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Issue #1603      July 24, 2013

Fight to win land rights

In August 1963, the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land sent two bark petitions – framed by traditional ochre paintings of clan designs – to the House of Representatives. The petitions called on federal Parliament to reconsider its decision to excise 300 square kilometres of Arnhem Land for bauxite mining and to grant mining rights on the land. They also sought recognition of the Yolngu peoples’ traditional rights and ownership of their lands.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with Yirrkala indigenous leaders.

The 50th anniversary of this historic event was the main theme of this year’s NAIDOC* celebrations. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd travelled north to join the 50th anniversary celebrations at Yirrkala.

“Friends, we know that the hopes the signatories had of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions were not realised,” Rudd told those gathered. “The excision of land was upheld. The bauxite mine went ahead. A subsequent court challenge to secure land rights failed.”

Since then there have been a number of historic milestones, including the 1967 Referendum with the promise of full and equal citizenship, the Mabo Decision refuting the concept of terra nullius, the official Apology and now plans for a referendum for Constitutional recognition of the First Australians.

Rudd referred to the group of courageous elders who spoke up for their people and against injustice. “Who asserted title to their own lands. And set out their claim in images of great power and symbolism.

“Fifty years on, some of those elders are here today … . Respected leaders of their people. Welcoming us onto their lands today. Secure in the knowledge that the rights they asserted all those years ago are now recognised in the law of their country and the laws of this nation”, said Rudd.

“And their rights translating now into concrete outcomes for their people. Since the signing of the Gove Mining Agreement with Rio Tinto in 2011 the traditional owners have a stake and a say in the bauxite mine on their land,” claimed Rudd.

Gumatj clan leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu, one of the signatories of the Bark Petition, also spoke at the celebrations.

“I would like to say one thing to the Prime Minister: this land rights here is empty, it’s full of everything but it’s full of nothing.”

Yunupingu said the local Yolngu tribes wanted companies to stop mining land around Nhulunbuy, to “please go away”, as requested in the original petition.

There have been changes since then. “The land rights is for the Aboriginal people, but the land ownership and use of the land ownership is not for Aboriginal people – it’s for mining companies and for whitefellas,” he said. “What will there be for us to look forward to?

“It’s the economic development, the work, the money that comes into the hands of Aboriginal people through their own country ... we want to develop our own land.”

Yunupingu called on the Yolngu clans to unite in the spirit of the panels and fight to “win the land rights yet again”, but this time for economic development.

* NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). NAIDOC week, the first full week of July is a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and an opportunity to recognise the contributions of Indigenous Australians in various fields.   

Next article – Sixty years since the spark of the Cuban Revolution

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