Aborignal tribes have secured native title rights over a vast tract of sea north of Australia after a nine-year legal battle. It is the largest native title sea claim in the country’s history — covering 40,000km² — and formally recognizes the Torres Strait islanders’ spiritual ties to the sea.
The Torres Strait sits between Australia’s northern tip of Cape York and Papua New Guinea and consists of more than 250 islands, most of which are recognized as part of the Australian state of Queensland.
The ruling means that while ships, commercial fishermen and other businesses will still be able to operate in the strait, any future development on the islands can only go ahead after consultation with indigenous groups.
There were jubilant scenes after the judgment, with islanders bursting into song in the courtroom in Cairns, Queensland, and performing a traditional dance outside.
Sharon Phineasa, whose late grandfather Phillip Bigie was one of the original parties to the claim, first lodged in court in 2001, said she was proud to see his dream realized.
“It is sad that a lot of the original elders have passed on, but I’m so proud to represent them here today,” she told Australian Associated Press (AAP) outside the court.
Robert Blowes, lawyer for the Torres Strait regional authority, said the ruling was historic.
“There are some native title claims over sea areas, but they mostly cover areas just offshore and in and around islands, whereas this is a large expanse of sea,” he told ABC news.
Blowes said the ruling reflected the islanders’ maritime culture, recognized their traditional ties to the sea and guaranteed them access to its resources.
Seaman Dan, an indigenous songwriter from the Torres Strait, said the decision was “a step in the right direction.”
“We’ve been there for a long time, we live by the sea and it is an important part of our lives,” he told AAP.
Native title rights were established for Aborigines in 1992 when the high court ruled that the British claim in 1788 that Australia was a terra nullius, or “land belonging to no one,” when it was discovered was wrong, and that a form of native title should be recognized.
An essential element of the historic title claim, known as Mabo, was proof that the claimants had maintained connections with their land and carried out traditional practices on it since the European invasion.
Since then, mining companies and other industries have often had to negotiate with tribes for the right to work on some land.
At the same time the Torres Strait ruling was made on Friday, the Australian government released a discussion paper on changing the Native Title Act.
It suggests much stricter rules to oversee native title payments from mining companies to Aboriginal communities to ensure they are not squandered.
However, indigenous leaders and native title experts have criticized the plans as paternalistic and racist.
“I do have concerns about another layer of bureaucracy, another layer of expenditure which is going into bureaucracy that should be going to indigenous people,” said Warren Mundine, chief executive officer of New South Wales Native Title Service Corp.
“And I do have concerns in governments micromanaging indigenous people,” he said.
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