Sunday, November 11, 2007

Native Title Claims and Australian Indigenous Aboriginal People

The process of globalization has had a large impact on indigenous peoples throughout the world, from impacts in terms of natural resources to self-determination and social justice issues. How indigenous peoples are able to mitigate some of these impacts is an important topic, one that many social scientists have been working on for a number of years. A colleague of mine, Mary Edmunds has been working extensively in Australia on resolving land disputes between the Native Australian Aborigines, the government, and large corporations. In a recent article she wrote (Anthropology News 48), she outlines several of the key points concerning the indigenous peoples of Australia (Aborigines) and land dispute issues.

Historically, conflict and its management were defined within a way of life based on local and small-scale groups structured by family and densely related kinship networks. This is no longer the case, as now intermediaries are emerging at the intersection of modern resource development and the Australian legal system, one that allows the indigenous peoples of Australia the right to negotiate claims of Native title to Australia's lands. One case is that of the Pilbara Aboriginal people.

The Pilbara Aboriginal people's major experience with global forces began in the 1960s with the development of iron-ore mining. Within a decade, ten new towns, four new railways, hundreds of miles of roads, power lines, and pipelines, along with three new deepwater ports were all built in Pilbara traditional lands. In giving the Aboriginal people some semblance of voice in the face of such change, Australia allows Native title via the common law system.

The first case (Mabo v. Queensland) was the first example of recognition of Native title by Australia's common law system. Australia's Native Title Act followed at the end of 1993. This allows indigenous peoples to make application for their Native title to be legally recognized on the basis of traditional law and custom. It also provides for a threshold test to be applied for Native title applications to be registered with the National Native Title Tribunal. In between making an application and a successful Native title claim - often a period of over a decade - Australian Aborigines have the right to negotiate over developments on the area of their claim. The Pilbara Aboriginal people are now using this legal claim system to mitigate future impacts to their traditional homeland.

This is quite an innovative and humane way to go about this. It allows a voice for the indigenous peoples of Australia in matters concerning their traditional resources and homeland. So, just because the Aboriginal group may not have Native title over a piece of land at a certain point in time, companies must still consult and listen to the indigenous peoples, for they have the "right to negotiate." In the United States, sadly, this is not the same. Native Americans have the right to negotiate as a environmental justice population if the development is going to impact them directly, but if it is taking place on their traditional lands (and they do not have any treaty rights over those lands), they can largely be excluded from the process.

Australia has a very poor track record when it comes to dealing with the indigenous Aboriginal people, but here is an example of a positive step in the right direction. Aboriginal people should be given an equal voice in all impacts affecting traditional homelands and resources. The Native Title Act of 1993 is a small step in this direction.

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