West Australia's Martu communities: a model of remote functionality

Published: 11 Dec 2015

From Australian Financial Review Magazine, Tony Walker, 11 December 2015

Returning to country and managing the land is proving to have more than just environmental benefits for West Australia's Martu communities.

Martu stoke a campfire at Jamparri. The Martu’s return to their homeland began as just a trickle in the 1980s. Today, 1000 Martu live in four distinct communities. Martu stoke a campfire at Jamparri. The Martu’s return to their homeland began as just a trickle in the 1980s. Today, 1000 Martu live in four distinct communities. Louie Douvis


Out here on the continent's western rim, as the campfire burns down in the evening chill and stars fleck a night sky so vast it takes your breath away, Martu woman Gladys Bidu​ is talking slowly and deliberately about a world few of us have the privilege of experiencing.

"It's a living country. That's why we're here," says Bidu, a strong woman now in her 50s. Bidu returned here in 1983 after being taken as a child in the 1960s and resettled in a white man's world. She came back because "we always come back" – and besides, she wanted her kids to come back too. Left unsaid, because it doesn't need to be said, is that the home of the Martu, stretching 13.6 million hectares across a harsh and remote part of Australia that's twice the size of Tasmania, is drug and alcohol-free. Martu elders insist on it, having witnessed the effects of substance abuse in places where alcohol is freely available.

"All the old people to a T talked about going back to country," says Peter See, chief executive officer of the Martu's own management organisation, the Kanyirninpa  Jukurrpa, or KJ, of a decision to recreate sustainable Martu communities in a vast hinterland. "This is ingrained in Martu culture, the idea of looking after the land and passing it on to young people." KJ refers to the Martu words to retain or hold culture, or the broader mataphysical Aboriginal word, dreaming.

Here where three deserts meet (the Great and Little Sandy deserts and the Gibson), communities have been re-established where none existed since the Martu were moved out in the '60s. The "coming back" began in a trickle with the likes of Bidu in the 1980s, as part of the then homelands movement, and built gradually through the 2000s. The Martu were granted native title rights and ownership of the land in 2002.

Ranger Grant Stewart helps to safeguard the fragile ecosystem, burning small patches of the land to counter the impact of summer wildfires.
Ranger Grant Stewart helps to safeguard the fragile ecosystem, burning small patches of the land to counter the impact of summer wildfires. Louie Douvis


This was followed by Commonwealth assistance as part of its Working on Country program, under which traditional owners are encouraged to return to their homes to look after their lands and preserve their culture. Support also came from BHP and the Nature Conservancy, a US-based, not-for-profit environmental organisation with an Australian arm.


Up to 1000 Martu now live in four separate communities, including Jigalong​ on the fringes of Martu country, a place better known for its role in Rabbit-Proof Fence, a film about three Aboriginal children who found their way back there 2400 kilometres from a settlement north of Perth.

The Martu project may well be one of the Commonwealth's more successful Indigenous programs. Working through KJ, headquartered in the mining town of Newman, communities have been revived and a sense of identity restored. Sceptics might describe a decision by Aboriginal people to live in these communities, supported by governments, as a "lifestyle choice", but there are practical benefits of relocating Martu to places where they feel at home, separate from a jarring culture elsewhere.

The witchetty grub (right) is a valuable source of protein.
The witchetty grub (right) is a valuable source of protein. Louie Douvis


Central to KJ's work is a land management program that has reinstated traditional methods of small patch burning to counter raging wildfires caused by lightning that devastate the land during intense summer heat and destroy the habitat of small marsupials such as the greater bilby and northern quoll. Other tasks of the five ranger teams include managing invasive fauna such as feral cats that prey on native creatures, and camels that contaminate water-holes and disturb a delicate ecological balance. About 50,000 camels inhabit the area and need to be culled regularly.

Getting to Martu country is a reminder of the vastness and remoteness of this continent beyond its coastal strips. I travel from Melbourne to Perth to Newman on commercial flights, and then, by private plane, another hour's flight from Newman. In all, I spend about six hours in the air. Here in Martu country you're cut off from the world, out of telephone range except by satellite phone, cocooned in the vastness of the Australian interior, removed from the clutter of daily life. When I visit in June, the far, far outback with its native grasses, wild flowers in bloom, birdlife on the water-holes, rock wallabies breaking cover here and there, and the red earth escarpments is quite stunning. It's easy to understand why the Martu wanted to come back.


Martu elder Muuki Taylor is talking about a life experience that is scarcely believable. While his story might have been told many times before, it hardly loses in the retelling. In his teens, about the year 1961, he found himself by chance on the road from Port Hedland to Broome, dressed in nothing more than a loin-cloth made from camel hair or human hair; he cannot remember which. What happened then changed his life in ways he could not possibly have foreseen, and those of other members of his tribe, who had been desert nomads for thousands of years.

Elders Nancy and Muuki Taylor savour the lookout from Jamparri. Muuki is KJ’s senior cultural adviser.
Elders Nancy and Muuki Taylor savour the lookout from Jamparri. Muuki is KJ’s senior cultural adviser. Louie Douvis


"I thought I had seen a ghost," says Taylor of his initial encounter with two white men who had stopped their vehicle along the side of the road. No words were spoken; how could they have been, the Martu and the white men had no means of communicating with each other. All that passed between them were some scraps of food – apples and bananas, Muuki recollects, his lined face barely visible in the dying embers of the campfire.

A spell had been broken. This might be said to have been the end of one chapter of an Aboriginal dreamtime and the beginning of another – and, in some ways, a nightmare. Not long after the encounter, the Martu, which means "one of us", were rounded up and taken out of their desert sanctuary. Officials from Woomera in South Australia began to survey the Martu homeland to establish whether it was safe to test-fire Blue Streak rockets into an area that had hitherto been regarded as devoid of habitation. In the process, a secret was revealed. An Aboriginal tribe had lived, shielded from view, in this vast expanse of Australia's western deserts undisturbed for perhaps 30,000 years or more.


It might be difficult to believe that a tribe could remain "hidden" but if you fly over Martu country you can't help but be overwhelmed by its emptiness, its rawness and the way in which its undulating terrain gives the appearance of waves rolling endlessly towards a distant horizon. In this desert vastness it is hard to detect any sign of life at all, or imagine that creatures, except the most hardy, could survive hellish summer temperatures. Marble Bar, the hottest place on earth, lies between the Martu determination, as the Martu native title homeland is called, and Port Hedland. 

 Martu are the traditional owners of a large part of central Western Australia.

Martu are the traditional owners of a large part of central Western Australia. Louie Douvis


In the blink of an eye the Martu's world changed as they were brought out of the desert. Resettlement of the Martu proved to be a sad and familiar story as a nomadic tribe lost touch with its roots. Alcoholism, domestic violence, crime and health issues threatened the survival of one the oldest tribes on earth.

But just in time, combined with a bit of luck and imagination, the Martu were given a reprieve. They are no longer nomads but nor are they far removed from their hunter-gatherer roots. On my visit, Waka Taylor, Muuki's relative, shoots a native bustard to be cooked in the coals for dinner. Martu women forage for witchetty grubs and goanna in the bush, a source of protein and nourishment.

Peter See says that once Martu decided they wanted to return to their homeland after the first trickle in the 1980s, it was a matter of getting Commonwealth support and assistance from other sources. In 2014-15, his organisation had a budget of nearly $7 million and employed 36 Martu in permanent positions and another 254 in casual work, including in its ranger land management program. About half the budget comes from government, with most of the rest coming from BHP and the Nature Conservancy Australia.

James Fitzsimons of the Nature Conservancy describes the Martu project as one of his organisation's blue-chip programs. "The Martu are in the middle of the largest intact arid landscape in the world," he says. 

"This is the largest landholding in Australia, so from our perspective it is very important." His description of Martu country as an "iconic desert landscape" is not misplaced.

The Nature Conservancy supports conservation programs across the country that encompass 127 million hectares of land and water, including partnerships with organisations such as Bush Heritage Australia. It is exploring ways to help make the Martu program self-sufficient via the sale of carbon credits. Fitzsimons also raises the possibility of issuing social bonds, in which people invest in these securities if it can be shown that schemes such as the Martu resettlement are saving the state money in reduced crime rates. The social bonds idea has been tried in the UK with some success.

An independent study, commissioned this year by KJ, found there had been "transformative change" in Martu communities since the Working on Country project was initiated. The independent charitable agency Social Ventures Australia reported that the project had kept Martu out of jail for a cumulative total of 41 years over the past five years, saving the West Australian government $3.7 million. A further $4.2 million in savings in reduced crime costs were identified because of a reduction in drinking.

A Martu elder was quoted as saying young people "used to drink and drink and drink, and now they focus on their ranger work".

This sounds like a heartfelt endorsement.  

Tony Walker and Louie Douvis travelled to Martu country as guests of the Nature Conservancy. This article is from the AFR Magazine.