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Australian Aborigines Suffer From Alcohol Abuse - 2001-08-23

There are growing calls in Australia to create more so-called dry zones in aboriginal settlements to counter the growing menace of alcohol abuse. Successful trials have been undertaken in the Northern Territory, where strict penalties are imposed for breaches of the alcohol free areas. The problem of aboriginal alcohol abuse is in part why native Australians have a lower life expectancy than any other group.

2,000 indigenous people live on this housing estate on the outskirts of Dubbo. Life for many is tough - the jobless rate is sky high and there are rising levels of drug and alcohol abuse. "Most of the people here - you're looking at 70 to 80 percent of people unemployed and pretty isolated from the rest of the town in regard to that," he said.

Warren Mundine is the Australian Labor Party's first black candidate to run for a Senate seat. He is a community leader here in Dubbo and believes the true, destructive impact of alcohol on native people is only now coming to light. "In some communities around New South Wales and also around Australia the communities are almost imploding upon themselves," he said. "A lot of people talk about domestic violence - we have a huge problem with sexual violence. We don't like to talk about some issues in our communities publicly because we always see it as giving the white man another thing to kick us around with."

A report by the United Nations describes Australia's aborigines as the poorest of the poor. Many live in third world conditions. In some outback towns the indigenous unemployment rate is more than 85 percent. For many people alcohol abuse has become part of everyday life and this young Aborigine is embarking on the same path.

Young Aboriginal Man: "I've always known how to drink from watching the older community members. It looked like a fun thing to do, the right thing to do and what you did do, you know - you worked and you drunk, you know," he said.

Davie has lived on this aboriginal settlement for the past 20 years. He believes it is time for his community to accept responsibility for its problems and become an alcohol-free zone. "Most of the kids, you know, smoking cigarettes - about 9, 10, 11, 12," he said. "Some of them walking around drinking beer, white wine, burning down empty houses, breaking into houses. You've got people drinking and going on stupid, breaking things, their relationships breaking up. It's up to the individual to do something about it, but you've got to pull together to get a result."

Dubbo is a thriving farming town an hour's flight west of Sydney. Later this year new laws will make it illegal for anyone to drink in the streets in the town center. Extending the dry zone into aboriginal areas could follow, where enforcement is primarily the responsibility of the community and not the police. The mayor of Dubbo, Alan Smith, says experiments in the Northern Territory have shown that a tough stance on alcohol can work. "In some of the communities that I've visited and I find myself very, very lucky to go there because it opened my eyes and changed my direction in relation to the way I think about these issues," he said. "There were fairly stiff penalties for taking alcohol into these areas. There were very stiff penalties for us even if we had it in the car. I can recollect very strongly that the communities themselves were very supportive of that."

Such is the pressing need for something to be done that one senior aboriginal magistrate has even suggested locking drunk men in cages in native communities, where levels of domestic violence are up to 50 times higher than in non-indigenous households. Trials have proved dry zones can be an effective way of combating the alcohol abuse and other family and community problems associated with it.