South Australia’s Role in Indigenous Land Rights

South Australia is a place that prides itself on its commitment to resolve Native Title issues by negotiation rather than litigation. It is perhaps the only Australian state to have done so.

Beer measures in SA are different from elsewhere. The pint here is called a schooner. A schooner is about twice as big as the pint elsewhere.

The Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981

In 1981 the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands Act was passed, giving its traditional owners inalienable freehold title to their lands. The act was one of the first in Australia to recognise Aboriginal land rights, and has set a precedent for other Indigenous Australians. The APY Executive Board decides how the Lands are managed, and negotiations with other interested parties who wish to use the land. The executive board is a constitutional authority, which means it must be run by members of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara (people of the Lands).

This process began with the Yolgnu people from Yirrkala, north-east Arnhem Land, who presented bark petitions to the Australian Parliament, protesting that they had been driven off their ancestral country and their land was being taken to extract bauxite. The bark petitions were the start of the modern land rights movement, which fought for Indigenous Australians to have their traditional land and rights returned to them.

In 1979 a Parliamentary Select Committee report recommended the passing of legislation recognising the traditional rights of the Pitjantjatjara people to their lands in South Australia’s north-west. The bill was introduced by the Government of Don Dunstan, but a change in government occurred during its passage through parliament, leading to fears that it would be abandoned. It was eventually re-negotiated to the satisfaction of the people involved, and received assent in March of 1981.

The APY Act gave the community complete control of their land and resources, including mining, farming, grazing and cultural activities, but also placed restrictions on access to certain areas and sites. Access is granted through a request to the executive board. Entry without a permit is an offence, and those who enter without a permit may be prosecuted under the Act.

While the APY Act does allow the executive board to charge for activities, this is only to cover costs. They cannot use it to make a profit, and this is prohibited under section 24 of the Act. This is designed to protect the wishes of Anangu Pitjantjatjara, whose laws govern how the lands are managed.

The Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984

The passage of the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act in 1984 marked a major milestone for Aboriginal land rights in South Australia. It granted title to a large area of the Northern Territory in north-west South Australia to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara people.

The lands covered by the Act were the traditional territory of peoples linked to the Kokatha, Wirangu and Pitjantjatjara languages. They include a number of homelands and small communities, where people can live close to their ancestral country, reconnect with family and traditional values and regain control of their land. The homelands offer the opportunity for economic independence from government contracts, grants and other forms of external funding. However, the development of viable enterprises is not easy. Enterprises must be compatible with the nomadic lifestyle and must also respect traditional obligations within kinship networks. There is also a need for better literacy, numeracy and business management skills.

In addition, there is the ongoing challenge of raising venture capital, which is not always available in remote regions. A major challenge is the need for a better understanding of the Australian economy by investors, and an ability to market goods and services in a way that meets their expectations. There is also a need to improve the quality of education in the homelands, and increase the capacity for self-government, including financial management and governance.

This book addresses all of these issues and is a significant contribution to the knowledge base on indigenous land rights in Australia. It will be of interest to historians, legal practitioners and those with an interest in Aboriginal affairs and social justice.

The book is available for purchase from Wakefield Press and the Don Dunstan Foundation. The Don Dunstan Foundation is proud to have partnered with Wakefield Press on the launch of Maralinga: The Struggle for Return of the Lands. The event was held in the Barr Smith Reading Room at the Adelaide Law School and included presentations from Garry Hiskey, author of the new book, and Vickie Chapman MP, Attorney-General and Deputy Premier of South Australia.

The Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966

The history of land rights in Australia has been a long and arduous one. Aboriginal people see their connection with country as a fundamental part of their identity. Land is where many engage in ritual business and spend much of their time, and it is a key focus of their cultural, economic and social activity. In the 1960s and 70s Aboriginal organisations campaigned to retain access to their traditional lands. For example, the Yolgnu Yirrkala community presented a series of bark petitions to Parliament protesting the granting of bauxite mining leases and excavation of their traditional land.

These and other actions were the precursors to the modern Indigenous land rights movement. In 1966 Gurindji families walked off Wave Hill cattle station demanding wages and the return of their land. The protest was taken up by many in the cities and the movement for Aboriginal land rights was put on the national political agenda.

As a result, in 1966 the Aboriginal Lands Trust Act was passed to create a statutory body to hold in trust the titles of existing Aboriginal Reserves. The Aboriginal Lands Trust (ALT) now holds over half a million square kilometres of property in South Australia, consisting of former Aboriginal Reserves and properties transferred by the Government of South Australia or acquired through donation or purchase. The ALT is able to lease these properties back to Aboriginal communities for 99 year, renewable leases. The ALT is also able to sell or mortgage Trust land but this requires the consent of both Houses of Parliament.

The ALT works with a range of state and local governments, energy providers and other leased land holders on various projects and developments. They can negotiate with proponents to develop Indigenous Land Use Agreements, which set out the terms on which exploration and development of the land will be conducted. This enables traditional owners to have a say in the way that their land is used and helps protect their cultural heritage.

The ALT is also able to manage the impact of exploration, mining and development on heritage sites across South Australia by developing a local heritage agreement with the proponent. This provides a single agreement that all explorers will be required to sign up to and reduces the need for individual agreements between proponents and a variety of different traditional owner groups.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission

Many Aboriginal people still have a strong connection with the land, spending significant amounts of time on ritual business, caring for children and looking after their family and community. This is a vital part of Aboriginal life and must be preserved, particularly given the archaeologically rich areas that are found in South Australia. These sites have the potential to provide invaluable information about life in the past and are essential for a more accurate picture of Aboriginal history in Australia.

While much progress has been made in the area of rights to land, there is more to be done. Many Aboriginal groups are still not fully representative of their communities and their interests, with only a small percentage of people on the government’s censuses being Indigenous. This lack of representation is one of the main reasons why it is so important to ensure that the voices of Aboriginal people are heard at all levels of government.

Despite this, it is important to remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not see themselves as owners of the land, animals or plants that they are connected with – they belong with them as equal parts of creation. This is an idea that has been passed on through a generation and is celebrated in the art, song and dance of their cultures. The fact that a group has the right to live in an area does not mean they own it; it means that they have the responsibility to care for it.

In the past half century, Aboriginal people have had increasing contact with non-Aboriginal Australians. This has meant that they have had to adapt their ways of living and cope with the effects of change that this contact has brought. These changes have included increased access to money and material goods.

Having the right to own land is one way that Aboriginal people are able to deal with this change. However, this is not the only way that they are able to control their own futures. There are three pieces of legislation that allow them to have some level of control over their own affairs. These are the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981, the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 and the Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966.