Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Aboriginal Land Rights - stop government pressure on traditional owners!

I got this message by email, with a plea to circulate it as widely as possible, and I thought I'd post it in part here because I believe the issue is crucially important, and I'd rather get the news out than worry about editorialising it:


`Basic services such as education and health care are the right of all Australians and should not be used as bargaining chips to pressure traditional land owners to hand over their land on 99 year leases.' James Ensor, Oxfam's Director of Public Policy.


On November 30th, traditional land owners are expected to make a decision about the future of their ancestral land. Amendments to the Land Rights Act 1976 will see some of the last standing traditionally owned and occupied lands taken away from Aboriginal people across Australia under harsh Government reforms already underway. Four traditional Aboriginal communities are being targeted in the Northern Territory, (one of which I am currently working and living in, Elcho Island in Arnhem Land), are being heavily pressured to give up control of their lands to a Government body called the ICC on a 99 year lease.

This is an urgent matter, traditional owners and community members have a right to more time and less pressure from the Government to make this decision in just 5 weeks. Most community members and council members are ill-informed about the Bill, due to the heavy use of legal jargon as well as basic literacy barriers. How can we expect these people to make an `informed' decision when they do not understand even the most basic concepts of the Bill?

The proposed lease provisions will effectively take away the rights of the traditional owners to decide who and what takes place on their ancestral lands for 99 years. Companies, services and non-traditional owners will be able to lease land from the government rather than obtaining consent from the land-owners on a case-by-case basis. In effect, the land owners will lose control of their land for four generations.

"The provision for extension of the 99-year leases means that the land may never be returned to my people should this experiment fail," said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma. "While I believe that economic development opportunities are essential for the well-being of Aboriginal communities, I don't think 99-year leases will provide that economic opportunity."

Under these amendments to the Land Rights Act 1976, what will most likely occur is that previously Aboriginal owned townships such as Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, will be leased to non Indigenous people, and the subsequent leases internally may - if they are lucky or fortunate - go to Aboriginal residents. It is highly unlikely that any Aboriginal from such townships will be able to afford the primary lease. It will provide many white people previously without the opportunity for commercial success to gain it at the expense of Aboriginal communities. It will also make things a lot easier and quicker for the mining corporations to wheedle more pristine land out of Aboriginal communities

Agreement to the lease is voluntary in the sense that it does not have to be taken out, but the conditions resemble the current Government's rules of 'wash the kids' faces or you get no petrol.'

In other words, if they don't do it, they will lose services such as education, health and housing provided as an integral right to all Australians.

In contrast, if they agree to 99 year leases, they will automatically be given...

"Around fifty houses [...] and real jobs [and] if the community is safe and signs up to full school attendance, a no-drugs no-violence policy and agree to a 99 year lease to support home ownership and business development opportunities."

According to the Bill, there appears to be no safeguards to ensure that leases and headleases are approved with ministerial AND land council AND the full understanding of traditional owners and residents who may be affected. The Bill outlines that these things must take place, but goes on to say that the subsection which insists upon these requirements is irrelevant to the legitimacy of the lease should they not take place, as long as 'fraud' is not committed. It seems like a convenient loophole included to be just that; an easy way out of such implicit dealings with the actual people affected.

Commissioner Calma said: "I urge the government to postpone the passage of this Bill until there is more detail regarding the impact of the implementation of the legislation and until land owners have been informed and given the opportunity to provide input into this process." "The federal Government has not consulted with Aboriginal land owners on significant aspects of the legislation.'

We are asking for MEDIA ATTENTION on this issue, as it has received very little so far, probably due to the controversy it would ignite.

- That these traditional communities have the right to more time and more assistance in understanding the legalities of the Bill before deciding on the future of their land.
  • That these traditional communities should not be pressured, bullied or used as bargaining grounds.
  • That these traditional communities have a right to be part of the legislative process of making laws about the use of and entry into their communities.
  • That these traditional communities have a citizen right to the decent housing, health, education and business enterprises that are being promised in return for the 99 year lease.
From Sinem (on Elcho Island), via Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (Victoria)

Those involved in this want lots of media attention on this issue, which has been terribly missing.

More information on the Government's attacks on Aboriginal land rights, via its ammendments to the Land Rights Act, is available from ANTAR Victoria.

Another mainstream group campaigning on the Land Rights issue has been GetUp! Australia.

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