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Indigenous Australians Win Decades-Long Land Rights Battle

  • Phil Mercer

After a 30-year battle, indigenous groups on Australia’s Cape York peninsula are celebrating the return of more than 160,000 hectares of tribal land. It has been handed back to three aboriginal clans by the Queensland state government.

It was opposition to the world’s first commercial space terminal in the mid 1980s that galvanized the Indigenous land rights movement in the Cape York peninsula. Aboriginal campaigners said plans to launch U.S. satellites using Soviet rockets from the site at Temple Bay in northern Australia would have destroyed sacred sites. Conservationists also argued the plan would harm the area's unique biodiversity.

After a long fight stretching back decades, more than 160,000 hectares of land have been returned to traditional tribal owners.

Andrew Picone, the northern Australia campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation said it was the first time indigenous campaigners had joined forces with environmentalists.

“Back in the 1980s when the spaceport was first proposed traditional owners launched their own campaign against that spaceport and they had their own legal proceedings as well. They asked for support from the conservation movement because we were also interested in the natural and cultural values of the Cape, so it was one of the first alliances you could say between Indigenous groups and the conservation movement,” he said.

About a third of the land returned to indigenous control will be used to create Australia’s newest national park. This will be owned and jointly run by aboriginal groups and should provide jobs in eco-tourism to communities that have had high rates of unemployment.

As all are economic dividends there are significant spiritual benefits, too. Indigenous leaders say the land handover will give them unfettered access and control of sacred sites.

Aboriginal Australians revere the land, and consider it to be the Mother of creation that is full of secrets and wisdom.

The Queensland state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said it was an historic day after formally handing control of the land on Cape York back to indigenous groups.

There are now 28 aboriginal-owned and jointly-managed National Parks on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, covering more two million hectares.

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