For Australia’s Aborigines, it was a notable win in a long effort to reclaim lost land. After a two- decade legal battle, a December 2013 decision by an Australian court in the state of New South Wales granted a disputed 3.7 kilometer (2.3 mile) stretch of Pacific coast to a local group of Aborigines. The decision was the first time in Australia's modern history that the wealthiest and most populous state has granted indigenous people land on the sea. Now the Coff’s Harbour & District Local Aboriginal Land Council, the victors in that suit, are fighting to ensure it won’t be the last.
Australia’s aboriginal people arrived on the continent at least 40,000 years ago. But in the span of a few decades during the 19th century much of their culture was wiped out by European settlers. The number of Aboriginal peoples declined from 1 million at the time of European settlement to roughly 60,000 a century later, as Australia sought to assimilate indigenous people who were viewed as backwards and not deserving political representation. Since the 1970s Australia’s government has transformed its policies towards the country’s indigenous people allowing them to claim titles to federal land. Since then, Aborigines have been able to claim large swathes of lightly-populated states like the Northern Territory and Western Australia, allowing them to resume religious and cultural ceremonies in areas taken from their ancestors by the government. In the country’s wealthier eastern states, they have not had such success.
But the Coffs Harbour decision was a step forward for Aborigines in this process. Yet after the 2013 decision, the response from opponents to Aboriginal land claims was immediate. A bill that would cancel 1,800 other pending claims of coastal lands was introduced with the support of the New South Wales government. Supporters of the bill argued that granting further coastland to Aborigines would block public access to the state’s beaches. That move drew hundreds of indigenous protesters to the streets of Sydney on Nov. 3, 2014 – one day later, the bill was withdrawn.
“If the bill was passed through parliament it actually meant that retrospectively it would extinguish up to 600 kilometers” of coastal claims, says Chris Spencer, chief executive officer of the Coffs Harbour Aboriginal group.
The conflict over coastland in New South Wales is hardly the only land dispute involving Australia’s Aborigines. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum had planned a $45 billion liquefied natural gas plant for Aboriginal land in Western Australia. In 2013, they withdrew the proposal amidst criticism from some Aboriginal groups and environmentalists. In Australia’s desolate Northern Territory, environmentalists and aboriginal groups opposed to government efforts to build a nuclear waste dump on aboriginal land near the town of Muckaty Station succeeded in having the plans shelved in June. They are also opposing the consideration of a new proposal to build a dump on a separate tract of aboriginal land.
“The June 2014 victory of the Aboriginal people in Muckaty is limited in the sense that […] there may be further efforts to impose a dump on impoverished Aboriginal communities in return for a small compensation package,” says Jim Green, a campaigner with the environmental group Friends of the Earth Australia.
Despite the recent victories, Australia’s Aborigines are taking nothing for granted. Recently former Prime Minister Bob Hawke proposed that Australia open a global nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal lands, bringing wealth to an impoverished community.
Yet after decades of cultural repression and enforced assimilation, many see land claims as a key way to revive their culture and restore pride in their identity.
“Lands are part of the Aborigines' identity that's why, [claims over land ownership] are a lot more than just a matter of economic success,” says Amy McQuire, a Sydney-based freelance journalist who is part of the Darumbal and South Sea Islander indigenous groups. “We are trying to revitalize our culture that is 60,000 years [old] and land is a big part of that.”