The challenges for the kids are immense, but they’re familiar with those out on the red soil sand dunes and spinifex country of mid west Western Australia.
“In this little community where we are, there are no roads, no services, no shops,” says Susan Trigwell, the Principal of Pia Wadjarri Remote Community School. “There’s no swimming pool, no nurse, or doctor,” she says between ten day outages of the internet.
But the kids from Pia Wadjarri Remote Community School – a handful of students in a school, 800 km north of Perth – will soon have something no-one else has in their backyard: the world’s biggest radio telescope. Can it inspire the Indigenous students from the nearby community to become scientists, artists, educators? Can it do more than employ locals as drivers and maintenance officers?
The process so far has been slow – little steps in a very big country – but everyone is patient.
Late last year the kids travelled to Perth for a ‘science camp’ like no other. They visited the Pawsey supercomputer, listened to talks from experts in radio astronomy, and learnt about how they could be scientists in the future.
The camp is one part of a much larger agreement with the CSIRO for jobs, apprenticeships, and education on the site of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Low telescope. Although cautious, the traditional owners are hopeful that this brings real opportunity.
“The community has quite a good feeling about it, but the community now wants to see results,” says Des Mongoo, Wajarri Yamaji, and Chairperson of Minangu Land Committee.
“This provides us with an opportunity to ensure that we have long term commercial benefits, we have long term employment opportunities. But most of all, we have the opportunity to manage our heritage.”
The Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory needs to be incredibly remote, so that the observatory can hear the radio signals of the Universe with minimal human-made interference. The biggest of them all – the Square Kilometre Array – Low (SKA-Low) Telescope – is currently being built.
But long before the telescopes were placed on the land, it’s been home for the Wajarri people – known as Wajarri Yamaji. They are the traditional owners and have lived on the land for thousands of years.
Sharing the Stars and Sky
CISRO has worked alongside the Wajarri Yamaji for about a decade since the observatory was established in 2009. The observatory already includes the ASKAP radio telescope, and the Murchison Widefield Array, and the SKA-Low is now on its way. In the last few months, the observatory was given another name – Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, meaning ‘sharing stars and sky’ in Wajarri language.
In 2017, the Wajarri Yamaji received native title, which allowed them to launch an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with CSIRO for how the land will be used for the new SKA.
The agreement process took seven years, with nine members on the negotiation team, and years being spent surveying the land.
“The survey process was thorough and involved years of walking the land with the Wajarri knowledge holders who speak for the land,” says Rebecca Wheadon, the Observatory Site Entity Leader at CSIRO.
“The days often started very early given the heat of the summer months. The teams would gather in the very early morning and have breakfast together and discuss the areas to be walked that day. It really depended on the terrain or nature of the area as to how much they could get through in a day. Sometimes it was multiples of kms, sometimes only a few. It really depended on what was required for that location.”
There were also issues that were raised over language.
“One of the sticking points within the negotiation was the word ‘best endeavours’,” says Mongoo.
“We don’t believe in ‘best endeavours’ because best endeavours could be anything.”
“So, we changed those wordings to ‘shall’ or ‘will’.”
However, CSIRO argued that ‘best endeavours’ is standard contracting language, although it was eventually changed through the agreement.
“In legal agreements, ‘best endeavours’ is used where the outcome may not be measurable or quantifiable, where certain external factors need to be in place to deliver that outcome, or where the outcome is dependent on third parties,” says Wheadon.
“I should point out this term is not specific to CSIRO or the Government, it is relevant to all parties and is standard contracting language.”
A school with no roads, services, or shops
The Pia Wadjarri Remote Community School has just two classrooms, fitting in 17 kids between kindergarten and year 12.
The school is 70 kilometres away from the Murchison Shire, but much less than that to Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara.
Life in this area is tough – bore water is regularly undrinkable due to natural uranium levels, the internet goes out for weeks at a time, and only generator power is available.
“These kids are extremely isolated from the rest of the world,” says Principal Trigwell.
But these kids aren’t that isolated from the observatory. And unlike many remote Indigenous communities, they have some external support due to the close proximity to the CSIRO site.
“Every 12 months – covid notwithstanding! – we bring the students up to the observatory to show them around,” says Wheadon.
“We also like to attend events at the school where we can and send our astronomers into the school for talks through our CSIRO educational outreach program. We also bring the students to Perth to see how science happening on Wajarri Yamaji Country is shared around the world.”
Two of the school students expressed an interest in a career in science after the science camp.
But even for those who aren’t interested, there are other opportunities too.
“Currently, we are now working with some companies associated with the site, and we’ve got one apprenticeship and one traineeship coming up for hospitality,” says Trigwell.
“We’re very, very proud of those kids. And that’s a direct result of having a site only 30 kilometres down the road.”
Future Best Endeavours
For Wajarri communities, the addition of the SKA-Low brings hope for more opportunities in their desert region.
A local organisation called the Wajarri Enterprises Limited – which Mongoo also chairs – has been brought into contracts for land management and other commercial opportunities.
“CSIRO already delivers 100% of its Accommodation Camp Services and 100% of its Land Management Services through a Wajarri joint venture,” says Wheadon.
“As it relates to the new ILUA … a number of positions were agreed and funded during negotiations, and it has been terrific to see so many of those positions filled already, and it is only February.”
Wheadon also notes that CSIRO has “excellent success stories with apprenticeships offered through both the existing contracts, and our local CSIRO offices. This will no doubt expand over time, given the SKA-Low is such a significant undertaking with expected increased demand for services at the site.”
However, like many other Indigenous groups, the Wajarri are still cautious about the long-term future of the project and the Indigenous Land Use Agreement.
“This is a matter of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) holding up their end of the bargain,” says Mongoo.
“However, the good thing for us is that there’s 16 different countries involved besides Australia and South Africa. The SKA is in the spotlight.”
“The international community needs to ensure that the SKA is benefitting Wajarri.”
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