Rich soil: Can Indigenous land rights and Australia’s economic interests coexist?

By Christine Todd | 14 Jul 14
Aboriginal man showing another man a lake

By Christine Todd

The Indigenous population in Australia has a long and proud history of careful land management. In the many centuries preceding British colonial settlement, Aboriginal people maximised productivity of the land, using their knowledge of navigation, the tides and the cyclical nature of the seasons to regulate their travel and food supply. They worked in tandem with the land; where the land didn’t suit their needs, they managed burns to clear undergrowth and fuel, with new growth luring grazing animals to hunt. Ecological management shaped the land and ensured continuity and balance.

With colonial settlement came European ideas of what it meant to manage the land. European agriculturalists worked the land to the extent they needed within their boundary fences. Lost was the management of the land as a cohesive, sustainable whole, replaced by a fragmented, needs-based exploitation of the land to achieve economic ends.

Dispossessed from the land they knew so intimately, entire Indigenous communities were often placed on reserves that remained under the control of the Crown. Even here, the right to merely exist on reserve land was not secure, if the government of the day chose to revoke use of the reserves.

Economic development in Australia and the management of traditional Indigenous land has been viewed as mutually exclusive, if not directly conflicting.

In 1963 the Commonwealth government chose to do just that, granting mining company Nabalco a long-term mining lease on Yirrkala Aboriginal Reserve in Arnhem Land. Home to the Yolgnu people, the decision provoked anxiety in the local community. A now-famous bark petition was organised by the Yolgnu to illustrate that the excised land was sacred to them, and vital to their present-day livelihood.

Despite a strong community response, the government ignored their claims to the land, instituting the Mining (Gove Peninsula Nabalco Agreement) Ordinance 1968 (NT), which revoked part of Yirrkala Aboriginal Reserve to enable the development of a mine by Nabalco. Those impacted by the government’s decision challenged the legislation in the Supreme Court in the now famous “Gove land rights case”, however lost on account of a lack of recognition for communal native title within Australian law.

Historically, the economic needs of the Australian government, particularly in the granting of mining projects and the management of vast mineral resources, has conflicted sharply with the acknowledgement of Indigenous land ownership. Small progress has been made over the past three decades as governments initiate land rights legislation and slowly navigate native title to return land to the Indigenous population.

But the mere acquisition of land is only the first step in a process of comprehensive reunification with the land for Indigenous communities. For years, economic development in Australia and the management of traditional Indigenous land has been viewed as mutually exclusive, if not directly conflicting. On the contrary, mutually beneficial enterprise and economic development of Indigenous land must occur in regions that can sustain it, not for the Indigenous population, but by the Indigenous population.

Statutory authorities, such as the Indigenous Land Council (ILC), are already assisting in achieving this goal. Central to their work is the belief that Indigenous land management can lead to the provision of training and employment outcomes for Indigenous people, resulting in a sustainable cycle of Indigenous-driven economic development.

A 2010 Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce report strengthened this resolve. The report indicated that northern Australia was primed to provide specialised socio-economic development opportunities on the vast Indigenous estate. Initiatives such as environmental and resource management services; freshwater management; eco-tourism; and promoting Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and bush foods, were well-placed to plant the seed of Indigenous business derived from the land.

The same report suggested that governments must introduce key Indigenous training initiatives in their northern Australian business strategy, including business innovation hubs that incorporated business mentoring and training. Here, small Indigenous businesses could receive advice from professional service advisers, such as accountants, while receiving guidance from mentors on how to achieve business longevity and success.

A sustainable Indigenous economic foundation must be laid on Indigenous-held land.

Other bodies, such as the Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, also aim to link the interests of Indigenous business with the economic prosperity of Australia, by facilitating Indigenous self-reliance and business management. Again, the sentiment here is that ownership of traditional Indigenous land and the economic prosperity of Australia ought not to be viewed as mutually exclusive. They can potentially operate hand in hand, with Indigenous knowledge of the land integrating into the Australian corporate landscape through the development of uniquely Indigenous business initiatives.

Case studies of this approach are plentiful. The ILC purchased Merriman Station in north-western New South Wales for the purpose of training the future of Australia’s Indigenous-driven pastoral industry. Here, Indigenous trainers and mentors run the Merriman Shearing School, providing practical training programs and accredited training to young Indigenous people. Ninetyper cent of its graduates find employment in the wool industry.

Likewise, at Waliburru Station in the Northern Territory, the ILC signed a grazing license agreement with its traditional owners, upgrading essential infrastructure and providing for the training and employment of the Minyerri community that lived on the station. Though the land had been reclaimed under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act in 1995 on the basis of the community’s strong cultural link with pastoralism on the station, the station had become rundown and economically unviable. A decision to use the community’s strong cultural connection to pastoralism to its fullest advantage has turned this decline around, with waves of community members achieving nationally recognised skills in pastoral production.

A key element of the project was the succession arrangement incorporated into the Waliburru Development Plan, which ensures traditional owners take on some of the key management tasks so they can take control of their business by 2018. Working alongside senior traditional owners and the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (NT) to protect sacred country, the ILC aimed to facilitate business to be comprehensively Indigenous-owned and operated, while also protecting the land’s cultural heritage.

This approach to creating Indigenous business enterprise, in partnership with building the business capacity of the community, is innovative in its ability to marry social and economic use of the land. Protection of culturally important regions can be achieved alongside an acknowledgement of Indigenous land as a unique environmental resource that the communities themselves can manage. To provide long-term benefits to Indigenous communities, a sustainable Indigenous economic foundation must be laid on Indigenous-held land. Here, opportunity, enterprise, and cultural pride may strengthen a connection to the land that many had considered lost.

Christine Todd is a law student and staff writer for Right Now.