As a descendent of one of the first land rights activists in this country, the struggle for land rights from a historical and legal perspective has always interested me and been something I lend my voice and expertise to whenever possible.
The case of the Anangu people and Uluru is one such that is unique in the sense that the loss of land occurred long after the eastern nations lost theirs and the site itself became not just a location that the colonists who were seeking to extrapolate wealth through mining, but the unique land mass created a tourism opportunity that is second to none in this country. The battle for land rights in this location may have been comparatively short, but the long term effects of the loss of country are still reverberating in the remote communities today over 30 years after receiving their rights to their traditional lands.
Today, 32 years ago the traditional owners of the Uluru, the Anangu people, were handed back their land. 26th October marks a date that has not only allowed the reclamation of cultural sites, ceremony and customs to the Anangu people, but has also allowed for the development of a tourism based economy in the region.
Until the 1940s very few Piranpa (white people) visited this remote location of Australia apart from prospectors, missionaries and Native Welfare patrol officers. The first missionaries in the Northern Territory were members of the Lutheran Church in Germany who came to Central Australia and established several settlements between the 1878 and the mid-1900s. By 1928 there were seven missions in the Northern Territory.
In 1940 the size of the Aboriginal missions were reduced in size to allow for mineral prospecting which was common place during this period of time.
In 1948 a dirt track to the rock was created and tours commenced around what was then called ‘Ayers Rock’. By 1950 both miners and tourists were making regular treks to the area.
On the back of this tourism potential, the Commonwealth was convinced to remove Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the Reserve and name it a Park in 1956 under Territory legislation.
In 1971 meetings were held in Ernabella by the Office of Aboriginal Affairs where traditional owners for Uluru expressed their concerns about pastoralism, mining, desecration of sites and tourism pressures on their land. Concerns were ignored at the time and the Commonwealth Government pushed ahead with categorising the site as a National Park which meant the site was owned and supervised by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (now Parks Australia), who in turn paid the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory to employ rangers to manage the Park.
The Anangu people maintained their fight for their land and they saw their opening in 1976 with the Land Rights Act NT and set about organising to make a claim which was ultimately submitted in 1979.
The Anangu people maintained their fight for their land and they saw their opening in 1976 with the Land Rights Act NT (1977) and set about organising to make a claim which was ultimately submitted in 1979. The Central Land Council at the time created controversy when they made known that the claim on behalf of the Anangu people over the lands encompassing Uluru and Kata Tjuta. The Northern Territory Government and tourism industry was awash with criticism of the Anangu people and the local media contained headlines such as “They want the Rock” and “NT anger on Ayers Rock gift to blacks".
The criticism did not douse the staunch pursuit of land rights by the Anangu people who were, ultimately successful in their claims over the land. In the ceremony held to transfer ‘custodianship’ of Uluru and neighbouring Kata Tjuta to the Anangu people, it was performed in the shadow of the immense rock and is considered to be one of the most significant moments in the Aboriginal land-rights movement. Not without conditions, the handback was under the terms of the ‘handover agreement,’ which saw the Anangu people lease Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years, ensuring the public's ongoing access, as well as continued funds to the local community.
"... the Government who, like all things with the Indigenous community of Australia, treated the handback as an act of symbolism rather than a real opportunity to lift the Anangu peoples from the poverty they were living in."
There was a lack of long term planning on behalf of the Government who, like all things with the Indigenous community of Australia, treated the handback as an act of symbolism rather than a real opportunity to lift the Anangu peoples from the poverty they were living in. The Government had access to and control of infrastructure that would allow the community to build and develop. The communities were led to believe it was a handback but it has become the status quo with tourists trampling sacred sites and the vast majority of the community living without the basic necessities we take for granted.
The inherent promise with the handback was that there was opportunity for the Anangu people and the understanding that things would improve, however, just over three decades later the community continues to live in third world conditions. A fact that was acknowledged by Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, at the 30th Anniversary Ceremony two years ago stating “the rock looks the same and sadly so does Mutijulu”.
In the Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu, at the base of Uluru, it is evident that not a lot of control over living conditions was afforded to Aboriginal communities with the handback and what little control remained in circumstances where money for infrastructure was not present was completely eroded with the Federal Government’s Intervention.
The Howard administration overrode the Northern Territory and set aside sections of the Racial Discrimination Act to intervene directly into the lives of Indigenous people, commonly known as The Intervention.
With the Intervention, Indigenous people lost their control over the lands and leases with the Government taking control of permits and controlling movement in and around remote communities and townships. More police were deployed and curfews were imposed and there were bans on alcohol and restrictions on welfare payments.
There were soldiers were on hand to assist in logistics and implementation but their presence served mainly to remind the Indigenous communities who was in control and was a jarring reminder of colonisation.
The resilient community however, continue to look for ways to advance their community and provide hope for their youth and in March this year signed a historic town lease that will finally provide local control over decision-making, as well as millions in investment in housing and other services.
The Township leasing agreement means the local community will be responsible for managing their own affairs. Under the previous arrangement, the Commonwealth Director of National Park was responsible for the community, because it sits on Aboriginal land that is part of the Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park 99-year lease.
Among the benefits will be a $10 million investment in housing for the community delivered between the Northern Territory and federal Governments. Additionally, the federal government has also promised a $2 million in development funding to create a community and business hub in Mutitjulu with the intent to make the economy circular.
With the communities able to engage in economic enterprise and now finally being provided the infrastructure needed to develop the communities, we see the communities thriving.
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