Australian advances, Honduran horror

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Let’s visit a land — both country and continent — that Global Village hasn’t reported on before — Australia!

Out of Africa

Genome studies indicate that Aboriginal people first colonized northern Australia 24,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe or Asia. Yes, Aborigines mastered living in the outback roughly 50,000 years ago! It’s no wonder they are terrific stewards of the land.

In the late 1800s, European settlers made their way into the spacious “great red center” — Australia’s Northern Territory. They viewed the lush grasslands and savannah there as perfect for livestock ranching. So Aborigines began to be fenced out of their ancestral lands and intense overgrazing began.

Reign of Fire

You’ve likely heard that massive, catastrophic wildfires have raged across Australia over the last three years, claiming hundreds of lives. Yet, ironically, Aborigines always used fire to manage their vast territories — small, frequent, carefully-tended burns that cleared dried brush, rejuvenated grasses, controlled insects and flushed out game.

Aboriginal burning was so neat and normal that a devastating conflagration couldn’t possibly find the fuel to take off. As Michael Looker, director of Australia’s Nature Conservancy, observes: “People and their fires were the dominant ecological force for thousands of years. Nature here needs people.”

Giving It Back

Fortunately, the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act began the steady process of returning ancient homelands to evicted Aboriginal clans. Natives need only provide sound evidence of their historical occupation and a generous measure of patience. Today, over 40 percent of the Northern Territory is back in Aboriginal hands.

Returning communities are obligated to promote biodiversity and conserve cultural resources. So, mini-burning is again repairing landscapes — restoring once-denuded “cattle stations” to healthier conditions. Michael Looker is pleased. “We can imagine 125 million acres of Australian land going into indigenous conservation management in the coming decade.”

Fish River Station is one such 700-square-mile former cattle ranch. Purchased by the Indigenous Lands Corporation, the National Reserve System, the Nature Conservancy and the Pew Environment Group, Fish River is gradually being turned over to the four original clans who dwelt there — perhaps for millennia. As one elder expresses it, “We don’t own the land; we belong to it.”

Project biologist Dr. Geoff Lipsett-Moore lists the chief goals for Fish River over the next three years: “Get the fire regime right, get ferals [non-native animals] under control, and gather the baseline data so we can measure our progress accurately.”

Economic Justice Pays

In 2009, another tract, twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, was returned to the Warddeken and Djelk people. Aborigine rangers now conduct fires, biological surveys and train younger rangers, assuring employment for the next generation. Ecotourism businesses are springing up. And interestingly, studies show traditional fire techniques ultimately reduce the load of carbon pollution entering the atmosphere.

The economic benefits of Aboriginal land stewardship extending to the ancient carbon market? In 2011, Australia created a carbon tax-and-trade system. Industries are showing interest in paying Aborigine communities to virtually “sink” a company’s carbon emissions into the Natives’ healthy, stable land-cover. (Humm, a maturing, meaningful carbon market to slow global warming. But that’s a story for another day …)

A Honduran teenager of 16 sought asylum in America in 2008. Nelson Javier Avila-Lopez said he fled Honduras because he was being hassled by gang members trying to recruit him there.

In Los Angeles, Nelson kept his nose clean — even brought his mama north. But in 2010, Avila-Lopez’s asylum was denied and he received deportation orders. That’s when immigrants really start laying low.

Thus, the young man wasn’t arrested until September. His lawyer immediately filed an emergency motion and Nelson was granted a Stay of Deportation. “The next thing we knew, Avila-Lopez had been sent back to Honduras. It happened very quickly,” said Silvia Ceja-Gonzalez, the attorney’s legal assistant.

Upon Nelson’s arrival in Honduras, he was perfunctorily tossed into the Comayagua prison, though he’d committed no crime. At age 20, Avila-Lopez died there on Valentines Day in one of the worst prison fires in history.

Comayagua National Penitentiary was built to hold 500, but was stuffed with 857 men the night of the fire. Fifty-one percent had never been charged or convicted of a crime. Three-hundred-and-fifty-eight prisoners died in anguish that night in February while guards refused to unlock their cells.

Back in L.A., Ceja-Gonzales shudders. “It’s a wake-up call to review the system and make sure (illegal deportation) doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman sounded bewildered, stating, “We would never repatriate an individual if we had knowledge that a Stay of Deportation was in effect.”

Ahh … How many fragile lives hang in the balance of our misguided treatment of the sojourners among us?

Sources: Nature Conservancy, KPCC.fm

Albrecht is a San Antonio, N.M., resident. She has written global affairs digests for New Mexican newspapers and journals for 13 years. Find her column on the last Saturday of each month in El Defensor Chieftain.