Reflections on a visit to the Biligirirangan Hills, September 2014

by Pat Lowe

During our short visit to the BRT Hills, I was struck by similarities and differences between the lives and lot of Soliga and of Australian Aboriginal people in the Kimberley. I write in the awareness that I know almost nothing about the history, anthropology or sociology of the Soliga people. In what follows I draw simply on observations of my own and information provided by our host Nitin and guide, Madegowda.

Displacement

Firstly, there is the obvious parallel in the displacement of people from their home country, their being housed in substandard, government-supplied dwellings in ‘villages’, ‘reserves’ or ‘communities’[1], and their being denied many of their traditional practices: Soliga not allowed to hunt in the tiger reserve or burn for agriculture, and Aboriginal people not allowed to hunt or camp in national parks, or to burn on country taken over by pastoral leases, parks and for other colonizer purposes. Hunting on unfenced pastoral land has always been legal for Aboriginal people in Australia, but over recent decades, pastoralists have fenced more and more of their land. Each time a fence goes up, people lose hunting grounds[2].

While most Soliga people have no security of tenure, many Kimberley Aboriginal groups enjoy some measure of security through successful Native Title claims —always subject to extinction for mining and other priority land uses, however.

Weeds

The most alarming weed infestation in the BRT Hills was the takeover of the tiger reserve by Lantana (not to mention the less extreme infiltration of eucalyptus, grevillea, acacia etc.) In the Kimberley, numerous weeds are apparent, but not yet at the same landscape-transforming level except in very localized areas. For example, Nugurra Burr is a big problem along rivers and directly affects Aboriginal people by making their fishing spots inaccessible; people have also been inconvenienced over a long time by the quarantining of many fishing spots to avoid spreading the burr. Aboriginal people’s livelihoods are seldom threatened by weeds, whereas Soliga farmers always have to contend with them.

We were told that Soliga regard plantations of eucalypts as symbols of the harms of colonisation and a cause of their own dispersal. Amongst Kimberley Aboriginal people I have heard occasional comments about nuisance plants being ‘kartiya (white people’s) plants’. I recall our main informant in Kununurra making more explicitly critical remarks about Nugurra Burr, and about the remarkable exotic weed infestation at Darram.

Economic activity

There are obvious differences in economic activity, related both to traditional activities and present social conditions. While some rural Kimberley Aboriginal people work for wages (e.g. as rangers, store assistants, language workers, teaching assistants) or earn money through art and crafts, many are unemployed or working for the dole under the Community Development Employment Program. Unemployed people receive a subsistence income. Some people still go hunting and occasionally foraging recreationally at weekends when they have the use of a car; none is engaged in subsistence horticulture or agriculture, for which they have no tradition or experience except in a few cases of work under former mission or government regimes or as gardeners on stations. Few rural Aboriginal people are employed in the retail and hospitality industries, even in businesses owned by Aboriginal organisations.

In contrast, Soliga people have a tradition of shifting agriculture, a useful foundation for settled farming, and we saw some healthy and varied crops, and both men and women working in the fields. Soliga also exploit Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) commercially, most notably honey and some wild fruits. A number of Soliga were employed at Gorukana, an ecotourism enterprise, and we saw a team of men going to work in the forest, for the state forest department.

Health and society

In the Kimberley, heavy alcohol consumption has been a problem since the 1970s, in more recent years exacerbated by the use of marijuana and other drugs. Health is poor, with a very high incidence of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in children and of diabetes and renal, cardiac and respiratory disease in adults. Social problems are often extreme and include high levels of serious domestic violence and suicide. While some families manage their homes well, living conditions are often very poor, even squalid, particularly in homes where alcohol is consumed to excess.

I know too little about the health and social conditions of the Soliga people to be able to draw informed comparisons with those of Kimberley Aboriginal people.

My impression was that, while the housing provided to the Soliga is basic and tightly clustered, it is kept in reasonably good condition, and I saw no evidence of alcohol use or abuse, although I understood from conversation that it occurs in some places. Differences in alcohol use are no doubt partly attributable to the different attitudes to and rates of consumption of alcohol in the respective mainstream societies; the colonizing culture of Australia has always included heavy use of alcohol; in contrast, alcohol is much less in evidence in India, and prohibited amongst certain groups. The receipt or absence of unemployment benefits is also relevant.

Notes

[1] In Australia, Aboriginal townspeople were originally forced to live in ‘reserves’ on the edges of towns and had to observe a curfew. From the early 1970s onwards, these reserves were converted to free ‘communities’, the buildings upgraded and services improved. Nonetheless, they have remained de facto ghettos. Meanwhile, ‘blacks’ camps’ on pastoral stations were forcibly evacuated from 1972, following the Equal Wage decision for pastoral workers. Subsequently, some groups of people with a strong connection to certain stations were granted one-kilometre-square excisions from these leases, which were also called ‘communities’ and supplied with government housing and basic services.

[2]Hunting may still be permitted with permission from the relevant pastoralist, but, unless they already have a good relationship with him or her, Aboriginal people are reluctant to make such requests. Some pastoralists are known to give blanket refusals.

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