The Multinational Monitor



As the Aborigines Fight for Land, the Mining Giants Move In

by Phillip Frazer

The current struggle by Australia's Aboriginals for land ownership rights has grown out of a renewal of U.S. and European interest in Aboriginal "reserves" after those areas were revealed to contain rich mineral deposits. For the Aboriginals, the current Western business invasion marks another step in the process of stripping Aboriginals of their rights.

Aboriginals have lived in Australia for at least 30,000 years, as semi-nomadic hunters and food-gatherers, with a rich variety of cultures, social organizations, and languages. In the barely 200 years of European occupation of their land, the Aboriginals have had their numbers reduced by a third, and much of their culture destroyed. Tribes that once lived in the fertile, temperate areas of the east coast and Tasmania were driven inland or massacred during the last century. Of the current population of about 140,000 people of Aboriginal descent, 20,000 are full-blooded Aboriginals and most of them live in the semi-tropical north and the deserts of north and central Australia. The majority of the others live in the low-income areas of the southern cities.

Aboriginal myth and ritual are intimately tied to the land and to outstanding features of the environment. Common to Aboriginal culture is the concept of the "dreamtime" - a long-ago era when all life was being created. During the dreamtime, spirits established themselves in particular geographic sites. Destruction of these locations means destroying the spirits of the living and dead. Aboriginals associated with them.

When the state government of Queensland announced it had given permission to the Swiss-owned Nabalco Pty. Ltd. to mine bauxite on the Gove Peninsula in Northern Australia in 1969, the local Yirrkala community went to court to challenge the agreement. The Yirrkala lost, but the case marked the beginning of the current phase of land rights battles.

Over the next few years, the Labor Party government headed by Gough Whitlam promoted the establishment of Aboriginal land councils and in 1976, the conservative government of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. This applied only to the federally-administered Northern Territory, and under the act, Aboriginal claims can be made only to federally controlled lands that have not been leased or granted freehold title-mostly land which was regarded by non-Aboriginals as wasteland. Freehold title (ownership) was granted to all federal Aboriginal reserves, amounting to about 20 percent of the Northern Territory. Since the granting, rich mineral deposits have been discovered in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

Conflicting land claims in the Northern Territory are now negotiated by three regional land councils established and funded by the federal government, but controlled by Aboriginals. A government-appointed commissioner hears the various parties' claims and makes recommendations; the federal government then decides the dispute.

To prove a right, Aboriginal claimants must demonstrate that they are "the traditional Aboriginal owners," which is defined as "a local descent group of Aboriginals who have common spiritual affiliations to a site" and who "are entitled by Aboriginal tradition to forage as of right over the land." Difficulties arise in reconciling this language with Aboriginal custom; some tribes are organized into two complimentary descent groups, which are based on long-term patrilineage and short-term matrilineage, and to treat one as primary denies both tradition and the rights of many people whose fathers were not of the tribe. In general, Aboriginal society is highly sex segregated and for women to discuss many topics with men is taboo. Since government officials, company negotiators and even anthropologists are usually males, the opinions of Aboriginal women on land rights and mining are rarely heard.

Most of the Aboriginal claims adjudicated to date, however, have been granted, amounting to over 200,000 square kilometers of Northern Territory land.

Although the Northern Territory is a relatively small portion of Australia's total land area, it does contain nearly 20 percent of the national Aboriginal population. Now that these people have ownership of former reserves, as well as a mechanism to claim other Territory land, the state governments of Australia are preparing for land claims by Aboriginals who live in their states.

Many tribal or community groups of Aboriginals outside the Northern Territory have been granted long leases to farmland or to former reserves, and in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria, state parliaments have enacted legislation similar to the federal act. Aboriginals may claim land and, if the state approves, have the title to that land invested in an Aboriginal land trust and administered by the local Aboriginals. Nowhere, however, does ownership or leasehold include rights to mining-in Australia, all minerals are owned by governments which lease rights to explore or mine.

In practice, this means that mining rights to Aboriginal land must be negotiated with mining companies. Since the defeat of the Whitlam government, which froze most new mining projects pending inquiries into land rights and environmental issues, mining companies backed up by the compliant federal and state governments now in office, have taken the upper hand. Aboriginals are being offered mining agreements that allow massive environmental destruction of their newly-won land, and provide royalty payments to the Aboriginals of just 41/2 percent (as compared to 10 to 20 percent royalties plus profit-sharing agreements that some Native American groups have negotiated recently).

The first negotiations to proceed under the 1976 act concerned the Ranger mine in Arnhem Land. The Northern Land Council negotiated the mining rights with the federal government, since the government was then principal owner of the mine (it has now sold its share and Ranger is operated by an Australian corporation). The mine already existed at the time 'the 1976 act was instituted, which meant that only the terms of the future operation of the mine were negotiable, not its presence on tribal land.

The government concentrated its lobbying efforts on Galurrwuy Yunupingu, Chairman of the Northern land Council. The Oenpelli people, who live 40 kilometers from the Ranger site, objected to the terms Yunupingu was prepared to accept - specifically, they wanted a National Park declared around the site, and they were unconvinced of the wisdom of any mining. The Oenpelli eventually boycotted the signing ceremony. Yunupingu was named "Australian of the Year," and neither he nor the government's signatory, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ian Viner, has been back to Oenpelli since.

The precedents set in this case showed Aboriginals of the area that they had no veto power, and under relentless pressure from the mining I corporations, the Aboriginal people of the Alligator Rivers region, in which the Ranger mine is located, have become demoralized. Agreements are now being negotiated that consider only the royalties to be paid the Aboriginal land councils as issues of dispute-both the governments and the corporations impress on the Aboriginal communities that mining is inevitable.

Nevertheless, even Aboriginals in the Northern Territory, with their limited rights, are considerably better off than those who live in the rest of Australia. Queensland and Western Australia, with their aggressively pro development state governments and fanatical states' rights ideologies, are hostile to Aboriginal land rights as a matter of principle. At Noonkanbah in Western Australia last year, that hostility exploded into an incident that has been called "Australia's Wounded Knee. "

In August, the state government sent hundreds of police to escort a convoy of trucks carrying an oildrilling rig onto a site considered sacred by the leaseholders, the Yungngora, but considered good oilpotential land by the U.S.-based multinational AMAX (see Multinational Monitor, July 1980). Trade unionists, senior church officials and other sympathizers stood with the Yungngora to block the trucks, and to support a union ban on any drilling at the site. Seventeen Yungngora leaders and five churchmen were arrested; drilling now proceeds under police guard, supervised by the Western Australian government. AMAX, meanwhile, maintains it was merely exercising its rights, which were granted by the state government and which the federal government 'has declined to override.

In other states, similar land rights laws are now being enacted, but confrontations are less dramatic since fewer mineral deposits are at stake. Stephen Zorn of the United Nations Center on Transnational Corporations claims that "even the apartheid policy of, the South African government is somewhat more favorable to indigenous people than the Australian situation," and the case of Tasmania lends credence to his claim. There, the state government feels there is no need to consider legislation since, it claims, past genocide has left the island with no Aboriginal population at all.

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