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Aborigines Take Joint Possession of Traditional Lands

Aborigines in Australia have taken joint control of World Heritage-listed rain forests under a historic land rights agreement. The deal covers 6,000 square kilometers in the state of New South Wales. Tribal chiefs hope it will provide jobs and enable indigenous communities to become less dependent on welfare. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australia's Aborigines traditionally have an unbreakable spiritual attachment to the land. They see the earth as a vibrant, breathing mass, full of secrets and wisdom.

The majority of Australia's estimated population of 500,000 Aborigines lives in towns and cities, having abandoned the more traditional way of life.

But in northern New South Wales, the Githabul people have assumed joint control of their traditional tribal territory, covering a vast area of pristine rain forest and national parks, including several United Nations World Heritage sites.

Local Aborigines believe the subtropical region's natural springs and mountain peaks are home to powerful ancestral spirits.

The deal with the state government is one of Australia's largest indigenous land treaties. It follows a 10-year campaign, and gives tribal members unfettered access to sacred areas.

Aboriginal Anglican Pastor Ray Minnicone says the agreement is simply giving back to the Githabul land that has always been theirs.

"It's a wonderful decision for them, but if we put it into historical context, what we're seeing in this particular instance here as well as other cases of native title that have been won, it's not a victory for our people but it's more about white Australia catching up with the aspirations and dreams of indigenous peoples because, you know, this is our land this is our country," he said.

The Aborigines will be free to pursue a traditional way of life on the land, and will be allowed to hunt freshwater turtles, kangaroos and spiny anteaters. The agreement will not affect the rights of other Australians to visit the area.

Indigenous elders will have more of a say in how the area is managed, and they hope more jobs will be created as a result.

Australia's indigenous people are the most disadvantaged group in the country, suffering unusually high rates of poverty, premature death, unemployment and imprisonment.

Community leaders believe land rights agreements will help their spiritual and economic well being.

There are another 500 so-called Native Title cases still pending around Australia.

Leaders of the Githabul people are also involved in a separate land rights claim involving parts of southern Queensland.

It takes on average 10 years for these complex issues to be settled. Indigenous groups must prove a continued physical and cultural attachment to areas in question since European colonization more than 200 years ago.