MAC: Mines and Communities

Australia: Jabiru traditional owners recognised

Published by MAC on 2013-06-28
Source: Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) (2013-06-26)

Jabiru traditional owners recognised

Thea Cowie

Special Broadcasting Service (Australia)

26 June 2013

The Northern Territory's longest-running native title claim may have reached a conclusion satisfactory to all parties, with the federal parliament passing a bill recognising the traditional owners of the land.

The Jabiru native title claim area - which includes the Jabiru township - has now formally been returned to the Mirarr people.

After very lengthy deliberations, federal Land Rights laws have given the Mirarr people inalienable Aboriginal freehold title to the Jabiru township and its outskirts.

Mirarr traditional ownership of Jabiru is recognised by the scheduling of Jabiru and surrounding land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation was set up by the Mirarr people to look after their interests, and its CEO, Justin O'Brien, says the law change has righted an historical wrong.

"The Mirarr people host Australia's oldest human occupation site on their land. Their ownership of that part of Kakadu is over many millennia. There, in the heart of their estate, there are several holes. One of them that hasn't been handed back is of course is the town of Jabiru. That's now been solved and it's a recognition of their traditional ownership but also recognition of their own agency at a local level."

The amendment of the Land Rights Act comes from an agreement involving federal and state governments, Energy Resources of Australia * which operates a nearby uranium mine, and the Mirarr people.

The Mirarr people have agreed to immediately lease the Jabiru township back to the Director of National Parks.

They've also agreed to lease the land surrounding the town to the Northern Territory - enlarging the Kakadu national park.

Nigel Scullion is Senator for the Northern Territory and the Opposition's spokesman on Indigenous Affairs.

Senator Scullion says handing back the Jabiru township will provide stability for the area.

"I mean the Mirarr people have plans and they have investments in tourism. They have investments in a whole range of business enterprises but what this does is give some security to plans for the future. All businesses need security of tenure."

But the traditional owners say despite the legislative move, they will not withdraw their native title claim until they have secured the long-term leases.

Given the history of this struggle for native title it's not surprising the Mirarr people are being cautious.

In the 1970s, the Whitlam federal government commissioned the Fox Inquiry into uranium mining which recommended Jabiru should not be made Aboriginal land because it would give traditional owners veto power over the development of a nearby uranium mine.

Senator Scullion says the Mirrar people's fight for land ownership has been long and, at times, ugly.

"There was an agreement from the leader of the Mirarr that this land, this mine could go ahead. After the passing of that leader, the people who then spoke for the land decided that wouldn't be the case. It was in the middle of a very ugly debate around a whole range of those matters. Now that relationship has healed and moved on and the process we find today is a result of that healing and improved relationship."

The mine in question went ahead, but in 1998 the Mirarr people launched a massive protest against another proposed mine on their traditional land.

Around 5,000 protesters from around the country and overseas joined the eight-month blockade and over 500 were arrested.

Northern Territory Labor Senator Trish Crossin says it's 15-years this month since Mirarr woman Yvonne Margarula famously walked onto land leased to the mine.

"The mine actually had her arrested. She was arrested for walking on her traditional land even though of course the land at the time was leased to the mine. I think it was one of the blackest, darkest days in the mining history in this country."

But Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation CEO Justin O'Brien says it's time everyone put the past behind them, and hopefully this recognition of land rights will help do that.

"Several years ago we made a commitment to draw the line - as it were - under three or four decades of marginalisation and disadvantage. It's that want to move on, that want to push government back, to step up that's informed our concluding a raft of agreements in recent years."

* Editorial note: Energy Resources of Australia is owned by Rio Tinto Ltd.

 

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