The Kimberley: Western Australian Aborigines Split Over Gas Plant

"I don't know what he was thinking about," said Neil McKenzie, an aboriginal leader fighting the development. "To a lot of people this may be red sand, but to my people this is important land. It might be unremarkable to him, but to us it's one of the most beautiful you can be. ... My soul feels good here."

McKenzie said the area would be annihilated if the gas plant went forward.

"It'll be devastated, it'll be desecrated," he said.

But the proposed plant, in a place that's been called a veritable Noah's Ark of wildlife, has driven a massive rift among the aborigines. It's a fight over money. At the crux is the question: Is the timeworn tradition of treading lightly on the Earth here worth selling? It's a tough question for the people here who are desperately poor and have few other prospects of generating income.

The government and the corporations are offering the aborigines $2 billion. It's an offer that some in the community think should be accepted.

"We are at the negotiating table, reluctantly, but because we feel that there is a good thing for our people, for lifting them out of poverty and dysfunction," said one man, Wayne Barker. "[The] government has failed us for years. Here's an opportunity to do it for ourselves.

"It's a massive industrial complex. We understand that. We're at the table with a heavy heart."

History's Ghosts Loom Over Kimberley Debate

The debate is fraught with history. Since the founding of Australia, the aborigines have been violently repressed. In some cases aboriginal children were even stolen from their parents -- to be "civilized." Until 1967, the aborigines had the legal status of plants or animals. To this day, they have extraordinarily high rates of illiteracy and incarceration. Average life expectancy is 50, in no small part because of alcohol.

We encountered groups of aborigine descendants hanging around in a public park near the liquor store.

We asked one of the men, Steve Martin, where he lived.

"Under the stars, bro," Martin said. "Star Hotel."

"We stay up all night and drink till daybreak. If you can stand it," he said. "Yeah, well, I started drinking early this morning.

"You only live once, bro. And you die once, so who gives a hell. I don't give a stuff if I die now. I'm here to enjoy myself."

We asked Wayne Barker what lessons he draws from the experiences of the Native Americans.

"Don't trust anyone," he said. "There's an old expression: 'Trust, but tie up your camel.' Look, we're talking to four of the biggest multinational corporations in the world. They've been able to get this big because they're business people. In that context, life for indigenous people is quite under threat. As we learn, we are staying firm on our principals."

The Kimberley: Animosity Within Families

Neil McKenzie said the energy consortium's motivation was simple.

"Money, only one thing," he said. "It could be more than a mess. The people who will get their hands on the money will use it for their own benefit. ... It has created a lot of anger and animosity."

McKenzie said the tension had spread to his own family.

"There's a lot of people in my family that I can't look in the eye today because I feel threatened," he said. "We are not happy with each other anymore.

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