Aborigines Unite to Fight for Australian Land Claims

A HISTORIC meeting of 400 Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander leaders in a remote part of Australia's Northern Territory Aug. 5 is being seen as both a blow to the Labor government and a turning point in Aboriginal nationhood.

The three-day meeting culminated in a bold statement repudiating Prime Minister Paul Keating's attempts to create national legislation to pacify increasingly hard-line Aborigines and equally demanding farming and mining interests over the issue of land rights.

It is the first time this many Aborigine leaders have worked together and created a unified front. In what is being called the Eva Valley statement, the leaders made four demands:

* Veto rights over mining and pastoral leases on native-title land.

* Acceptance that native title cannot be extinguished by leases.

* No access to developers without permission.

* That native title issues be controlled by the federal government, not the states.

The group announced the formation of a representative national body that will negotiate directly with the government on these demands.

The furor is over the High Court's 1992 Mabo decision that gave Aborigines new legal standing to file claims on vacant Crown land with which they could prove a relationship. It established the concept of native title that coexisted with, but did not supercede, established title.

The ruling was seen as a landmark human rights victory. But native title was never defined, and that vagueness has caused ripples of unease among white property-owners, developers, and those with leases to mine and farm crown land.

The issue of leases has been particularly confusing. Even if land were given back to Aborigines, under the Mabo ruling, the Commonwealth would retain mineral rights to that land. The Commonwealth could lease native land to mining companies.

THE mining industry has been applying increasing pressure on the government to clarify the leases question. Several state premiers have come out in recent months saying they will move to legitimize any leases in question.

Mr. Keating's proposed legislation, which would give Aborigines the right to negotiate over development of native land, has been seen as an attempt to mollify mining interests. Some Aborigines don't mind mining; others do. The Eva Valley statement demands complete right of veto over leases. Keating has rejected that, saying that the government had already made concessions.

"The notion that we go way beyond that and provide a generalized veto is not something ... the government said it would encourage," Keating says.

Aborigine leaders say one reason for drafting this statement is that they had not been included in drafting the legislation. But Keating spokesmen say there have been numerous discussions.

The rebuff comes at the same time as state premiers are attacking Keating for leaving them out of the process as well.

The issue could reach courts than higher Australia's. One prominent Aborigine leader, Social Justice Minister, Mick Dodson, told the United Nations in Geneva that considering legislation to validate mineral leases on native land was a breach of international human rights conventions, of which Australia is a signatory.

The Eva Valley statement will be formally presented to the prime minister this week.

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