Indigenous Chamber’s visit to Yilpara (Baniyala)

Yilpara (Baniyala) is an Aboriginal homeland community in North East Arnhem Land working to become a thriving, self-sufficient and sustainable community with a real economy.

Report by Elizabeth Henderson
Director, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

In August 2013, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce Directors Warren Mundine and Elizabeth Henderson visited Yilpara (Baniyala) in North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Baniyala Map 1

As in many parts of Australia, during 1900s the Yolngu people were moved away from their traditional clan lands to live on missions, such as the Yirrkala mission which was established in the 1930s.  The 1970s saw the emergence of the Yolngu ‘Homelands” movement, with clans moving back to their original homelands to live either permanently or periodically. Today there are about 10,000 Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory living in about 500 homeland settlements.Yilpara is situated on Blue Mud Bay on the Gulf of Carpentaria and is home to the Madarrpa clan of the Yolngu people.

Yilpara was re-settled in the early 1970s by the traditional clan landowners. It is now a community with a permanent population of around 150 people, which swells at different times throughout the year in line with seasonal and ceremonial occasions.


Blue Mud Bay

There are many advantages to life on the homelands for Aboriginal people. Clan based communities provide a social framework through family and cultural traditions. They do not experience the clan related disputes that can exist in former mission towns where many different clans have been herded together to live. Health studies have shown lower morbidity and mortality and other improved health outcomes in homelands communities compared to centralised communities.

Yilpara does not suffer from the social dysfunction that pervades many remote Indigenous communities across Australia. It is a dry community and violence and other anti-social behaviour is not tolerated.

There  are also many challenges that come with life on the homelands.

Like most homeland communities, Yilpara is extremely remote. The nearest town is Nhulunbuy which has a population of about 4000 people and is 200km away – 3 hours by 4WD on unsealed roads or around 40 minutes by charter flight. Nhulunbuy in turn is 90 minutes from Darwin and about 2 hours from Cairns by commercial flight.

Service provision to such a remote community is expensive and difficult and for many years Yilpara had inadequate or non-existent delivery of essential services including utilities, education, health and dental and housing.


First connection to the national Broadband Network at Yilpara

Madarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili AM has worked to achieve major improvements to the living conditions and outlook for Yilpara and there is a great deal of hope and optimism for Yilpara’s future as a thriving community. In recent years it has had the assistance of the Rotary Club of Sydney Cove and the Indigenous Community Benevolent Fund. Yilpara is now relatively well serviced with basic utilities, obtaining a reliable water supply in 2001 and electricity in 2004. Its old satellite dish was replaced by a new dish installed by the National Broadband Network on the day of the Chamber’s visit. There is now access to on-site health and dental services with the establishment of a health centre in 2007.

Two of the biggest challenges have been education and housing.

One of  Yilpara’s greatest achievements in the past 8 years has been the establishment of a fully operational school with full time teachers who live on the community.


Previously the community was serviced by a ‘Homeland Learning Centre’ operated by the Northern Territory Department of Education. There are about forty such centres across the Territory. Homeland Learning Centres are not real schools. Teachers fly or drive in and out of the community and children receive only a few hours of teaching on one or two days per week. For the rest of the time the learning centres are staffed by unqualified local ‘assistant teachers’.







Under the Homeland Learning Centre at Yilpara children did not learn to read or write, speak English or do basic arithmetic.  The children could not even read the national government literacy and numeracy tests and so did not sit them.

With the assistance of the the Rotary Club of Sydney Cove (RCSC) , and Indigenous Community Benevolent Fund (ICBF),  Yilpara commmunity persuaded the Department to provide the community with a real school.

This required that qualified teachers work full time at the school which meant they needed to live in the community. In 2007 the community built a three bedroom fully equipped house as accommodation for teachers and other visitors and two additional teachers’ houses were built in 2010. Since January 2009 Yilpara children have had access to full time teaching at a real school.


The Yilpara school sits in the centre of the Yilpara community and is a source of great pride for the community.  There are now two classes (a junior and senior class) and about 60 children attending the school. The first full time community-based teachers were a married couple who had previously worked as teachers in China. They are due to retire at the end of 2013 after 4 years at Yilpara and the NT government is currently looking for their replacements.

The school has a 100% attendance rate.


Housing remains a major problem in Yilpara. There are not enough houses and what exists is deficient. There is considerable over-crowding which is a major contributor to poor health. With the assistance of the RCSC and the ICBF, the community has been working to identify housing solutions and to bring in private home ownership at Yilpara.


The lands at Yilpara, like most traditional Indigenous lands, are communally owned by the traditional owners and individual private title is not recognised. The Northern Land Council administers the ownership of the Yilpara lands as trustee for the traditional owners as a whole. Yilpara families want the ability to own their homes under 99 year leases over housing blocks in the Yilpara community.

In 2012 the ICBF arranged for two transportable and fully furnished and equipped homes to be transported and installed at Yilpara. These homes cost $150,000 each, ready to move in (as compared to Government-built houses on remote communities which cost about $450,000 or more). The homes are being leased back to two Yilpara families and are intended to be sold to them if and when 99 year leases are implemented.

The Chamber saw first hand these two homes in Yilpara. Nearly a year old they now have pretty gardens out the front and are obviously well cared for.

The campaign for private title is continuing but the community are optimistic that private home ownership will become a reality for the Yilpara community.

Djambawa Marawili’s hope is for Yilpara to become a thriving, self-sufficient and sustainable community with a real economy. The community is working on plans for tourism in its homelands, focussed on outback, fishing and nature tourism. Already the community welcomes visitors who can stay in the Dhuluwuy Recreation Area on the shore of Blue Mud Bay, the Maliypi camping area close to the Yilpara community or the Yilpara Visiting Officers Quarters.


Further information:

Dream of Home Ownership Even More Remote. The Australian 19 May 2013

More information about housing at Yilpara (Baniyala)

Rotary Club Sydney Cove Case Study on Baniyala

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  1. Greg Crofts says:


  2. Tony Hayward-Ryan says:

    This sounds great. As Greg Crofts says… inspirational!

    But, inspiring what?

    I don’t want to piss on someones parade but this is precisely what happens when southerners, Aboriginal or other ethnic groups, insert themselves into a Yolngu community and try to help.

    As a pioneering community developer pointed out, way back in the 1970s, HELP is a four letter word. We should, therefore, be warned. This kind of unilateral HELP, which presumes superior intellect and resources on the part of the helper, was once known as colonialism. By the 1970s this was known as do-gooderism. I still call it cultural colonialism, which in this instance incorporates considerable irony.

    Let’s delve a little deeper into the narrative… It is true that “morbidity and mortality” are lower in homelands, but why? This should have been analysed in detail before any developments took place. For example, it has long been known that western-style houses are major contributors to Aboriginal ill-health (although housing authorities and the medical fraternity hotly dispute this).

    The knee-jerk presumption that “overcrowding” is causal, entirely misrepresents the situation. Yolngu dwelling populations can fluctuate from a handful to dozens, depending upon descending populations in times of funerals… which currently are virtually non-stop. These European houses were not designed to accommodate such pressures, so the solution of buying more western style houses clearly does not address the problem. Being grossly overpriced, they also exacerbate the housing fund allocation problem

    Moreover, much Yolngu illness commences as scabies attacks, which rapidly intensifies and diversifies as streptococcal infections; which in turn can morph into Rheumatic Fever and, eventually, Rheumatic Heart Disease. We have the highest incidence in the world here in the Top End. The primary facilitating role in the entry of this terminal disease is lack of airflow in western style homes. This was recognised (for even Darwin westerners) by the old NT Administration, which designed homes with almost 90% uninterrupted airflow. This had enough walls to block prying eyes and the rest was fibre-cement louvres, which were rarely closed. Glass almost did not exist.

    Many of we older Territorians attempted to persuade NT Government housing authorities to experiment with what thinking Yolngu were expressly asking for, but we were blockaded. The entirely unjustified and destructive Intervention stopped a second attempt in its tracks. This is the ultimate cultural imposition, second only to Australian Government refusal to communicate with Yolngu in their own languages. Instead, for 229 years, they have had to negotiate for their survival in a foreign language… English. Few yolngu are even partially fluent in this language. Ironically, Mundine and Henderson applied this crushing item of colonialism seamlessly.

    Yolngu have exhausted their tolerance. Both the Commonwealth and NT Governments have recently been told that enough is enough, and that Yolngu are now designing their own houses, intended to be a barrier to pathogen transmission, and flexible in terms of wildly fluctuating residential populations.

    The first of these ‘healthy homes’ will be constructed in Arnhem Bay, if and when the hopelessly corrupt and nepotismic homeland resource organisation finally fixes the access road damage inflicted by the cyclone of three years ago. Thus, residents are locked out and the resource org says it will not fix the road until populations return. (I kid you not :)

    This home design will cost around $20,000 to build; meaning we can build 45 homes for the same price as the most expensive ‘Aboriginal home’ (@$900,000). Admittedly, these figures distort the reality because our figures do not include labour because we will build these ourselves. But this is the advantage of homeland living.

    Good health will also be promoted with bush tucker (gurumatchi, sea food, weti, buffalo, etc) and a vegetable garden designed by veteran Buthumang Dhurrkay and permaculturist and author, Fiona Norrington.

    Now, as to “education”, it is a myth that qualifications make for good teachers. Essentially, “teachers are born, not made.” Measurably, teaching has dramatically declined in effectiveness since dedicated teacher’s training colleges were replaced with higher graded university education. We pre-1970s teachers learned actual ‘knowledge transmission skills’, and learned to identify ‘critical learning thresholds’ in children, which make the time investment for each child a fraction of what the current technique achieves; invariably at the wrong age. Today’s teachers do not even know what I am talking about. Today, 30%+ of kids in year 8 are destined to fail secondary school by virtue of their lack of numeracy and literacy. Most do not have the self-discipline to cope with education or even life. This is not indicative of improved education; just lazy and incompetent teachers.

    In stark contrast, around 90% of Yolngu are natural teachers. That is, they naturally facilitate the learning experience, and in a fun way. providing these ‘teachers’ are reasonably literate and numerate, in terms of contemporary mainstream achievement, that is all they need to educate Aboriginal children. Imported, qualified, white teachers are rarely productive and they take up precious resources. How stupid is that? Moreover, the average white teacher (or southern Aboriginal teacher, for that matter) has never left school, has little idea of how the real world works, and actually acts as an impediment to children’s preparation for life. In a nutshell, the education system is there to provide jobs for teacher union members.

    Insightfully, describing these teachers, and their absurd and destructive bilingual programme, was the only issue which ever upset the late Arnhem MLA, Wes Lanhupuy so much that he actually employed obscenities to reflect the intensity of his anger.

    There were several other errors of perception and analysis in the Mundine/Henderson document but to address these would be “breaking a butterfly on a wheel” (to quote Jagger’s pal Rees-Mog). To these southern urban Aboriginal media celebrities, if you want to be helpful, by all means. Come live in the north for a couple of decades, learn languages and culture, and then when the scales have fallen from your eyes you will be welcomed to the team.

    Just a couple of tips, before you help us again: leadership is a manifestation of hierarchism, endemic to western colonial culture, and entirely alien to Aboriginal consensus decision-making. As leaders, you are the enemy. Second tip: skin colour is not a qualification. (first) Language and culture are prerequisite.

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