Australia's environment in context (Indigenous land occupancy and management)

Independent Report to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Australian State of the Environment Committee, Authors
CSIRO Publishing on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06745 0

Australia's environment in context (continued)

Indigenous land occupancy and management

According to Lewis and Rose (1998, p. 55):

Victoria River Aborigines say that people take care of country and that a country takes care of its people.

Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers, with a profound spiritual attachment to land, epitomised through Dreaming stories, sacred sites and a rich array of cultural and religious practices. They practised regular patch burning to stimulate preferred flora and faunal habitats, and significantly enhanced the fire-climax vegetational assemblages across much of the continent. Many Indigenous peoples still practice these traditions. With European settlement, Indigenous populations declined. Many groups were forced from their lands or their movement restricted to small areas.

Wave Hill, NT

Wave Hill, NT

Source: P Forrest, Australia Heritage Commission.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Indigenous citizenship rights and interests in land have been slowly recognised. In the 1970s to 1980s, land rights legislation was passed in various states and territories. In 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 (NT) was passed by the Commonwealth to recognise traditional Aboriginal interests in land, and provide traditional owners with effective control over activities on these lands. In New South Wales, the State Government passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW) and the National Parks and Wildlife Amendment (Aboriginal Ownership) Act 1996. Under the former Act, some land can be automatically granted and certain Crown land is claimable. The latter Act provides recognition of lands of cultural significance to Aboriginal people. In 1993, the Commonwealth government passed the Native Title Act 1993, which both recognises and protects native title, establishing ways in which dealings affecting native title may proceed and improving mechanisms for determining claims to land.

Unlike land rights, which is a grant of land to Indigenous peoples, native title provides recognition of the pre-existing rights and interests of Indigenous peoples to land and waters. Where there are inconsistencies, other rights prevail over native title rights. The Wik decision of the High Court (The Wik Peoples v The State of Queensland & Ors (Matter No B8 of 1996, The Thayorre People v The State of Queensland & Ors (Matter No B9 of 1996) FC 96/044 (1996) 187 CLR 1) found that certain forms of pastoral leases do not necessarily remove (extinguish) native title, which may coexist with leases that are not for the exclusive use of the leaseholder.

In 1998, amendments were made to the Native Title Act 1993 including provision for alternative state-based regimes to deal with certain native title issues, but by March 2001, only Queensland had introduced this process. Although native title claims are made to the Federal Court, the Court refers claims to the National Native Title Tribunal for mediation in the first instance. By 2001, there were 551 active claimant applications; 21 determinations of native title had been made (13 by consent, 8 after a trial), and 42 claimants were before the Federal Court for judicial review. New claimant applications continue to be made, and usually take several years to resolve.

Outcomes of the return of Indigenous land are a cause for hope, but not for complacency. Certainly more land can now be conserved in the traditional way, but more land means more responsibility, and the support for this responsibility is not yet present in any integrated way. Much of the land being returned to Indigenous peoples is degraded. Indigenous peoples themselves suffer from alarming rates of infant mortality, ill-health, addiction, unemployment, imprisonment and other social disadvantages. In many parts of Australia, they have been separated from their land for more than a century. They are being asked to take responsibility for problems which European settlers have created either directly by practices such as land clearance or overstocking, or indirectly by the introduction of pests.

One of the challenges for the management of the Australian environment is to ensure for Indigenous peoples a strong capability for management of land which they control. This requires effective support mechanisms provided in a culturally suitable way.