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Issue #1651      August 13, 2014

Yolngu in warning on leases

NT: The Yolngu Nations Assembly (YNA) has added its voice to the growing swell urging caution when it comes to considering entering into 99-year township leases with the federal government. In October last year, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion announced that Gunbalanya traditional owners (TOs) from west Arnhem Land had agreed to work towards finalising a 99-year lease by June 30.

Senator Scullion said at the time that he and TOs “agreed that a township lease was the most effective way to achieve economic and commercial development in Gunbalanya”.

However, during Senator Scullion’s visit to Gunbalanya last month – when he’d been hoping TO would sign the lease – the owners asked for more time to consider their options.

The YNA is an extension of the Madayin (Yolngu law) system of governance representing eight provinces from west, central and north-west Arnhem Land (Miwatj, Laynha, Raminy, Marthakal, Garriny Gumurr-Rawarran, Gattjirrik and Midiyirrk).

YNA spokesperson Mark Guyula talked with residents at Gunbalanya about their experiences with 99-year lease negotiations. “The traditional owners didn’t make an agreement,” he said. “They agreed to negotiate, but didn’t agree anything about the 99-year lease.

“When Yolngu say ‘yes, we understand’ that doesn’t mean ‘yes, we can go ahead’. The senior Elders (at Gunbalanya) are saying, ‘Let us consider it more. Give us a bit of time to think about these things.’

“We come from a law where we consult about issues within the traditional law, and we are used to that. Only when we come to an agreement does the project proceed. Unfortunately, the 99-year lease has been a bit of a rush and has hit us unexpectedly.

“The government is promising that there’ll be these good things coming out of the 99-year lease or any lease that we are asked to sign up. When the government comes, they should not talk only about the good things, but also the negative. The last thing we want is to lose our identity, our culture and our land.

“There’s also the rest of the community living here. Where are their rights? They’ve been brought in from their clan estates into a hub community. And they’ve been forgotten about. They have no say whatsoever in this community, which they would have back home on their country. We, at the Yolngu Nations Assembly, want to sit with people, negotiate and explain things. Sometimes there are non-government people who want to help our people understand.

“Of course we want to make businesses, of course we want to run businesses and make corporations, but we will do it when we are ready, and we will do it with help and work together.”

The Northern and Central land councils have been at odds with Senator Scullion over 99-year leases. The councils are concerned about federal government plans to permanently devolve their powers to small Aboriginal corporations, which they say might not be democratic or accountable to TOs.

The land councils want the authority over any leases to remain with TOs.

Concerns about 99-year leases have also been raised by prominent Aboriginal leaders, including Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and the Rev Djiniyini Gondarra. Guyala cautioned other Aboriginal communities not to rush in to 99-year leases.

“Don’t forget your land, history, identity and culture on this land,” he said. “Once you say yes to 99-year lease, you’re gone, finished. That is history for your land, your children.”

Koori Mail

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