Are land claims and purchases the only ways to
address Aboriginal land needs? David Epworth puts forward
some alternative approaches that are equally relevant for
non-Aboriginal people struggling with viability in the tropical
All Aboriginal peoples want access to their traditional lands.
In most cases these needs will not be addressed through the claims
processes and the only option will be to buy some of it back.
Although some money is available through the Indigenous Land
Corporation there will not be enough to attend to the needs of all
One way around the problem may be not to buy land outright, but
rather acquire a subset of the rights to that land. Cost of full
ownership primarily reflects the land's economic value and provides
a very large bundle of rights and responsibilities, well beyond
those needed for a principal economic activity.
It may be possible to acquire a significant subset of these
rights, those which are not of direct economic benefit to the
landholder, at relatively little cost. This approach to acquisition
of rights in land may be appropriate where: The cost of significant
areas of land is prohibitive. For example, in extensive grazing
regions holdings are large. Although the cost on an area basis may
be low, the total cost of acquisition is high.
Significant land is unavailable on the open market. In the more
intensive areas, such as the cropping and irrigation regions or
close to towns, land values are high for small parcels. In these
areas limited budgets may restrict acquisitions to one or two small
parcels that would not satisfy the needs of a particular group. In
these areas Aboriginal peoples' economic development needs may not
be best addressed through land-based production enterprises.
Full acquisition is inappropriate. Commercial interests in land
may be low in the hierarchy of rights which traditional owner
groups wish to re-establish. Or, if given the options of full
rights over a relatively small area or the majority of rights over
large areas but excluding existing commercial uses, groups may
elect to pursue the second option.
How shared land rights might work
The acquisition of a subset of rights may take many forms. For
example, it may be possible to acquire the rights over a particular
parcel of land to traverse, fish, hunt, camp, erect dwellings,
manage land, operate non-competitive enterprises, etc. This is a
commercial version of the access agreements that are emerging
Alternatively, Aboriginal groups could acquire the existing
title to land and then license other people to carry out particular
activities, such as grazing or operating tourism ventures.
Aboriginal people become the lessor rather than the state.
In some situations an indigenous organisation (such as the
Indigenous Land Corporation) may become the landholder and grant
two or more sets of rights, one to traditional land owners and the
others to producers for commercial operations.
One of the prerequisites for shared land rights being put into
practice is that producers conceptually separate their involvement
into three areas: operating an enterprise; owning real estate; and
enjoying a particular lifestyle. The real estate component of their
investment normally requires the greatest capital investment and
returns very little to the overall operation. There are an
increasing number of producers who under-stand that they can
continue to pursue the other two components of their operation,
their enterprise and their lifestyle, without the large investment
in land ownership.
It is apparent from the activities of groups such as Rural
Landholders for Co-existence and discussions with pastoralists that
there are landholders willing to enter into such arrangements.
Large pastoral companies are leading the move to diminish the
investment in real estate in order to maximise their productive
capacity and improve the return on capital employed. There are
already Aboriginal groups who currently hold land negotiating
license arrangements with producers to bring their country back
into production and to return a profit to their people without the
pressures of operating a commercial enterprise themselves.
Of course, these strategies would not apply where the existing
title to land does not confer exclusive possession to the
title-holder (where the desired rights are held by the State) such
as under some pastoral leases. In these cases the Native Title Act
and state regimes as well as political processes will continue to
be the best avenues for Aboriginal people to address their land
David Epworth is a consultant who has worked with Indigenous
groups in Cape York for the past six years. He is a member of the
CRC's Savanna Advisory Group.