How Native Land Disputes Can Be Win-Win for All

Court endorses big Aborigine claims. But one tribe find an alternative.

For thousands of years, Rossy Fejofirth's ancestors hunted kangaroos, fished for barramundi, and watched the night skies from these hills. Now, Mr. Fejofirth, lean and dusty, is working with surveyors and dynamite crews who are gouging mineral-laden ore at the Pegasus Gold mine, one of the largest in Australia.

Fejofirth is a member of the Jawoyn tribe, the original inhabitants of the Katherine region known for its gorges and crocodiles. The Jawoyn, through an association, are joint-venture partners in the development of the mine. They require that Pegasus, based in Spokane, Wash., hire indigenous people and offer training for youths. In the future, the tribe will collect 10 percent of the revenues (and pay 10 percent of the costs) of mining gold-bearing rock near the current operations.

Such joint ventures between Aboriginal tribes and mining companies, although rare, are on the rise. In the Northern Territory, an area the size of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas combined, Aboriginal people own 40 percent of the land. The Jawoyn - a group of about 600 people - claim lands with an area the size of West Virginia.

"Since the Jawoyn [joint venture], a lot more Aboriginal groups are looking at joint ventures," says Grant Watt, president of the Northern Territory Minerals Council in Darwin.

Aboriginal land ownership may become much larger. In a recent decision, the Australian Supreme Court ruled that native title can coexist with pastoralist (ranching) and mining leases. On April 16, Prime Minister John Howard said that 78 percent of Australia is potentially open to native title claims. The National Farmers Federation, a powerful interest group, pressed for legislation that would eliminate any native claims.

Instead, in early May, Mr. Howard submitted a 10-point plan that attempts to make it harder for Aborigines to make claims, especially in cities and towns. The plan also would make it more difficult to challenge mining and ranching activity. In return, both the state and federal governments would pay compensation to Aboriginal titleholders. The plan must now be approved by Parliament. Aboriginal leaders say they will fight it in court.

While the government and indigenous leaders are ready to thrash it out, Robert Lee, the chairman of the Jawoyn Association, says the experiences of his tribe may be a useful model. "Instead of getting frightened about native title - like we used to be here in Katherine about land rights - maybe they should be thinking about ways to get it to work for everyone's benefit," he says.

The Jawoyn tribe, which represents 7 percent of the region's population, started the process about 15 years ago when it decided to strive for economic independence. By 1985, the tribe had established an association. Four years later, it argued that Katherine Gorge (called Nitmiluk by the Jawoyn) should be returned to the tribe.

The gorge is a mini-Grand Canyon etched out by the swift Katherine River. The Northern Territory government agreed with the tribe, and the Jawoyn then leased the land back to be used as a park "to be shared by all Australians."

One person sharing that park with visitors is Alfred King, a tour guide. "I enjoy being with people I haven't met before," says Mr. King, whose mother is a Jawoyn. Mr. King and the other tour guides give visitors a taste of traditional Jawoyn stories about the region. "They say the gorge is created by the rainbow serpent so he would have a place to rest, deep among the rocks," King says.

King takes visitors to see Aboriginal artwork etched into the rocks along the water. There are little "Mimi spirits," stick figures that Aborigines say live in the cracks, as well as carvings of turtles and wallabies, small marsupials related kangaroos.

Jesse Brown, another Jawoyn who works as park ranger, takes visitors on "bush tucker" tours that include explaining which natural fruits, roots, and insects are edible.

The Jawoyn help tourists to better understand the history and lore of the region, says Werner Sarny, the managing director of Travel North, which operates a tour as a joint venture with the Jawoyn. "It comes across as much more genuine."

The tribe was willing to share Nitmiluk, which means cicada in the Jawoyn language, because it did not have any sacred sites or special significance to the Jawoyn.

However, the tribe fought an attempt to open a mine on Coronation Hill, an important Jawoyn religious site. The debate became acrimonious and was finally settled by the federal government in favor of the Jawoyn in 1991.

"It was painted up as the Aboriginal people being antidevelopment, but it was the Jawoyn position, and the elders especially, that this was sacred country," says John Ah Kit, an Aboriginal member of the Northern Territory Parliament.

Two years later, the tribe sat down to negotiate a mining agreement near Mt. Todd, which is not considered as sacred as Coronation Hill. In only 10 days, a basic agreement was reached.

"We want to see fit to negotiate and compromise as long as it incorporates the Jawoyn concerns and aspirations," says Mr. Ah Kit, who was on the negotiation team.

One of the Jawoyn's main concerns was for its children. The elders wanted the mining company to employ, train, and educate their young people. "They want to be employed rather than be on the dole," Ah Kit says.

Today, the mine employs about 35 Aboriginal workers, or nearly one-third of the work force. The original contract called for only six Aboriginal jobs.

"I wish I had more men like Rossy," says John Yates, a supervisor at the mine.

Hiring the Aboriginal workers makes good economic sense since about one-third of Katherine's population is Aboriginal, says Chris Medway, general manager of the mine. "They live in town, and we don't want to be importing people into town," he says.

Pegasus has been less successful in hiring Jawoyn, who have only about 10 jobs at the mine. When the mine opened two years ago, some of the Jawoyn applied for jobs. However, few of them stuck with Pegasus. The work requires 12-hour shifts and long rides from Katherine to the mine, which is near Edith Falls, some 40 miles away over poor roads.

Instead, "what we have started to do is to negotiate with the mine to take on the ancillary contracts: for example, rehabilitation, burning off of grass, waste pickup," says Lesley Doherty, manager of Human Resource Development for the Jawoyn Association.

To try to make it easier for Jawoyn to get to the mine, Pegasus has helped the tribe obtain funds to build housing close to the mine site.

"That way there's not a lot of hassles traveling back and forth," mine manager Medway says.

The lodgings also keep some of the Aboriginal workers out of Katherine, which has become a magnet for the unemployed. Aborigines sprawl under trees on a median strip. Alcohol abuse is a significant problem.

The mayor of Katherine recently gathered together the town's civic leaders to discuss "antisocial" behavior, such as public drunkenness, which the community is afraid will hurt tourism.

One solution being explored is a "grog-free day," says John Fletcher, assistant director for the Jawoyn. Bars would be closed, and take-home sales banned. The concept has been tried in other Aboriginal areas, with mixed results.

Mr. Fletcher says the best solutions to the alcohol problem are education and jobs. In January, the Jawoyn published a five-year plan detailing how the tribe plans to become self-sufficient.

It places heavy emphasis on tourism and mining, but also on ranching on Jawoyn land. "It's a report that any company would be proud of," mine manager Medway says.

The report makes clear that any development must take into account traditional Aboriginal values, such as respect for the land. The Jawoyn require that Pegasus rehabilitate the land once the ore is mined.

As giant trucks carry off 250 tons of ore at a time, Fejofirth looks around at the barren landscape.

"It will make me happy to see trees and all that. It's only courtesy to put it all back," he says.

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