Ngarlie Ellis applies the finishing touches to an intricate dot painting, its yellow and ochre patterns depicting an ancient Dreamtime story of a kangaroo spirit visiting a desert waterhole. The 32-year-old is fortunate - her canvas will be sold to a respectable gallery by the art centre in which she works in the isolated settlement of Ltyentye Apurte, 80km down a corrugated dirt track from Alice Springs. But many other Aborigines are being ripped off by unscrupulous dealers who pay them with alcohol, drugs and worn-out second-hand vehicles, or corral them into squalid sweatshops where they churn out poor quality paintings. In many cases the art is bought by 'carpet baggers' who roam remote desert communities offering a pittance for works of art that will eventually be sold for tens of thousands of dollars in homes and galleries from London to Los Angeles. Appropriated indigenous culture ranges from tacky plastic figurines of spear-wielding warriors, made in China and sold in the tourist emporia of Alice Springs and Darwin, to didgeridoos painted with faux Aboriginal designs by backpackers. Abuses in the Aboriginal art industry - estimated to be worth up to A$500 million (HK$3.1 billion) a year - have become so acute that Australia's federal government has launched a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry. It was due to submit its report next week, but has encountered such a mountain of evidence that its findings will not be released until June. Indigenous artists are vulnerable to exploitation due to their poor English, rudimentary education and because they live well below the poverty line in settlements that are often hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town. Many often have no conception of the value of their work, despite the growing international popularity of Aboriginal art. The Musee du quai Branly in Paris features a large section of Australia's indigenous art. Paintings by well-known artists such as Rover Thomas have fetched up to A$780,000 in recent years. Despite the huge sums, most artists are surviving on a mere A$1,500 a year, the inquiry has been told. Popular artists have had their works copied or their signatures faked on lesser quality paintings. 'More and more new players have come into the industry because they see there's a buck to be made,' said John Oster, executive officer of Desart, which represents 43 Aboriginal art centres in the desert around Alice Springs. 'The demand for good quality work is absolutely incredible - production can't keep up. That creates a pressure cooker situation where people will bend the rules.' Desart estimates about a quarter of the Aboriginal art produced in the central desert region is bought by illegitimate dealers. Aboriginal artists are put up in dingy motels in Alice Springs, sometimes 10 or more to a room. Backyard dealers use threats of violence and pressures of debt to compel them to produce dot paintings in assembly line conditions. 'They keep them in debt by charging exorbitant rates for rooms. The artists are told to produce paintings for bills they're never able to pay off. They don't own cars, so they're stuck in town,' Mr Oster said. The artists are paid around A$200 per painting, which are then sold for up to 10 times that much to galleries prepared not to ask too many questions. The artists are either unaware of their rights, or reluctant to go to the police with their complaints because of an ingrained wariness of white authorities. An artist who gave evidence to the inquiry on condition of anonymity complained of 'backyard slave labour art operators' and described how elderly and sick Aborigines were crammed into filthy motel rooms. 'The conditions are disgusting,' he said. 'There is Third World abuse going on. A lot of the artists are abused physically and mentally.' Some are rewarded with alcohol or drugs, including Viagra. 'The backyard operators buy a piece of art for A$50 and sell it for A$500. Artists are being paid in grog or clapped-out old cars,' said Judy Lovell, from Keringke Arts Aboriginal Corporation. In a submission to the inquiry, the Northern Territory government said hundreds of poor quality didgeridoos are being produced by backpackers in Darwin. 'There has been an increase in fakery and forgery of Aboriginal art, and widening unethical practices in relation to the production and sale of Aboriginal art,' the government said. An Aboriginal minister in the government, Marion Scrymgour, said the art industry faced threats from 'unethical and unscrupulous dealing, including payment in drugs and alcohol'. The 'overwhelming majority' of didgeridoos sold to tourists were fakes, Ms Scrymgour said. 'There is some anecdotal evidence here in Darwin at least that they have been painted by backpackers working on industrial scale wood production.' The inquiry will consider introducing much stricter regulation of the industry, including a code of conduct, the licensing of dealers and accreditation of galleries. Some galleries are already authenticating artworks with microdots - tiny circular marks, almost invisible to the naked eye, which when viewed under a microscope carry the artist's and gallery's names. DNA technology is also being used to prove the provenance of artworks through the minute quantities of pollen and dead skin picked up by every canvas. Legitimate dealers and curators also want Aboriginal artists to receive resale royalties for their paintings. Restoring credibility to the art industry is vital because for many remote Aboriginal townships, it is the only source of employment aside from government-run work schemes. Formerly known as Santa Teresa, Ltyentye Apurte was established as a Catholic mission in the 1950s for Aboriginal families who had been forcibly moved from their traditional lands. Of its 600 inhabitants, around 90 adults regularly paint and receive 60 per cent of the sale price. 'They show the stories from our Dreaming that our ancestors told us. They show our country - rock holes and ridges and sand dunes,' said Deanna Perrule Williams, 25, dabbing vivid blue and green dots on a half-completed canvas. 'It's good money.'