Ill wind blows a power of good

[Editor’s Note: Every now and then you come across a well written, positive story in the mainstream press. Dale Webster and the ABC both put together the following stories about Aboriginal struggle for independence and self determination in Arnhem land.

Thanks to 'Aboriginal Art Online' for the map. Click on map to see their webpage.

While the politicians are debating Global Warming in Copenhagen, wind power has replaced fossil fuels as the energy source for the remote aboriginal community at Elcho Island.

Thanks to the Aboriginal people and their determination that made this story possible. — Ian Curr, December, 2009.]

‘Ill wind blows a power of good’
by Dale Webster
From: The Australian
December 16, 2009

FOUR years after Cyclone Ingrid ripped apart the Gawa Christian School on Elcho Island, off the Arnhem Land coast, it is wind that will secure its future with the commissioning last month of what is believed to be the largest private off-the-grid wind turbine in the southern hemisphere.

Indigenous students from Elcho Island The tower will replace a diesel generator that has been eating up to $80,000 worth of fuel a year and providing an unreliable power source that has cut out up to 60 times a day.

There have also been periods when the community has been without power for weeks when it has broken down.

Even when the generator is working properly, the school can afford to run it only between 6am and 10.30pm, which means hot, sleepless nights without even a fan to bring relief.

“It’s been something that has challenged us in many ways,” head teacher Lara Hvala explains.

“We’ve had classes outside when the generator fails because it just gets too hot in these classrooms. It definitely affects concentration . . . you lose a lot of teaching time.”

The arrival of the turbine marks the end of a long journey for the Northern Territory Christian Schools Association, which is Gawa’s governing body.

“There has never been any question that the school and the community wasn’t worth it,” chief executive Geoff Bateman says, but the experience has tested emotions, finances and faith.

“The idea for the massive, stand-alone 24m tube tower was conceived two years ago when the school successfully applied for funding under the federal governments Renewable Remote Power Generation Program,” Bateman says. “We did the sums and it seemed a no-brainer. The scheme would provide a 50 per cent rebate once the turbine was commissioned, so we just had to be able to carry the burden of the projected $600,000 cost until the job was completed.”

The group’s bank was satisfied the project was viable, he says.

“A contract was signed with a French manufacturer and a $92,000 deposit on the wind turbine paid,” he adds. “The delivery date was to be June 2008, in line with the government’s August 2008 deadline for completion.

“After a while the French manufacturer became hard to contact . . . Deadlines for delivery passed. The global financial crisis had hit and it soon became evident the company had . . . gone under, taking our money with it.

“The realisation that we had lost the deposit and could not make the deadline for the rebate was gut-wrenching.”

Early this year, the association looked at abandoning the project, Bateman says. It had lost the $92,000 deposit, the cost of work that had been done to that point and the government rebate was due to expire. But as this saga unfolded in Darwin, the diesel generators at Gawa failed once more, this time for three weeks.

“We had people living by torchlight, classes being held under trees, but the kids kept turning up to school,” Bateman says. “We knew we had to keep going.”

Gawa is the homeland of the Warramiri people.

In 1985 one of the elders, Ngulpurray, took his family out to what was then a bush site from the troubled community of Galiwinku. He showed them around, told them stories and asked them to bring the children back.

The next year, led in part by the old man’s daughter, Kathy Guthadjaka (or Gotha), a group of about 26 men, women and children cut a road in to Gawa by hand using axes, shovels and fire. It took six months. Once there, Gotha, a qualified primary teacher, decided to start a school for the children but, because it wasn’t registered, the government wouldn’t re-employ her there.

She held classes under a tarpaulin anyway and worked voluntarily for the first six months. There were up to 26 children attending in those days. By the time Gotha was officially appointed as head teacher and an alliance with NT Christian Schools formed, six students had gone on to complete their HSC. One is now a police officer in Galiwinku.

“The children out there are special,” Bateman says.

“They are raised by the elders; some of them look after up to 10 or 12 kids each as well as working all day. We couldn’t let the community down.”

A decision was made to absorb the loss in the short term, negotiate with the government to extend the deadline for the project rebate and find another company to supply a wind turbine.

This time the technology was sourced from a Danish company, the Wind Factory, that was “terrific to work with”, Bateman says.

The $600,000 project had spun out to more than $1 million by the time the turbine was officially commissioned on November 27, just days before the final extended deadline for the rebate.

“The rationalists might say this is too much to spend on a remote community,” Bateman says. “But that’s not true. The community is focused and functional. The school is working. There are about 60 kids enrolled now and attendance is 80 per cent. Lives are being changed. We expect many of the students will go on to complete their education. . . . These children have a very bright future.”

Sitting at the back of the classroom at Gawa last week, Gotha can see that as well.

She watches Lara reading Big Wind Coming to the class, a book written and illustrated by the Mayawa, or frilled-neck lizard, junior class. It tells the story of the coming of the turbine to Gawa. It is a significant new chapter in Gawa’s history.

Gotha, her husband Colin Baker and a handful of residents sat out Cyclone Ingrid in their troop carrier in a shed that had its roller doors sucked out in the tempest.

“Now we are discovering the good side of the wind,” she says.

“After the cyclone there wasn’t a green leaf left. The buildings survived but it was a very sad experience to see them in ruins.

“It’s still not back to the way it was but it is still beautiful.

“What matters most, though, is that the kids are back and numbers are growing. If a child gets a good education in their own place they will be successful when they step into the world.

“If the kids get a good education and recognise the mistakes their parents have made, there is hope.”

Asked what the coming of the wind turbine and 24-hour power will mean to her, Gotha says the main thing will be that the school will have extra money to spend in the classroom instead of on diesel.

But then she smiles and adds, “and we will sleep well”.


See The Australian

See ABC video ‘Wind power in Arnhem Land’ @…

DANIELLE PARRY – Presenter: Next we take you to the tiny Elcho Island community of Gawa, a pioneering outstation that’s flourished against the odds.

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