Michael Hunter's remarks about Aboriginal land purchases cannot be allowed
to go without comment, for they are the sort of misinformation that gets
accepted as truth and passed on to feed redneck prejudices.
His remarks relate to the Northern Land Council, which, like the Central
Land Council, is regularly the subject of misleading attacks by the Northern
Territory Government and others who dislike the effective way it has stood
up for Aboriginal interests. Michael's account would leave the reader under
the impression that the Northern Land Council has $50 million a year to
spend on land purchases, and has spent $11 million to purchase a 'pristine'
pastoral property in Western Australia for 'grandiose' developments which
the Aborigines concerned do not want.
The Northern Land Council does not even operate in Western Australia, has no
funds to spend on the purchase of properties, is controlled by the
Aborigines in its area of operation, and could not develop land except in
accordance with the wishes of the traditional owners. Far from carrying out
grandiose development plans, its main service to Aboriginal landowners is
through a "Caring for Country Unit" which assists them to redress the
environmental damage caused by previous white owners. Only one cattle
station in its area, Elsey, is even conducted on a commercial basis. Both
the Northern and Central Land Councils are heavily involved in conservation,
including assisting the traditional owners of Kakadu and Uluru National
Parks. On a recent visit to the Central Land Council I was told of its
pleasure in co-operating with Birds Australia over the proposal to buy
The only body currently funded to purchase land for Aborigines is the
Indigenous Land Corporation which at the present time has $28 million per
year to buy back land for dispossessed Aborigines over the whole of
Australia (see http://www.ilc.gov.au ). This does not go very far to
redress the taking of a whole continent and to suggest that some of it be
diverted to buy the "sacred places" of birders seems to me to be
mean-spirited, to say the least, particularly when it would mean stopping
traditional owners from regaining the land in question.
It is remarkable that with all the environmental damage and development done
by white landowners over the years, complaint should be levelled at a
proposal that one property should pass from white to Aboriginal ownership.
If the Indigenous Land Corporation is buying the property, it is buying it
from white pastoralists to return it to traditional owners from whom it was
taken without consultation or compensation, and with brutal disregard for
the fact that their whole way of life was being destroyed. If there is to
be development, it will be because the traditional owners want it.
Michael says that the real heritage of indigenous people is 'pristine land'.
That was the case before white settlement, but there is precious little
pristine land left now, and pastoral stations are certainly not in that
category. Aboriginals certainly often display a desire to return to their
traditional country and care for it in the way that allows Michael to regard
it as pristine after 40,000 years. But they have a number of problems, even
when they have been fortunate enough to get funding to buy it back.
One is the constant pressure they are under from Governments and others, and
particularly funding sources, to engage in economic development and not
leave land 'idle' - the opposite of Michael's criticism, showing they are
damned if they do and damned if they don't. Just think of Aboriginal
resistance to Government pressure to allow uranium mining for example.
Another is the simple fact that without resort to economic development they
and their children must remain poverty stricken and underprivileged in
isolated welfare-dependent communities. Few of their properties have
economic potential - those open to claim under land rights legislation are
available only because no white person ever thought they were worth
acquiring. Most Aboriginals do want education and opportunity for their
kids, and are very conscious of the destructive effects of the prolonged
welfare dependency in which they have been left since the great changes in
the outback economy in the sixties and seventies destroyed their economic
niches. If they do happen to get land capable of development, they cannot
afford to ignore the opportunities. They tend to feel rather unsympathetic
to whites who have destroyed most of the pristine character of the continent
for economic gain but then think Aboriginals should forego their few
opportunities so that wealthy white tourists can have a pristine experience.
There are ways around this, as the existence of Kakadu, Uluru and
Mootawingee show. The indications are that traditional owners are very
amenable to conservation schemes that do not seek to deprive them of the
control of their land and allow them to get some economic return or
opportunities for employment. There is room for some innovative thinking.
I do not know Roebuck Plains pastoral station, but if it is being acquired
for the traditional owners, and if it is the ornithological treasure house
that Michael describes, one suggestion would be for Birds Australia to
negotiate with the new owners to find ways to make it worth their while to
protect key areas and make those areas accessible to birders, and to manage
their whole property with an eye to the interests of bird conservation.
Maybe it would be feasible to establish something like Cape York's Pajinka
Lodge there, for example, and to find funds (eg through Environment
Australia's Indigenous Protected Areas Program or a body like WWF) to employ
some indigenous rangers to work with volunteers from birding groups. I am
sure the Kimberley Land Council (if that is the appropriate body for the
area) would be amenable to approaches that are respectful of Aboriginal
interests and ownership, and that propose genuine partnerships of mutual
These suggestions are off the top of my head. But for heaven's sake let us
have no more embarrassing suggestions that the meagre funds available to
restore some land to its dispossessed traditional owners should be raided to
give (often well-off) birders access to what are described with unpleasant
sarcasm as their 'sacred places'.
PO Box 255 Glebe NSW 2037 Australia
Phone 02 9692 9354 Fax 02 9660 1503
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