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Publications archive - International Activities and Commitments

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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Australia's report to the UNCSD - 1995

Implementation of Agenda 21
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995
ISBN 0 6444 3152 0

Indigenous peoples

(Chapter 26 of Agenda 21)

The role of land in Aboriginal life is of fundamental importance to any understanding of Aboriginal attitudes and perceptions of land use issues. Aboriginal people derive their self-identity from the land. Consequently, Aboriginal people have a different relationship to land than non-Aboriginal Australians and speak about 'belonging' to the land rather than about land belonging to them. Aboriginal aspirations and perceptions of land management and environmental issues are strongly influenced by responsibilities and rights contained within Aboriginal law. These are expressed in the complex matrix of social and customary laws which control action on the land and which set the parameters for management practices and the acceptance of new ideas.

The relationship and responsibilities Aboriginal people have to land means that land is not a negotiable commodity. Ownership and responsibility for particular areas of land is handed down through the inheritance so that people belong to a particular 'estate' or 'country' and are bound by Aboriginal law to take care of that land for the future. 'Caring for country' is a responsibility of Aboriginal people which is inherited through their relationship to family, clan group and country. Land cannot be bought and sold and must therefore be used sustainably if future generations are to have a cultural and natural resource base. Caring for country remains one of the main priorities of contemporary Aboriginal culture and a cornerstone of the Aboriginal relationship to land. Sustainable land use is therefore of the utmost importance.

Aboriginal perceptions and aspirations of land management issues can best be incorporated into land management programs by increasing the capacity of Aboriginal organisations (such as land councils, community government councils, Aboriginal enterprises) to carry out land management programs. Culturally sensitive cross-cultural information exchanges across a wide range of land management, resource and environmental issues are a key element of this.

Land ownership


State Total ('000km2) Aboriginal ('000km2)
Queensland 1727.2 42.2
New South Wales 801.6 1.5
Victoria 227.6 Nil
South Australia 984.0 189.6
Western Australia 2525.5 325.5
Northern Territory 1346.2 533.7 plus 24.3 National Parks
Tasmania 67.8 Nil
ACT 2.4 Nil
Total 7682.3 1092.5
Source: Australian Surveying and Land Information Group

Aboriginal people comprise approximately 1.6% of the total Australian population and currently own approximately 15% of the land. However, there are a number of characteristics of Aboriginal land which have implications for environmental and land management issues. Although much of Aboriginal land is largely agriculturally non-productive it contains localised areas which are rich in resources and which are the focus for many competing land uses. Aboriginal land use is a mixture of traditional and introduced, small scale and extensive, high impact and benign land uses that interact and overlap with each other. Aboriginal land managers are faced with the complexity of these often interrelated and overlapping land uses and their sustainability.

Where land uses overlap there is competition for resources which has implications for the long term condition of the resource and the range of options available to land managers in the future. For example, pastoralism may be sustainable on a parcel of land at a level which impacts on bush tucker collection so that it is no longer able to be carried out there. The impact on wood resources for firewood and artefact manufacture around communities is another example. The information that is needed by Aboriginal peoples to make decisions about these resource use questions is not currently available.

Aboriginal people are aware that they need to access new information and technologies to deal with the increasing range of environmental and land management issues that impact on their lands. The geographic and demographic situation of Aboriginal people necessitates different approaches to environmental and land management issues. Isolated Aboriginal communities often face problems in common but also face many difficulties in working together on these problems. Responsibilities for looking after land are culturally and socially defined rather than stemming from where they may currently reside. Often communities face an issue alone within a region because of the types of land use that are permitted or restricted by their land tenure situation.

Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are among the most disadvantaged groups within the Australian community (see Case Study - Poverty Amongst Australia's Indigenous Peoples). The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody concluded that improved living standards in most communities will not be achieved without security of land tenure and self determination. Enhanced environmental circumstances, community control and improved delivery of health, housing, education and other social programs also depends, to a considerable extent, on the security of land title and the perceived level of self determination within the indigenous communities receiving these programs. The Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments have given support, and in some instances implemented, the recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody relating to land needs.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission

The Commonwealth Government has fully recognised the importance of strengthening the role of indigenous peoples through the enactment, in 1989, of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act. That Act established a statutory body whose corporate objectives and functions specifically seek to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the development of policies and operations of government programs.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is a decentralised organisation, combining representative, policy-making and administrative elements. It was designed to put into effect the principle of self-determination for indigenous Australians. ATSIC's representative arm consists of Regional Councils, established through the election of representatives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in electoral areas throughout Australia.

The Regional Councils are independent bodies and consult with their local communities and represent their interests. They have a direct input into the setting of expenditure priorities for ATSIC which has a budget approaching A$900 million.

ATSIC provides advice to other Commonwealth agencies on the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and has been an active participant in the development of Commonwealth environmental policies and strategies.

Role and functions of Land Councils

Land Councils handle land purchase and management issues for their geographic regions. They also participate in a number of related environmental and social issues. Some of the major Land Councils include the New South Wales Land Council, Cape York Land Council, Northern Land Council, Tiwi Land Council, Andilyagawa Land Council, Kimberley Land Council, and Central Land Council.

Policies and programs

Aboriginal groups have for some time been jointly managing a number of national parks, including the major parks of Uluru, Kakadu, Gurig and Nitmiluk in the Northern Territory. This experience has led to similar proposals for joint management of national parks in Western Australia and Queensland. The management of these areas increasingly seeks to incorporate traditional practices and knowledge. This issue is also the direct concern of an Aboriginal liaison officer appointed by Greening Australia, from support under the National Landcare Program. Further detail on these and other initiatives is provided in the chapter on Desertification and Drought.

In terms of the value which is placed on traditional knowledge, two Commonwealth agencies, CSIRO and ANCA, among others, are investigating the potential contribution to land management practices of traditional Aboriginal knowledge such as 'fire stick farming' and detailed knowledge of particular terrain.

The Resource Assessment Commission's (RAC) Coastal Zone Management Inquiry has devoted a substantial area of that inquiry into impacts on coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The Department of Environment, Sport, and Territories is in the process of following up the RAC's recommendations.

The Australian Aboriginal Affairs Council (AAAC) commenced work in 1990 on the development of a national policy on the protection and return of significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural property. That policy may be finalised shortly. ATSIC, and other agencies, have also given a commitment to address in the future the protection of the intellectual property aspects of traditional knowledge, customary information, designs etc.

A number of education and labour market programs are targeted to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, although these do not have a specific focus on environmental matters. Extensive consultation mechanisms are in place in the education and employment fields.

Several federal programs include community level initiatives to improve health and community self-determination: such as The Rural Health Support, Education and Training Program to improve the recruitment and retention of health workers in remote communities; and the National Reference Group on Relationships Between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and Local Governments to improve conditions and relationships at the local level.

The Australian Heritage Commission (AHC) provides funding through its National Estate Grants Program for the identification and documentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander places which have national estate significance, or for conservation of such places already in the Register of the National Estate or on its Interim List. The AHC also has a program to raise awareness in indigenous communities of the AHC, its functions and programs, and to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community participation in the AHC nomination process, and other AHC programs, in line with current AHC policy.

Australia's domestic policy

The most significant event influencing Australian domestic policy on indigenous peoples, and the environment, is the High Court Mabo decision of June 1992 on native title.

On 7 December 1992, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) accepted the requirement to redress 'the underlying and fundamental causes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inequality and disadvantage'. Its statement of 'national commitment' included, among other national objectives, an agreement 'to address the issue of land needs and entitlements, and (to) empower Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders to protect, preserve and promote their cultures and heritage'.

Australia's major purpose in enacting the Native Title Act 1993 is to recognise and protect the native title rights and interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The main two reasons for the Act are to rectify the consequences of past injustices; and to ensure that the Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders receive the full recognition and status within the Australian nation to which history, their prior rights and interests, and their rich and diverse culture, fully entitle them to aspire. The Act recognises rights and interests possessed under the traditional laws and customs observed, by the Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders, including title to land and hunting, fishing and gathering rights; and the rights and interests are recognised by the common law of Australia.

Not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will be able to claim land under the Native Title Act and dispossession from their land is one of the main reasons for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples being the poorest, sickest, most ill-educated, most chronically unemployed, most arrested and imprisoned people within the Australian community. To redress the dispossession from their lands and its subsequent effects, the Government is preparing a Land Fund Bill that will provide a total of $A1 billion for the purchase of land.

The Australian Government will also construct a social justice package to provide effective national protection for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites and heritage, to recognise and protect their human rights, and to assist in the management of lands and resources.

The Ecologically Sustainable Development Intersectoral Issues Report, which predates the High Court Mabo decision, also addressed Aboriginal issues. However, the ESD Tourism Working Group recommended examining the impact of tourism on indigenous communities. A National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Tourism Strategy is being developed in response to recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Australia's international policy

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have called on Australian governments to 'honour its obligations under international human rights instruments and international law' (Eva Valley Statement). At present there are no international instruments in force dealing with indigenous peoples and the environment. The Australian government is currently giving consideration to ratifying ILO Convention 169, and has also been actively involved in consideration of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

Through its development cooperation program, Australia is funding a large number of overseas' activities to improve the welfare of indigenous people. Among these are a community health project in Irian Jaya, equipment and training to Namibia, support for UNICEF in Laos, and a pilot community health project in New Caledonia.

For further information contact:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission