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Australia's Aboriginals won land, now defend right to use it

Australian Aboriginals and environmentalists once allied to protect land. Now they’re split over whether struggling indigenous communities should exploit it for mining and other economic activity.

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In the past, environmental and indigenous groups campaigned together, even forming a Green-Black alliance. The former supported the Aboriginal battle for land rights; the latter were committed to conserving the land.

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In 2004, however, the Queensland government reportedly struck a pre-election deal with the Wilderness Society to “lock up” the Cape’s rivers in exchange for green votes. The legislation was passed in 2007; three waterways were declared wild rivers last year, and a fourth last month.

The society’s area campaigns director, Lyndon Schneiders, believes Aboriginal people should learn from southern Australia’s mistakes and pursue a more sustainable path, focusing on conservation-friendly activities such as ecotourism. “We do accept that Aborigines have a right to economic development,” he says.

“But there’s a whole range of economic opportunities up there that won’t trash the place and would seem to meet people’s aspirations to manage their own country. The economic strategy should be based on appreciation of the natural and cultural environment.”

At present, mining produces more than half the wealth in the isolated Cape, which lies closer to Papua New Guinea than to the rest of Australia. There are moves to expand the industry. This month, though, one company abandoned a major exploration venture, citing the uncertainty created by the wild rivers legislation.

Another is reviewing the future of a proposed $1 billion bauxite project, which would create hundreds of jobs and bring royalties of up to $1.7 million a year to local communities.

'Neocolonialism'

Aboriginal leaders accuse the government and Wilderness Society of “neocolonialism,” and say the obstacles being placed in the way of economic development constitute a new form of dispossession. The society, for its part, accuses those leaders – one of whom, Noel Pearson, has enormous political clout – of trying to “bully” them out of the Cape.

The society is now campaiging for a “wild country” bill to protect the land between the rivers, which is home to numerous rare or endangered species. Ultimately, it hopes to secure a World Heritage listing for the entire peninsula.

Mr. Edwards takes offense at the notion that Aborigines cannot be trusted to manage their own resources. If the rivers are pristine, he says, it is because his people have been looking after them for 60,000 years.

“Aborigines were among the first conservationists in the world, and we still maintain that today. We are not here to rip off the land, but to protect it.

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