'Whose Land?' Divides Ranchers and Aborigines

Unresolved claims to huge rural tracts in Australia keep development on hold.

"Whose country is it, anyway? Who owns this land?"

These fundamental questions have come up again and again around the globe.

As Australia struggles to find answers to these questions, the big plans of farmers in this agricultural region along the Murray and Darling Rivers are on hold.

Also on hold are the hopes of Aborigines who want to reclaim the area around Lake Victoria as a traditional burial ground. "We feel it's the place closest to heaven," says Philip Lawson, leader of the Barkandji people, who claim the region as a traditional homeland.

This has been wool country since the time when wool was just about the only commodity that inland Australia could produce that was valuable enough to pay its own freight for export.

But the wool industry is in decline. Even the end of the cold war has been a factor.

New land uses delayed

"The Russian Army was a big customer for Australian wool," says Jim Maynard, chairman of the local section of the New South Wales Farmers' Association. "For 30 years we had that." But no more. "And so we need to do something else," he says.

The region has been in a drought for five years. The hulks of dead eucalyptus trees that have keeled over like defeated warriors attest to the lack of groundwater. But the area does have the two rivers, and new irrigation technology - microjets that water plants individually - has opened the possibility of diversifying into citrus, grapes, and wheat.

But to clear native vegetation, "you have to get permission, which the state won't grant," Mr. Maynard says. Not until Aboriginal land rights are settled.

White Australia has been slow in coming to terms with the country's indigenous people. Aborigines were granted citizenship only in 1966. In the United States, treaties signed with native Americans were often disregarded. But at least there were treaties. Not so in Australia, which was declared "terra nullius," empty land, by the British, who used the continent as a penal colony.

That has been changing in recent years, however. In 1992 the High Court of Australia ruled in the Mabo case that Aborigines could claim a "native title" to vacant government lands. Then in 1996, a second ruling, in the so-called Wik case, opened the door to another kind of native-title claim on land held by ranchers. These so-called pastoral leases cover 40 percent of Australia. And Aborigines and their advocates do not rule out the possibility that future court rulings could open other areas to their claims.

In the aftermath of the 1992 Mabo ruling, white Australians had widely assumed - though not Aboriginal groups - that whatever native title was, pastoral leases would "extinguish" it - completely remove the right.

All this has left Prime Minister John Howard's conservative government scrambling to pass legislation to take account of the court rulings - and, in the view of his critics, limit their effects.

The defeat of his bill in the Senate last month, on the government's second attempt to get it through, means that Mr. Howard is likely to use a special logjam-breaking provision in the Constitution and call an early election (see story below) after which, it is expected, the bill will pass.

Even then, many of the ownership issues in the Murray-Darling Basin will remain. Aborigines will have the right to claim native title on leasehold land, about two-thirds of the land in Australia. (The rest is freehold, akin to land ownership in the US.) In leasehold, ultimate ownership is retained by the government.

But farmers here in New South Wales argue that their pastoral leases, set up under a specific state statute, were intended to be the equivalent of freehold.

To make his point, Gerald Byrnes, sitting at his kitchen table at the end of a long, perfect southern autumn day, unties a bundle of official documents done up with green ribbons and red sealing wax. The leases are for the three pieces of property that make up Cavan Station, his ranch. They certainly look far more like titles to property than "a year's lease on a flat in Sydney," as the expression goes.

'Lease is the wrong word'

"Lease is the wrong word," Mr. Byrnes insists. "It's really a lease in perpetuity. You have to pay the same price as for freehold." This land "has been in the family since 1913," he says. He and his wife, Val, are among "the longest-holding landowners in the shire."

Mr. Lawson, the Aboriginal leader, can trump that, however. "We've been here for 1,600 generations," he says, adding that, "Mungo [a site nearby] is the oldest ritual burial ground on earth - 36,000 years old." And he counters that a pastoral lease does not confer "exclusive possession." "They don't own the land," he says. Indeed, the critics suggest, the fact that the government has so many controls over the land - regarding clearing of vegetation, cutting of trees, and the like - shows that the ranchers use, but do not own, their land.

Don McKinnon, mayor of the shire of Wentworth, says courts have recently accepted a test case - the Wilson case in the town of Lightning Ridge - to settle whether the leaseholds are the same as freehold.

Aborigines are not all of one mind on the native title issue. In fact, Lawson's own family is divided. A cousin, Roland Smith, says, "There's quite a few of us who don't agree with native title. If someone wants to sell, we'll look at this. We can go to the indigenous land fund," he adds, referring to a government fund that enables Aborigines to buy land. "We have burial sites all over Australia. Some you have to protect. Some you have to forget about."

Native-title claimants are supposed to be able to negotiate deals with leaseholders outside the courts. But this has worked in only a couple of the 700 native-title claims lodged so far.

Exactly what native title is remains unsettled, too. But a key for Aborigines is the "right to negotiate" - to have a say in the leaseholders' use of the land, and ultimately get a share of the profit on the land to which they have a claim - a sort of royalty payment.

"But if I had to share the production on my land, I'd stop running sheep," says Murray Davies, a neighbor of the Maynards and the Byrneses. He would give up the 74,000 acres he now holds, he says, and raise crops on his 3,000 acres of freehold land.

Deborah Banks, a journalist based in Mildura, across the Murray River in Victoria, has reported on the tensions between the farmers and Aborigines.

"Baby boomers have this idea that when they were growing up, they got along better with Aborigines - that they went to school together, and so on," she observes.

Since then, the relationship has changed dramatically. The community is in a transition. "The tensions [between white farmers and Aborigines] have to do with the current transition."

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