or so Aborigines while having refused for a decade to acknowledge their problems is hypocritical and cynically opportunistic,' he said. 'It can only be regarded as a cynical exploitation of their problems to achieve other ends, in this case the justification of a highly uneconomic dam.'

'In my inquiry, I soon became very conscious of the tremendous agony and stress that has been caused to individual Aboriginal people involved and the Aboriginal community generally by the dam proposal,' he said.

Perron attacked the decision, saying that Tickner would be held responsible for any future deaths by flooding.

'He has exercised his power to stop the dam. Now he can exercise the responsibility that goes with that power and protect Alice Springs,' he said.

Perron said it was a sad day for Commonwealth-Territory relations.

The Alice Springs Aboriginal community rejoiced at the decision.


About 40 traditional women custodians, members of the Arrernte people, visited the sacred 'dreaming' sites which would have been destroyed by the dam's constuction, where they sang and danced.

'This is a great victory for the custodians and for Aboriginal people throughout Australia,' said David Ross, director of the Centralk Land Council.

He said it was appropriate that the first use of Tickner's heritage powers had been to preserve sacred Aborigional sites in central Australia.

'I certainly see it as historic ... I think it's appropriate that it's been used in central Austrtalia, in being tied to their (Aborigines') land, lore and culture,' he said.

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