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Community stores in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

CHAIR —Would you like to make an opening statement before we ask you some questions?

Ms Arabena —Sure. I would just firstly like to thank all of you for doing the work you are doing. I think it is a very important piece of work and it is really worth while having a look at the make-up of stores and what potentials there are to lever change for our societies in them. I am descended from the Merriam people from Murray Island up in the Torres Strait, and I have spent a lot of time living in Northern Australia particularly. I have spent a lot of time in the Northern Territory, Cape York and up in the Torres Strait. I have been running health services for a long time and I have been working on initiatives such as the Well Person’s Health Check, which in fact then levered the Medicare Benefits Scheme around the adult health check that has had great resonance with community people.

I am making this statement to put it on the record. Now that we are signatories to both the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Kyoto agreement, I think it is really important to talk not necessarily about governance of community stores but about the interactions between modern food systems and traditional food systems in particular, and to see how stores can be a mechanism for the change that I initiated and how they can generate health benefits and the kind of family benefits that you were talking about before.

I came to a point in my life, really, where I thought that stores could be a real mechanism for promoting sustainability and reducing our ecological footprint, and recognising and giving value to people’s work and their living relationships with the country that they have care for. A couple of things have been really pivotal for me in making this determination. About 15 years ago there was a single mother who ran the Kiwirrkurra shop, in the Ngaanyatjarra lands about 600 kilometres west of Alice Springs, and she intentionally ran it at a loss. Free fruit and vegetables were available for kids to come in at any time and get. They were not able to afford packets of chips and coca cola as they were four or five dollars. The meat store that was brought in to the shop was just enough. When the meat ran out they had a communal input of—I think it was—$10 a week for each person. That went into a fuel kind of cooperative, and then people went out and hunted. It was an excellent store. It promoted all of the social cohesion that getting out to country does. It generated all of the health benefits: no-one went hungry and kids were able to access fruit and vegetables. And the modern foods in the shop were supplemented with traditional food sources.

Another thing that I think is really important is—

CHAIR —Sorry, where was that?

Ms Arabena —That was out at Kiwirrkurra. I used to live at Kintore—


Ms Arabena —And then you just keep going, over the Western Australia border.

CHAIR —Does that still exist?

Ms Arabena —The community of Kiwirrkurra does. The shop and the model do not, which is very sad. But it was very good. The other thing that I wanted to highlight was Professor Kerin O’Day, who does a lot of work around diabetes management and chronic disease management. She talked about her experience of getting people who were chronically ill back out on country and, within six weeks, of mobilising their resources around country and living off country—that they actually had a health benefit related to that. My uncle, until very recently, lived up on Hammond Island, and he had to sell his boat because he could not afford the $3.40 per litre worth of petrol and that inhibited his capacity to go out fishing. And Nhulunbuy, in the Territory, about a decade ago won an award from Winfield for the most sales per capita of cigarettes. So stores have traditionally, in my experience, been—

CHAIR —What do you mean they won an award?

Ms REA —They sold the most cigarettes.

Ms Arabena —Per capita—

CHAIR —Did they actually get a trophy?

Ms Arabena —in the Southern hemisphere. Yes, they got a trophy for it. So stores can be a real nexus of evil or a nexus of health benefit and good.

They are the kinds of things that I have been thinking about and, additional to that of course, there is the question of climate change and the kind of impact that that will have on stores. What I am really interested in is building the resilience of food systems in the face of the global environmental and economic changes that are going to happen, so in my submission I have placed community stores into a broader context of food production supply and security systems. I think that these things will need to be looked at into the near future—climate change in particular.

The global financial changes, also, are going to have a great impact on the modern food system to deliver goods to people in geographically isolated communities. I think that they also challenge some of the underpinning societal assumptions that we have about stores. In Australia in particular, which is the most arid continent in the world, modern food systems present multiple challenges, and some of them are environmental. The supply of water for irrigation is problematic, as is a forward trend towards larger farms.

Other challenges are directly related to corporate concentration in processing and packaging of products, rather than actually growing them now. Challenges also arise from the activities of distribution and retail. What we end up with are people in remote area communities becoming the end point users for huge multinational endeavours. I think, too, that a problem I had at the last Nutrition Networks conference that I facilitated was that our distribution networks are now huge. We have really increased, and we have expanded our trade routes into communities. This will exacerbate the negative effects of the ecological footprint as well as facilitating an unequal distribution of quality and quantity of food.

My own personal point of view is that modern food systems best meet the needs of people in urban areas—populations of people who almost solely rely on purchasing food. In rural and remote area communities the terms ‘store’—that is, to amass and hoard food until it is ready to be consumed—and ‘shop’—that is, to engage with the global and corporate world to consume a purchase—undermine the role of traditional food production and consumption in rural or remote communities who hunt game or gather food. They are very different kinds of concepts. Also missing from the terms ‘to shop’ or ‘to store’ are the social aspects of food production that I have talked about. That includes intergenerational teaching and learning, looking after country, remembering story lines, ensuring that the biodiversity of the region in which we live is protected, talking in language and recognising aspects of the biosystems of which we are all a part. The shops and stores also predetermine the protein sources available for people to consume, so goanna, dugong and kangaroo have replaced chicken, beef and lamb. Shops could be said to perpetuate food insecurity in a lot of these communities. If you have reliance upon a store as your sole source of food and that food is then processed and contains fats, has added chemicals and high levels of salt and sugar, then basically you have completely undermined and made vulnerable the whole food security systems that operate in those remote areas. There is also a real assumption in modern food systems that new foods are better than ancient foods. For instance, we have replaced Murray Island sardines with John West sardines, as a more beneficial food, or we have said that roma tomatoes are better for people than akatjurra, which is a bush tomato. There are inherent assumptions that underline the nutritional values of food.

This will have big changes in climate change. I have already indicated, in the paper that you have got, some of the longer term health problems that will arise as a result of climate change. Indigenous people living in rural and remote areas will be the first and most severely affected group of people in Australia. People’s cultural lives and traditional food sources are likely to be stressed by climate change in the coming years. In the next 10 years I expect that we will have our first climate change refugees within Australia, being the Torres Strait Islanders living on those low coral cay islands in the Torres Straits as well as people from inland communities who cannot regulate or ensure constant water supply. That is going to really affect people’s abilities to live in those remote areas. Prior to being displaced by climate change there will be exacerbated household costs that people will incur as they try to regulate the temperatures inside their houses. The costs for individual users will increase as a result of the frequency of natural disasters. The cost of insuring houses, building and infrastructure against extreme events will also rise, be inhibitive or the insurance will even be withdrawn.

Currently, all of the machinery inside shops has been manufactured to operate at 35 degree temperatures. We will have to negotiate so that they will be able to operate at 45 degree temperatures over the next five to 10 years. The machinery we have currently will require more repairs and be more costly as professionals have to travel to the communities as there are no refrigeration mechanics or engineers within the community context as such. It will also be problematic because people will have to store food and regulate that food storage in their communities. I say this because current grids of electricity in communities are already unstable and increased pressure on these electrical grids will be exacerbated in the future. I am trying to think about an ecosystem approach to food production and supply. It would be really important for us to see whether there was some capacity for people to make sure that traditional food supplies were available through stores or to see whether we could encourage people to supplement products in the stores with traditional food sources and that people can get back out to country and actually harvest their own.

I think that people in communities are mutually dependent with each other. In country has facilitated human and environmental interactions and through those interactions we have actually had really strong cultural and social foundations that are not able to be derived from the current store systems that we have in place.

I recently spoke at a Science Meets Parliament event here about establishing partnerships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and scientists and what things could be generated from ideas around sustainability—in creating sustainability stores in communities, but transforming communities from urban ghettos into sustainable academies where people actually lived off the grid and they had the opportunities to invest in their own food production systems and, in doing so, then really transformed the notions of profits and perhaps intervened with other more traditional lines of bartering systems or negotiations in which women could be involved and not necessarily left out of.

I have made a series of recommendations—I think there are seven or eight of them—that talk about promoting an ecosystems approach to food production and supply issues and that what I would like to see happen from this is that we think about how they could be turned into policy and how communities could then think about how they might live sustainably and that we use stores as a complete mechanism for being able to do that.

Sorry, that was a bit of a head-spinner.

CHAIR —It is a bit of a head-spinner but it is really interesting.

Ms REA —It was very interesting.

CHAIR —You are talking about something that has become very apparent in the hearings that we have had. I might get this wrong, but I think it was on Mer Island that we had evidence that since the store came into being, which I think is 40 years old in that community—it is certainly measured in decades—the community gardens and the growing of vegetables has actually declined. You would have to say that that was a negative impact that the store had on that community, as an example. And it is something that we have been grappling with ourselves. So I guess the first question is: is the model of the community you mentioned in WA the solution to trying to have traditional food supplies married with stores?

Ms Arabena —It is going to be a very interesting concept if people can think about how we can get traditional foods back onto store shelves, because we have got models at the moment that are not interested in that. There would be a whole lot of hygiene legislation that might inhibit someone from going out and culling a few kangaroos and making them available.

CHAIR —This was raised.

Ms Arabena —It was not raised through that shop at that time. I have tried to think about how this could be done.

CHAIR —So what is the answer to that question, for example. Because that was raised in Kaltjiti, I think.

Mrs VALE —But, with respect, Kerry, one of the realities is that a lot of these traditional food sources do not exist any more, and that is because of the impact of camels—this is what we heard in evidence—and feral cats. Those traditional food sources that are small animals are not there any more for hunting. Some of the evidence we got at Fregon, I think, was that the calicivirus and the gun laws, which were good as far as the wider Australian community was concerned, have acted in a negative way on the ability of people in remote Indigenous communities to supply themselves with food. With the gun laws, a lot of the men had to surrender their firearms. But, also, the calicivirus killed off a lot of the rabbits and they were a great food source for the very remote communities, even though it is not traditional food. They are not there any more. It seems from the evidence we took that the supply of traditional food sources is almost being decimated by the ravages of modern culture and of Indigenous people no longer living in family groups that were nomadic and went into different regions where they found fresh food sources—because they moved only when they depleted the food source in a particular area. But there does not appear to be those traditional food sources any more.

Ms Arabena —Part of the food system would necessarily help produce those again. So what kind of a role would a store have in producing the biodiversity of the place in which people could then go out and hunt? It is not just a supply issue; it is also about caring for country in a way that removed the feral animals and that hunted the camels. We used to hunt camels when I lived out there; it is nice meat. Then there is the issue of how you would actually reintroduce that as part of not only a supply issue but a production issue.

If you have a look at it in a systematic context, there are a lot of opportunities. It might be that the biodiversity of the desert areas would be depleted. That has absolutely been the case: as countries have become more arid and the water supplies have dried up, feral things have overrun them. If people do not get back out to country to care for it then that will happen. But in the Torres Straits, for instance, there is still a huge diversity of food that can be sourced. It is just difficulty to access because fuel costs are so high.

Mrs VALE —Yes. They are really quite different, aren’t they?

Ms Arabena —They are very different. There needs to be a bioregional approach to food production and supply systems. There would be commonalities between one that could legitimately work in some areas of Cape York and one that could work in a remote area community. But that is not the only thing that I am concerned about. I am concerned that we have these urban based models of shop service provision being rolled out and implemented in communities that do not have that as part of their way of thinking around things. But now it has become intensified but they are the end point users, as I have said, for these huge multinational companies.

CHAIR —How do we change that?

Ms Arabena —For instance, the ANU has a very good food cooperative approach. Even if you just change the packaging of products that are now available can work. Instead of having one packet of noodles individually packaged, you make sure that there are opportunities to bulk buy foods where possible. You need to make fruit and vegetables free of charge for people and shift the cost into something else. It may not be run at a profit per se, but there would be a long-term health benefit for communities if that were the case.

Mr TURNOUR —On that, one of the issues is about empowering people. One of the things that concern me is that a lot of Indigenous people live in houses that are built by the government, they receive their welfare payment from the government and they go to a government owned store. You are saying that we should give people free food. Where does the empowerment come from in that sort of philosophy? Where does it come from?

Ms Arabena —My preference would be for families to get back out on to country and got free food from there. It is not free; they hunt for it. But it is not an economic concept.

Mr TURNOUR —You were describing free food from a shop, though.

Ms Arabena —Free fruit and vegetables is very different. For kids to access that on a day-to-day basis is really important.

Mr TURNOUR —Do you think, though, that if you could go down the local shop and get free apples and oranges and free vegetables that you would go out and grow your on? For example, on Murray Island would you put your hard work and sweat and tears into growing things? It has very good soil—I have been out there many times. Do you think that if we provide free fruit and vegetables on Murray Island that people are going to grow their own?

Ms Arabena —I reckon. Absolutely. It would be part of Marlo’s law for me to do it on Murray Island, so—

Mr TURNOUR —We make people pay for fruit and vegetables and they do not grow their own, but if we provided it for free they would? Is that your argument?

Ms Arabena —That is absolutely not my argument. I am not here to make any arguments per se. I am saying that there are some philosophical opportunities that could be broached by supplementing food sources through community stores that are traditionally grown. What would stop people, for instance, on Murray Island who have additional food to their own needs bringing that into the store and making that available through the store?

Mr TURNOUR —We would agree with that.

Ms Arabena —Those sorts of things are important.

Mr TURNOUR —Can we look at that one specifically? We all have discussed that. What is stopping that from happening? Why doesn’t that happen now?

Ms Arabena —That is a very good question.

Mrs VALE —We found that just about every one of these communities had a history at some stage of having community gardens. It has happened.

Ms Arabena —Yes.

Mrs VALE —For some reason, they do not just bother doing that now.

Mr TURNOUR —Some of the answers have been to do with hygiene. You raised that. I do not know what the answer to that is. Some of the answers have been to do with governance. In the case of Murray Island specifically, they talked about the fact that the buying decisions of that store being made in Cairns. But it seemed like a no-brainer. Do you have any ideas?

Ms Arabena —My insight might be that there is no sustainability framework sitting over the top of the structures at the moment. If you said that the food supply for a community had to come from a 100 kilometre range, what would it be?

CHAIR —So what are you saying?

Ms Arabena —If, for instance, you lived out in the middle of the desert—I will show you on this bit of paper—and here is your community, the first place you looked for your produce was within a 100 kilometre range, no more than that.

CHAIR —And there is some mandating on stores that they have to do that?

Ms Arabena —No, I am just saying that this is an opportunity for people to rethink what sustainability might mean.

Mrs VALE —How do we convince them of that? You cannot come in and say, make it mandatory, because that would look like another white man’s law.

Ms Arabena —Absolutely. One of the recommendations I have made on page 19—

Mrs VALE —Just on another issue on that, on the logistics issue, you know more than I do that traditionally, especially in remote Australia, not talking about the Torres Strait Islands, the Indigenous people were nomadic and they were in small family groups and they would go from one small area to another, deplete the food source and go to the next one. But now we even have a population explosion in a lot of these remote communities where if they were virtually left to their own devices there would be no way—they could actually live off the land a hundred years ago or 200 years ago. They have lived off the land for nearly 50,000 years, but if we tried to make them do that again to some extent, they would not be able to because our feral animals have destroyed those local food sources and natural food sources and also the fact is they have got too many people to live off the resources of that particular set area.

Ms Arabena —I just think there are some different kind of employment opportunities the store could consider. Why is it that in Balgo we are buying frozen kangaroo tails from Kalgoorlie that has been shot by a commercial hunter, for instance? There are different ways that you could actually think about employment. You could help bolster the biodiversity. You could actually farm kangaroos or something. I have no idea, but—

Mrs VALE —You cannot hurt them.

Ms Arabena —No, you cannot. I have tried on Mount Taylor and it just does not work. I just think there are different things I would like to see happen. I would love to be given the opportunity to do this, but I think that if we expanded our ideas and concepts of what food security is, left Coles by the side for the moment and went back—not went back, because there is no place to go back to, for all the reasons we talked about before, but in the context of the declaration of the rights of the Indigenous people and the signing-off of the Kyoto agreement around climate change and the effects of that. If we had some opportunities for different sciences to work together about how you could really bolster food production and supply. But it is not only for Aboriginal communities, it is for farming communities and it is for a whole lot of rural communities and things like that.

Mr TURNOUR —I have to go. Thanks for coming along.

Ms Arabena —Thank you. I really appreciate that you are doing good work up there.

Mrs VALE —I will have to go soon too. Everything you are saying is really interesting and makes basic common sense. This might be a fairly obvious question, but to what extent have you thought about achieving a sustainable model and the actual governance of the store in terms of not just ownership but in light of the previous presentation? To what extent have you looked at particular models of governance and ownership that may actually facilitate some of this happening? Have you looked at that at all?

Ms Arabena —Some of the things you were talking about before were about family and clan based initiatives. It might be as simple as resurrecting them. I am not sure if the term ‘governance’ actually transitions well to when people are out on country together in small family groups, but there is certainly a social ordering that you could really encapsulate in the food supply and production systems that would not only address some of those food issues but could also then be really beneficial to some of those social and cultural foundations.

Mrs VALE —Have you actually done some examination of that?

Ms Arabena —I would love to, except I am newly coming to this. I am coming to stores in remote areas in a very different kind of way. I appreciate your time. Thank you to going out to the communities. It is really appreciated.

Mrs VALE —If anyone needs empowering out there, the women need it.

Ms Arabena —It would be tended on what happens with the store profits. Until you can tell Westpac what to do with their shareholder, stakeholder profits it would be very difficult to tell remote area men. I have tried.

CHAIR —On Danna’s point on governance and the involvement of women, do you have any observation about that in the governance structures of stores?

Ms Arabena —It would be great to get women involved, but there are traditional areas where women have more involvement necessarily, and they are in the health sphere—so you will find that a lot of the governance in the clinics, for instance, is looked after by women. The store profits generated from stores will guarantee that there will be men from strong families involved with the governance arrangements of those stores. But you could establish partnerships and collaborations between store community councils, school community councils and clinical councils, and have different kinds of arrangements in governance between agencies that do not necessarily mean that you empower women to get a broken arm.

CHAIR —One of the questions that was raised was about whether we ought to treat stores as an essential service. It was suggested that there should be a government subsidy for stores in remote communities. How do you sit with the idea of subsidising stores?

Ms Arabena —What are you actually subsidising? What is it about the store that you are subsidising? Is it to get all the crap food out there onto the shelves? Is that what we are subsidising? Are we subsidising the fuel costs for the company that owns the trucks that transport the food out there? You would have to make some really good decisions about what it is that you are subsidising through stores. And I think that it should be available across all of Australia, not necessarily just for remote area Aboriginal communities. The whole of outback Australia will be severely affected in the coming years, by the recession and by climate change. For example, once you get to 45 degrees celsius, that is when the rail lines start buckling, and it really does affect your ability to get food out there. So what are we subsidising?

CHAIR —That is a good answer.

Ms REA —That is a very good question.

CHAIR —We are going to have to finish now. You are based here, aren’t you?

Ms Arabena —I am based here. The secretariat know how to get in touch with me.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your evidence. I am sorry that we have to cut it short. It may be that we ask you some more questions in writing and maybe even ask you some more questions here on another occasion. You can see that you got us all fired up, which is a compliment. Thank you for your attendance today and thank you to the committee members, the secretariat and the Hansard reporters.

Resolved (on motion by Ms Rea):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 1.52 pm