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GRASSROOTS INPUT TO ENVIRONMENTAL DEBATES

NATIVE TITLE, KACHANA AND THE WANJINA CLAIM

By way of introduction I would like to outline the picture I see... (Please ignore any cynicism you may detect; after over twenty years in this country, my experience is that cynicism can help overcome despair.)

I see two test cases that will end up setting the stage for domestic (national) events down the track for as long as the circus continues. Both these cases will have little immediate impact on Mr. Average and Mrs. Citizen regardless of the outcome (unless of course they live up here).

There will however be some publicity.

The Miriuwung Gajerrong case: a "bundle of rights" in an area where we have settlement and commerce is in full swing..... The Wanjina... case: In effect a major land grab on country that the community in general perceives to be valueless of which already a lot has been handed over to minority interest groups...

The official setting is perfect for compromise and official reconciliation..... and mediation.

Who is really aware of what is actually being compromised?

Who cares what is actually going to be compromised?

I was able to show Mr Court and Mr MacKinnon on the ground and from the air two things:

  1. The reason that this part of the country is not actively contributing to any industry is because it is suffering managerial neglect. (The biological foundations on which primary production rest, are simply no longer there.) Momentarily it is not financially feasible for a single private operator to do anything with this country. It is not because the country is "useless". Some of the model area I showed Mr Court and Mr MacKinnon gives a fair indication of what this country is capable of when managed.
  2. A continuing deteriorating upper-catchment health in the region will have an escalating influence on existing "intensive land use projects" as well as future projects downstream (eg the Fitzroy catchment. We flew along some of it's northern watershed.) Given the seasonal variation we experience: Whoever controls or impacts the management of these watersheds, in effect controls the destiny of those downstream.

(As the water retention capabilities of our landscapes are being reduced we invariably experience a rising rate of flooding per rainfall-quantity involved [even before the ground is saturated]. This phenomenon was very evident a few weeks ago when we had flooding in the Ord and Dunham catchments without even a hint of a wet season. A further feature of the same phenomenon is, that once the country is saturated, there is less and less vegetation to slow down run-off. This increases flood damage per volume of water involved. So we get an increase in costs [ecologically, socially and financially] to repair and to prepare for the next one, as our bureaucracies behave much like armies that spend taxpayer funds to get ready to fight a war like the one that has just been fought..... This is not rocket-science or hardly even [rangeland-] science for that matter.... simply what used to be recognised as “common sense”.)

With focus on the Wanjina claim, herewith some perspectives of immediate interest groups that come to mind as I view the local scenario .....

The mess that I see unfolding unless we get a change of direction soon is:

As outlined at the meeting at Mt. Elisabeth 06.11.2000 there are a number of reasons why we do not believe this claim (WAG 6015/99) to be "bona fide".

  1. On anthropological as well as on cultural grounds: Any boundary that runs in a straight line is an artifact of a mind that has no connection with how nature functions. - Given today's level of technology there is no excuse for not being able to accurately transfer "knowledge" emanating from oral traditions on to topographical maps. (At least for the land manager who ends up dealing with the "on the ground" ramifications of such court-room decisions.)
  2. Within, as well as outside the boundaries of the claimed area we have country in this region that is being managed by aboriginal interest groups. Nowhere yet in this region, has it been demonstrated that modern aboriginal management is capable of stemming the current wave of erosion of biodiversity (that was unleashed by the advent of more recent human arrivals to this continent and the consequent termination of existing human [aboriginal] management). - What "right" do minority groups have to claim privileges on a deteriorating resource base without a proven capability to at least maintain such potential for themselves and for future generations? - From an ecological perspective: In a country where natural processes and the productive capabilities of the landscape were a function of human (aboriginal) management, the termination of such management (nobody assuming the management responsibility) could arguably be the reason for extinguishment of "Native Title" (if such a thing actually exists outside the modern human mind).
  3. The lack of recognition of the ecological "status quo" by claimants and by the politically correct powers that support this whole trend is the only area where I see any "innocence" or resemblance to a "bona fide" attitude. - No judge, barrister, lawyer, do-gooder or consultant in their right mind would put their name to having been instrumental in causing the misery in Mozambique this year (as partly viewed on Australian TV screens earlier this year..), yet there are some individuals still alive who hold their share of the blame... - With a moderate level of environmental literacy (the capability of "reading" an environment from an ecological perspective) such people, if they were to analyse at the grass roots level what was happening would realise that a similar ecological nightmare is looming within many of the areas under claim. - The claim going ahead with the current ecological back-drop indicates at least two things to me. Genuine caring aboriginals are oblivious to what is really happening and thus their "ties to the land" are very dubious. The parasites hanging off the public purse are either oblivious to the fact that they are killing the host, or they do not believe that, they may some day be called to public accountability. - Viewing historic or current fences, roads and other infrastructure placements as "improvements" capable of extinguishing "native title", when they have already, or currently can be said to be contributing to environmental degradation, is opening a further "Pandora's box".
  4. Are there any legal precedents that exist on this planet, where a civilised society has officially tolerated a minority to claim privileges at the expense of their own progeny? We have biological proof that this is the case in areas under claim; this is the evidence I believe we need to examine.
  5. We on Kachana have only been here for fifteen years. Other than people conducting mineral exploration, the two (white) people who walked in and those engaged in, or associated with our operation, we have never sighted a person on our lease or on the surrounding areas that we are acquainted with. We do not know any of the claimants. From talking to neighbours and others affected by the claim, there is indication that many of the claimants may be suspect.
  6. According to experts there has been no recent activity at art sites. This could indicate a lack of knowledge or lack of interest in cultural facets of aboriginality by younger members of the claimant group. - In fact there appears to be serious degradation of many art sites due to the wild-fire component which has increased significantly in recent years.
  7. Lastly our attempt to communicate directly with the claimants or representatives of the claimants was not successful to date. Given the local knowledge we have, one may be forgiven for assuming that the genuine "black fella" who is or was a part of this beautiful land, is just the "meat in a sandwich" prepared by ill-informed do-gooders and money hungry parasites hanging off the public purse, and that "representation of the interests" of "bona fide claimants" is just once more a non-event in this region.

If "native title" does exist, one must assume that it would have something to do with having maintained ties to the land. This would imply a reasonable level of practical knowledge of the areas in question. For us to believe that there is a genuine case for mediation in this particular claim for a "bundle of rights", we would need to see a genuine concern by the claimant group to address the serious land degradation problems we have. Retrospectively contributing to some of the costs we have incurred to alleviate the effects of wild-fire would be a start. (With the help of the aerial burning-program we are impacting well over 6000 sq. km. with our current fire strategy, most of which is of no immediate benefit to us.) Furthermore we would need to be satisfied with tabled evidence indicating:

  1. Oral accounts of species distribution, linked with accounts of their prevalence and location. This would need to tie in with biological evidence in the areas that we are acquainted with..
  2. Accounts of management techniques employed in these areas. This would once again need to be referenced with what has happened and still is happening on the ground.
  3. A knowledge of what the sustenance was in these areas and a demonstration by younger claimants (15 to 55) of their capability to sustainably harvest such sustenance.
  4. Accounts of movement of humans: How many, time of season, who...
  5. Knowledge of sites
  6. Knowledge of maintenance of sites.
  7. Anecdotal evidence linking events to weather patterns and dates.
  8. DNA confirmation of genetic ties to persons buried in these areas.

I see the stance of the PGA to represent the pastoral sector in this matter as an opportunity that should be made the most of and encourage everybody to at least help with a coordinated strategy.

If the wish prevails to proceed within the current legal paradigm of "acceptance of such a thing as NATIVE TITLE", I believe that the ecological perspective and the gathering of evidence in the form of the biological monitoring (from soil biota through to flora and fauna at the higher end of the food chain) does give us a very sound "technical legal issue that has not yet been raised".

The ramifications of resolving the dispute within ecologically sound guidelines alone, would however not be of any long-term benefit to the region or the nation. At best it would simply cater for the welfare of individuals and businesses that now stand in limbo leaving a legal mine-field for those who follow. A "happy family stand-off" does not change the fact that the resources we all depend on are eroding at an accelerating rate.

If any determination were to be made that falls within the current legal paradigm, the PGA needs to require that judges, barristers, lawyers, other legal advisers and other persons who were influential in the case be made aware of their duty as citizens of Australia to take responsibility for any negative ecological (thus social) outcomes that arise directly as a result of any negligent analysis of the current ecological context.

In Conclusion, however I see this point in time as a unique opportunity for land-managers (of all colours and creeds) in the region to cooperate and with the help of the PGA and the legal guidance of Jackson McDonald to diffuse this whole legal mess by focusing beyond the issues in dispute and creating awareness of the real issue, ie the need to secure, then enhance the health of our landscapes, so they can offer a "bundle of rights" to not only a select minority for a limited time, but that they may locally sustain healthy vibrant human communities.

If the PGA were to encourage the pursuit of a solution which takes in account the long term health of individuals, businesses, communities as well as the landscapes on whose health we all depend, I believe it would serve our nation and its membership base better than by merely acting as a mediator in a politically correct legal conclusion based on current evidence and precedents. I personally know enough land managers (not only white pastoralists) in this region who are capable and would be willing to give it a go, were they given community support.

An academical decision upholding the demands made by a racially based minority or a court-room ruling stating the compatibility of "native title" and "pastoral lease" (as appear to be some of the possible short-term conclusions to this issue) could be viewed as MABO STAGE II, the ramifications of which (as with the floods in Mozambique) may only come to public light a generation or so later.

In the immediate interest of the people who live here by choice or by design and in the long term interest of those yet to come, I hope that the implications of what I have attempted to outline will be explored. I am aware that every time one more precedent leads us in a direction that is not beneficial in the long term, the choice is made harder for those who have influence to expose themselves.

It is for this reason that I believe it to be important that we act immediately on the collecting of biological evidence. Before the wet, during the wet and after the wet.

Chris Henggeler 13.11.2000