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.

Rob Griffith/AP/File
Aboriginal dancers perform a peacock dance in Sydney, Australia, Jan. 26 during Australia Day celebrations.

For environmentalists, it doesn’t get much better than Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, a vast expanse of wetlands, tropical rainforest, savannah grasslands, and bone-white sand dunes, sheltering one-half of the country’s birds and one-third of its mammals.

The wild and beautiful Cape at Queensland’s northeast tip is also home to 10,000 Aboriginal people, many living in communities blighted by poverty and social dysfunction. To their leaders, economic activity – including mining, forestry, and cattle-grazing – seems like the obvious solution.

Now green and black interests, which were once closely aligned in this resource-rich region, are bitterly opposed, thanks to a law passed by the Queensland government designating a dozen waterways in Cape York as “wild rivers.”

The legislation restricts development and commercial activities, including fishing, within half a mile of such rivers and their catchment areas. Large swaths of land will effectively be placed out of bounds – a move welcomed by conservation organizations such as the powerful Wilderness Society, but denounced by senior Aborigines as “economic apartheid."

Similar conflicts are being played out around Australia as indigenous groups, having won back their land, seek to exploit it economically to escape welfare dependency. In the far northwest, environmentalists are horrified that Aboriginal landowners have approved the building of a major gas processing plant on a pristine coastal site.

To use and enjoy the land

In Cape York – known as one of the last wild places on Earth, and considered by some to be as significant as the Amazon or Serengeti – traditional owners launched a court challenge to the “wild rivers” legislation this month. A writ lodged in the High Court accused the state government and the Natural Resources Minister, Stephen Robertson, of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act and the Native Title Act.

Under the latter, indigenous landowners are entitled to “possession, occupation, use and enjoyment” of their land.

Shaun Kalk Edwards’s clan, the Kokoberrin people, has lived and hunted for generations around the Staaten River, one of the waterways affected by the new law. “We didn’t know about it until it was too late,” he says. “The strategy was already developed.

“My great-grandfather, who [has] passed away, was really hurt at being sidelined. The river is so important to my family group. These are waters that we’ve been drinking and looking after for thousands of years. Our whole language and lifestyle revolves around the river.”

A Green-Black alliance

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.

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.


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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