‘Fortress Groote’: managing safety, services and a mining economy in a remote Indigenous community

Atnas Maeko from Bush Fit Mob during training with local staff

As we are seeing in Australia’s highly populated areas, managing the interconnectedness of health, economic and social needs is complex amidst the coronavirus crisis. On the Groote Archipelago in the Northern Territory – where mining operations sit alongside local Indigenous communities – the situation is especially complex and the risks perhaps higher.

This article is the second in our 3-part series sharing stories from clients, partners and friends in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where people are uniquely affected by the coronavirus crisis. Part 1 of the series describes how Indigenous broadcasting services are responding to the coronavirus crisis. Part 3 explores how the pandemic presents an unlikely opportunity for some Aboriginal people to seek sanctuary on their traditional country.

Map of Groote Eylandt in relation to East Arnhem and the Northern Territory
Groote Eylandt is located 650km South-East of Darwin

At the start of April, there were no cases of coronavirus on Groote, located 650 kilometres south-east of Darwin.

Home to 2,500 people – 1,600 of whom are Indigenous – Groote’s best defence is its remoteness. But the situation is complicated: Groote has an operating manganese mine, with a large fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workforce.

The Anindilyakwa Land Council has developed a plan to keep people on Groote safe. Local service providers, meanwhile, are doing their best to adapt and keep supporting the communities.

“Fortress Groote”

“Home is safe. Fortress Groote,” emphasised the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC), in releasing its Management Plan to deal with the coronavirus. “The Groote Archipelago’s isolation is our biggest strength,” said ALC Chairman Tony Wurramarrba. “We are introducing tight border controls to make sure the virus does not come here.”

The ALC has had to navigate a special set of challenges due to the presence of manganese mining operations on Groote. The mining township of Alyangula has a high fly-in, fly-out population, made up of mining workers, contractors and visiting service providers. Leases over the town, and surrounding mining areas, are held by GEMCO, owned by South32.

Working with GEMCO and government, the ALC’s crucial task is to ensure that no one brings the virus to Groote. There are 1,600 Indigenous people on Groote, mostly Anindilyawka Traditional Owners, living across three main communities of Angurugu, Umbakumba and Milyakburra. These communities – where many people live in overcrowded housing, and have underlying health issues – would be highly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Angurugu and the GEMCO manganese mine
An aerial view of Angurugu and the GEMCO manganese mine (image: Google Earth)

The Groote Archipelago has now been declared a ‘Designated Area’ under the Biosecurity Act. Under the declaration, all people intending to enter Groote must self-isolate for 14 days prior to entering. The Land Council and GEMCO have also agreed to a two week shutdown, which prohibits all travel to the Archipelago, and all travel between Alyangula and Aboriginal communities, from 31 March to 14 April.

After the shutdown, travel will resume, and there will be various exceptions to the self-isolation requirements for ‘essential activities’. These include provision of health care and education. The definition of ‘essential activities’ also includes ‘mining operations, or operating ancillary to mining operations’, provided these are conducted in areas approved by biosecurity officers.

This means GEMCO mining operations will continue, despite the coronavirus threat. GEMCO has committed to a range of precautionary measures: FIFO workers will receive regular temperature checks; there will be social distancing measures, including for charter flights and mealtimes; and workers will be prohibited from visiting local shops in Alyangula.

A loss of routine for young people on Groote

Bush Fit Mob runs regular programs with schools in each Anindilyakwa community (image: Bush Fit Mob)

Despite there being no cases of coronavirus on Groote, the virus has created similar disruptions to those in other parts of the country.

Atnas Maeko is the Program Manager of Bush Fit Mob. Bush Fit Mob uses sport, health, recreation and cultural activities to increase young people’s engagement and resilience. They deliver programs in Angurugu, Umbakumba and Milyakburra every week. Maeko and his family live in Alyangula.

Bush Fit Mob suspended their programs in the final week of March. “I feel bad for the kids,” says Maeko. “With everything going on, at least our program is something that could get their minds away from all of this. Not having us, it puts more pressure on them.”

Engaging young people is a key priority for Anindilyakwa Traditional Owners. There are 480 Indigenous young people aged between five and 18 living on the Groote Archipelago. This represents 30% of the population – much higher than in the general Australian population where less than 18% of people are school-aged. For a range of complex reasons, many Anindilyakwa young people are disengaged from education. The region has one of the lowest levels of school attendance in Australia.

The ALC Strategic Plan describes the need for young people to have “pathways to stand in ‘both worlds’” – to be strong in local culture, while being empowered with the education and skills needed to engage with the outside world.

Bush Fit Mob is one program that is making progress towards this goal. Over the past two years, school attendance has been highest on days with Bush Fit Mob programs scheduled. The not-for-profit organisation has expanded its role over time to give young people access to a wide range of activities – from yoga and women’s basketball to health and nutrition programs.

Maeko is especially concerned that the coronavirus will undermine the routine that Bush Fit Mob, schools and other service providers have worked hard to establish. “We’ve been in every school, every week, for the last two years,” says Maeko.

“The kids know we are coming and they have a routine. If we lose that, we might see a lot of disengaged kids, and some who get themselves in trouble.”

Staying active and stepping up to the challenge

The controls announced by the ALC will enable some services to continue, where safe. Under its Management Plan, the ALC will continue delivering its Community Support Program and Cultural Programs. Following the shutdown period, the ALC will assess each service based on what is safe.

Recognising the need to maintain critical social programs, Ken Wyatt, Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, announced on 2 April new funding of $23 million for regional and remote Indigenous communities. The funding will support alcohol and drug services, social and emotional wellbeing projects, family support and youth engagement and diversion programs. “Providers are working to deliver services in different ways where possible and this funding will help find innovative solutions to continue these programs,” the Minister says.

At Bush Fit Mob, Maeko and his colleagues are already exploring new ways to connect with young people – including posting quick daily exercise videos online.

“Make sure you challenge yourself,” Maeko encourages kids in the first video. “As you know, we can’t exercise how we normally would. We’re going to be doing a daily video, coming right at you from your living room, your backyard, or with your family. This is to stay active and stay healthy.”

Bush Fit Mob are also thinking about how staff based in communities may be able to deliver some activities. Bush Fit Mob has been developing a team of Traditional Owner staff to work alongside Maeko in delivering programs. Over the past year, they have built a core team of nine Traditional Owner Program Leaders. All staff participate in a formal training program, which includes Certificate II and III courses with Charles Darwin University.

“Our job is about building up our colleagues to take on these roles themselves. Especially at a time like this it would be great if we can support them to step up,” says Maeko.

Over the past three years Social Ventures Australia has been working with the Anindilyakwa Land Council and local Aboriginal Corporations to develop and implement the Future Groote Strategy – a plan for the future of the regional economy, to move away from dependence on mining royalties. We have also worked with Bush Fit Mob, a local sport and recreational organisation supported by the Land Council.