Friday, January 05, 2007

Githabul land claim

After a decade of legal negotiation, an Aboriginal group and the state of New South Wales are about to sign off on a massive native title deal. The Githabul people have negotiated an Indigenous Land Use Agreement which will cover a 6,000 square kilometre area in the northeast of the state near Mount Lindsay. The Githabul will gain joint managerial control of World Heritage Listed national parks and control over future development on the land. It is the biggest native title deal in NSW and will create jobs for the 250 Githabul, as well as giving them the right to traditional activities in the forests, including hunting protected native animals.

The land claim is not yet fully complete. The Githabul lands straddle the state border between NSW and Queensland and negotiations are continuing with the Queensland Government. The claim will be extremely significant for native title as it is the first one to cross state borders. But Queensland is holding out saying they are still examining the claim. The Australian newspaper did a front page feature on the Githabul land claim on Wednesday. In their story they focussed on the disappointment of the Aboriginal people’s failure to secure the 15% of their land in Queensland and thus the peak of Mount Lindsay itself. They quoted Queensland Acting Premier Anna Bligh who said the Government was waiting for more information from the claimants. The Githabul claim that the Queensland government are dragging their heels.

Furthermore the Australian claims the Queensland Government has failed to act because of a rival claim from the Yugambeh people who live near the Gold Coast. Then they quote a Yugambeh spokesman Wesley Aird who says there is no overlap between the claims. Aird said "All our information was that the NSW claim was going really well, but the Queensland side was dragging the chain, and that's typical of their dealings with indigenous people." ALP president Warren Mundine is also chief executive of the NSW Native Title Services group, which funded the claim. He said that if the Queensland Government could approve the claim it would set a precedent for other cross-border situations, such as those around the Mildura area of northwest Victoria. He hopes a deal can be hammered out before the end of 2007.

The NSW decision is the latest in along round of land rights negotiations that stretch back to the Mabo decision of 1992. In that case, the Australian High Court rejected the doctrine of terra nullius, the idea that the continent belonged to no one when the British arrived in 1788. Native title now describes the rights and interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in land and waters, according to their traditional laws and customs that are recognised under Australian law. The law was further refined by the Wik decision which recognised that native title could co-exist with pastoral leases though pastoral rights would prevail.

The Noongar people of Perth in Western Australia won another landmark case in September 2006. The Federal Court judge found the Noongar people had proved their claim to more than 6,000 sq km of land in WA including the state capital, Perth. It was the first time a metropolitan area was ruled to belong to indigenous people. Alarmists in the white community expressed concern that public access to urban open spaces and national parks could be at risk. However the Noongar did not claim any freehold or leasehold land and instead are entitled to whatever lands are left over in Perth, which is very little indeed.

The National Native Title Tribunal was set up to examine these claims on an Australia-wide basis. They adjudicate on three types of applications. A claimant application asks for a determination that native title exists in a particular area. A non-claimant application is made by someone who does not claim to have native title but who seeks a determination that native title exists in that area. The third type is compensation application which is made by those seeking compensation for loss or damage to their native title.

The Githabul made a claimant application for their lands on both sides of the state border. They call the rainforest their supermarket. Once the deal is signed, the Githabul will no longer risk being prosecuted and fined for hunting turtles and echidnas in the rainforest. Trevor Close, who led the Githabul claim, said it was lodged because "our boys were sick of being pulled up for doing what they had always done". He continued, "We are all people of the rainforest. It is a supermarket of food."

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