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Australian Aborigines Celebrate Court Victory - 2002-09-29

Australian Aborigines are celebrating a court decision last week granting them a giant swathe of Outback desert, more than four times the size of Belgium. It is the largest piece of territory to be returned to an indigenous group since land claims began to be settled a decade ago. Aborigines are now hopeful they will win hundreds more claims across Australia.

In a remote desert ceremony in western Australia, federal Judge Robert French handed over the rights to 136,000 square kilometers to the Martu Aboriginal community.

The 2,000 strong tribe will be allowed to hunt, fish and use the area's natural resources. But they will not have ownership of the rich mineral and oil deposits that lie beneath the red desert. The Martu were driven off the land in the 1950s, when authorities allowed former colonial ruler, Britain, to use it to test ballistic missiles. Then, six years ago, the Martu went to court seeking to win back legal title to the land.

Native rights expert, Australian Professor Richie Howitt, said Aborigines have a deep spiritual connection to the land known here as "dreaming" which is essential to their survival. "The dreaming provides a set of relationships, which are very intimate between people, their country and the forces and processes that produced both," he said. "So the idea for aboriginal people, who are living the dreaming, being separated from their country is tantamount to annihilation."

The Martu is just one of many aboriginal groups that have applied to claim land they traditionally inhabited. The flood gates for such claims opened up in 1992, when the Australian High Court dismissed the idea that the country had been empty until Europeans settlers arrived in the 18th Century.

Last week's decision to grant the Martu such a large section of territory has given land rights campaigners hope that more claims will be settled in their favor.

The issue has concerned powerful mining companies and farmers, anxious to protect their businesses. Most are keen to work with indigenous groups to allow access to the land, without giving up control of it.

But a few opponents, like Mick Keogh from the New South Wales Farmers Association, believe some aboriginal claims are not genuine, but an attempt to dishonestly seize land. "It's very hard to see that there is much substance to what is being claimed in a lot of cases, particularly in places like New South Wales, which have a long settlement history. In many areas people would say well, we haven't seen aboriginal people in this area for a long time," he said. "How can they say that they still have a connection with this land and still observe their traditional practices in this area?"

Land rights will continue to dominate indigenous politics in Australia, where the traditional connections to the earth are so important. The resolution of the land issue is seen by aboriginal campaigners as central to their key aim of reconciliation between the races in Australia. The country's 400,000 indigenous people are among the poorest in society and claim discrimination is widespread against them.