The corporate interests behind Howard's land grab

Issue 

Les Malezer, chair of the UN Global Indigenous Caucus, which was responsible for drafting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, spoke to a packed meeting in the Redfern community centre on October 28. "Our wealth is that of our Indigenous values: land, culture and spirit", he said. "Not in assimilation, not in power, not in dollars, not in telling our people what they should do, or running organisations that do the same. Our wealth is in our lands, territories and resources. And the forced theft of these means that there must be reparation."

The meeting was called to organise a response to the Howard government's "intervention" into the Northern Territory, which was announced on June 21 this year and — among other things — places all Aboriginal townships in the NT under Commonwealth leases for the next five years, denies communities the right to control access to their lands and places 50% of all welfare payments to Aboriginals in "quarantine" so it can only be spent on essentials such as food and clothing.

Malezer told the gathering in Redfern that the intervention was an attack on the sovereignty of Aboriginal Australia, and called for greater action to assert the right to self-determination, as outlined in the UN declaration. He argued that the resources of Australia were never ceded to white colonists and thus should comprise wealth necessary to provide health, education and dignity for Aboriginal Australia. It was the theft of these resources that impoverished Aboriginals, he argued, and it was theft of more resources that motivated the intervention.

Mining and resource companies have always been at the forefront in opposing granting land rights to Aboriginal people. It was the intense lobbying of the mining industry that encouraged the Hawke-Keating ALP government to water-down the rights of Aboriginals to veto mining on traditional lands in 1987, and it's the powerful mining lobby that stands to benefit from the changes to the NT Land Rights Act that the current intervention required.

In the past, land rights battles have primarily been between traditional owners and the mining and resources industry. Not surprisingly, the government has generally come down on the side of industry profits, regardless of the legal positions taken by the judiciary. Strong campaigns by traditional owners and their allies have been necessary to assert land rights. Some have succeeded; some have failed.

In 1998 land rights battles managed to halt the progress of uranium mining in Kakadu National Park. Energy Resources Australia (ERA) was required to negotiate with the Mirrar people for the rights to mine the very lucrative uranium ore in Jabiluka. Although ERA produced documents claiming there was Aboriginal support, continued action from the Mirrar in conjunction with a mass campaign against the mine — as well as falling uranium prices — stopped them from proceeding with the mine and traditional owners now have veto rights over any future development of the mine.

Earlier this year, mining giant Xstrata was forced to halt an upgrade on its MacArthur River zinc mine after a Supreme Court ruling on May 2. The upgrade would divert 5.5 kilometres of the MacArthur River, which the Kurdanji people rely upon for water, and the Supreme Court ruled that there had been insufficient consultation with traditional owners. The NT ALP state government immediately introduced legislation to overturn the court's decision and now the river diversion is going ahead as planned.

In the Kimberly in Western Australia, a new gas development project was announced on October 22, but the new native title environment means that the proposal is slated to be negotiated between the WA government and gas companies rather than involving the Kimberly Land Council (KLC). KLC executive director Wayne Bergman told the October 24 Koori Mail "Sustainable long-term development for the people of the Kimberly is dependent on traditional owners being able to negotiate directly with [gas] companies".

The NT intervention, whilst only covering only 0.1 — 0.2% of land in the NT, does open up possibilities for the mining industries. The intervention encourages the breakup of current Indigenous townships and the mass migration of Indigenous people from the townships to the cities. Whilst all the townships are now under five-year leases, they are still protected by the Native Title (Northern Territory) Act and thus mining companies still have a responsibility to negotiate with native title holders. The August edition of the Australian Journal of Mining noted that it is extremely unlikely that townships will be in demand for mining exploration but it also says "the NT could play a major part in the expansion of the uranium mining industry in Australia, with around 18 per cent of Australia's total identified resources of uranium recoverable at low cost (second after South Australia that has 74 per cent), which could be worth up to $12 billion".

While it's unlikely that townships, even deserted ones, will become major mining sites anytime soon, the access roads for the transfer of toxic waste and nuclear material could be close to Aboriginal townships and are likely to be controversial, as would many common uranium mining practices, such as in situ mining, which can poison the water table of a whole state. The MacArthur River dispute was not about the mine being on Aboriginal land, it was about the effects it would have "upstream". Any uranium mining in the NT would likely face similar opposition, and the changes to NT lands rights laws make it more difficult for communities to argue these sorts of cases.

The corporate interests behind the theft of Aboriginal land are powerful and will need to be confronted by a strong political movement of Indigenous people and their supporters if land rights are to mean anything real again in Australia. As Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner said at the second National Indigenous Land and Sea Management Conference in Cardwell, north Queensland, on October 10: "We have nowhere near [got] back our traditional lands but we have parts of it, and they're already talking about applying the Territory model into Queensland, through the Gulf, up the Cape and over to Western Australia … we've got to nip this stuff in the bud aggressively, stand up and be counted and shout down the mob who have supported this racist rubbish."

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