Win-win for sacred sites and job seekers


Town Council not keen to collaborate

Custodian and works supervisor John Newchurch (centre) at 6 Gap Road this week. 

Trainee Richard Moore is spraying buffel grass regrowth after the recent rains.


“We didn’t want it developed. We wanted it returned to its original condition. It’s been a good while in the making.”
John Stuart Newchurch is an Arrernte custodian for Alice Springs. On Tuesday he was supervising a team of men working on the rehabilitation of the sacred site at 6 Gap Road, opposite the hospital. More than a decade ago Optus bought the site, then privately owned, and handed it over to traditional owners as compensation for having built without permission a telecommunications tower on top of the range near Heavitree Gap. Optus also paid for the demolition of the house sitting at the top of the low ridge, long a source of anguish to the Arrernte, and for the fencing and early rehabilitation works.
Mr Newchurch was involved back then: “I set up all the agreements and it worked a treat. We got all the rates extinguished on it, took the water off it and all that.”
But for years the site looked neglected: there was often rubbish on it, including litter from drinking parties, and it was overgrown with buffel grass and other weeds.
“It was an eyesore,” agrees Mr Newchurch, “and people were starting to talk that the custodians of Alice Springs weren’t doing their job very well so between me, Doris [Stuart, senior Arrernte custodian], Ben [Convery, curator, Olive Pink Botanic Garden] and a few others we sort of figured out a work program where we could train up all these guys in horticulture and they can hopefully get employment a little later on.”
Work started on the site about a year ago. Yesterday the crew returned to spray the buffel reshooting after recent rain. Already the existing vegetation is responding: with the buffel, bamboo and other introduced plants controlled there’s opportunity for the local grasses and shrubs to take their place.
This isn’t the only site to benefit from the attention of this program. It all began about 18 months ago when the group approached the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) to obtain a certificate allowing maintenance work to be done on all the registered sacred sites around Alice Springs, most of them on Crown Land, including the Todd River. The certificate was granted three months ago.
“The biggest inhibitor to doing land management work on Crown land in the municipality was trying to get AAPA clearance,” explains Ben Convery, curator of the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. “For each project getting a certificate took about 12 to 18 months, with the exception of Greening Australia’s work in the river, for which they had an ongoing clearance.”
At right: Ben Convery with John Newchurch at 6 Gap Road. The site is connected to the “Broken Promise” site on the opposite side of the river, so called because of its desecration by a government contractor in December 1982. Both are part of the same caterpillar story line. “It will always be fenced off,” says Mr Newchurch. “We don’t want people on here. It just needs to be locked up and retained as what it’s meant for.”
A key to getting the current, all-embracing certificate was having John Newchurch’s involvement. He has the traditional authority to say ‘yea or nay’ and has the excellent additional qualities of training and long experience in land management and horticulture.
“Doris [Stuart] is the boss,” says Mr Newchurch, “I’m following her orders. She’s the big boss, I’m second in charge more or less.”
He and the Olive Pink Botanic Garden go way back: “I was with the Conservation Commission over there, 30 something years ago, putting in the paths. I had this long relationship with Olive Pink.  Somehow everything evolved and I’m making a return to back where I started.”
The Garden got involved in this project as part of an imaginative response to problems of anti-social behaviour in the river along its western boundary: “We thought that if the area was better maintained it would be more respected by people coming into town,” says Mr Convery.
They had already agreed to custodians’ request to include 6 Gap Road in their regular maintenance program and this seeded a bigger vision. With custodians on board, they successfully applied for grants from the Australian and NT Governments, chipping in their own human resources and equipment. The idea was to form a works crew of local Aboriginal people, offering them accredited training and work experience. The crew would work on sites maintenance across Alice, fulfilling the curriculum requirements for a Certificate II in Horticulture as they went, with theoretical training and assessment provided by the national organisation, Civil Train.
As Mr Newchurch says, “It’s got benefits all around.”
The trainees are all clients of Jobfind and include some pre-release prisoners: “When they get out, if they go into a job then they’re not going round and round in revolving doors and getting caught up in whatever happens. They’ve got a bit of experience to do your shire works out bush – some of these guys are not actually from town,” says Mr Newchurch.
He’s proud of what’s been achieved to date: “Alice Springs has always been that sort of learning place where we have led the charge. Two or three years ago this program wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the right people pushing for it. Twenty-one sites are entrusted to me to manage the way we get in there and clean it all up. I think that’s a big leap in faith from my people.”
Given the win-win for custodians, for the jobless, for sacred sites and the town itself, it seems a shame then that the Alice Springs Town Council is less than enthusiastic about collaborating with this program.

 John Newchurch and crew at the Coolibah Swamp, from where they removed eight tip truck loads of rubbish. The council declined to waive landfill fees.

The current crew recently cleaned out the Coolibah Swamp, removing eight tip trucks of rubbish from the grossly neglected area, between Sadadeen Road and Undoolya Road, little more than a stone’s throw from the centre of town. Mr Convery asked the council to waive tipping fees for the rubbish and they declined: “It’s not a big problem,” he says, “it was more about trying to work together than about the money.”
Another request from the program also seems to have run into a brick wall. It was discussed in the council meeting on Monday night. As explained to councillors by Greg Buxton, Director of Technical Services, the program had asked council to take over the employment of its works crews. But that’s not the case at all, says Mr Convery: “We were hoping that council would interview the trainees, to give them the experience of a regular job interview and also to see if there was any opportunity for them with council. Other organisations in town have agreed to do this.”
Meanwhile, as a pathway into work, the program is having some promising results. Of a crew in the program that undertook their Certificate I in Resources and Infrastructure last year, six out of seven successfully completed, four are in full-time employment and three are looking for work, says Mr Convery.
Mr Newchurch is hopeful that many more trainees will come through the ranks, including women who will be important for working on women’s sacred sites, where he wants to engage his nieces as supervisors: “Some of them are pretty willing to give it a go, that’s their responsibility too.”
Building on that, he’s aiming to get “bigger jobs with landscaping projects around town” and indeed to extend across the Territory: “We could employ 300 to 400 Aboriginal people on projects.”  And why not!

Below: The accredited training has a theoretical component. Here Civil Train regional manager Mark Hopkins demonstrates rope work to Jobfind participants, from left,  Samuel White , Blair Young, Ray Irlam, Desmond Tilmonth, Fabian Maller, Vincent Janima, Charlie Malbunka. Of this group four are now in full-time work. 




  1. To clarify, the Aboriginal Areas protection Authority is one of the key supporters of the Sites Program. They have generously offered their time and expertise in facilitating relationships between Olive Pink Botanic Gardens and Custodians. Due to the nature of this program and its objectives of maintaining sites they have also waived all fees associated with our Authority certificate. This program would not be possible without them.

  2. From my discussions with the Alice Springs Town Council I understand that they operate on a limited budget with limited resources. These resources are already stretched maintaining essential services such as roads and recreational facilities. In the Alice Springs municipality over seventy percent of the land is registered crown land which falls outside of the Town Councils jurisdiction.
    If we would like to see these areas of our town maintained to a standard that we can be proud of then we need to source or generate income for these management works.
    Alice Springs is a small town with a big heart and we all need to work together for the betterment of our community.

  3. My stand on matters such as this is simple. As stated fencing off land to ensure no access to people. This project is about aboriginal culture. Like I know about the various religious cultures within Australia I have no desire to understand or inquire into their beliefs. I find this attack on council is unacceptable. This is your belief your project so it is your responsibility to maintain and inform on it to those who wish to learn about this. Acceptance is expected from all and yet in situations such as this there is no acceptance just attacks from groups such as this. Culture and beliefs are different to all people. Demanding acceptance of someone else’s beliefs is arrogant. We are all different in this world and we travel to experience difference not to have religion or culture forced on us to accept that is what makes us such a great country here in Australia. Freedom from dictatorships. Accept council’s no and move on without the verbal insults.

  4. Janet, I think you have misread the article. Nowhere can I identify an insult or an attack by anyone. I am reporting that council is not keen to collaborate, a statement of fact based on the discussion that was had in a council meeting. What council was asked to collaborate on was the waiving of tip fees and offering a job interview – not a position unless there was one available and the applicant was deemed suitable – to people who had completed their horticulture training. This had nothing whatsoever to do with Aboriginal people’s “culture and beliefs”.

  5. Janet Brown, what are you on about?? In fact, what are you on?? After reading your 7.16am comment I re-read the article and I don’t see a connection. Take a deep breath girl, calm down, have a cuppa and please reread your comments before pressing the go button.


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