Aborigines given ownership of Perth by judge

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The Independent Online

Aborigines have been declared the traditional owners of Perth and given the right to hunt and fish in the area, in the first successful claim by indigenous people to an Australian state capital.

The landmark ruling by the Federal Court astonished Aboriginal groups, with one community leader, Noel Pearson, welcoming the "absolutely extraordinary" decision. The judgment opens the way for similar claims over cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.

However, the state government of Western Australia said it would appeal, and it may be joined by the federal government. The Prime Minister, John Howard, said his initial reaction was "one of considerable concern".

The judge, Justice Murray Wilcox, granted the Nyoongar people "native title" over more than 6,000 sq km of land, including Perth and its surrounds. That means they can use it for traditional activities such as hunting, camping and fishing, as well as looking after sacred sites and generally caring for the land.

The judgment will not affect homes or businesses, as the Australian courts have ruled that native title does not apply to land owned on a freehold or long-lease basis. Mr Justice Wilcox cautioned that it was "neither the pot of gold for the indigenous claimants nor the disaster for the remainder of the community that is sometimes painted".

Native title claims in the past have prompted scare campaigns by mining and agricultural companies. But the judge said that his decision would have no impact on "people's backyards".

For native title, Aborigines must prove a continuing and unbroken link with the land that they owned until British colonists arrived. That was thought to be an almost impossible task in densely settled metropolitan areas.

In 2002 the High Court, which is superior to the federal courts, rejected a claim by the Yorta Yorta people over a heavily populated swath of south-eastern Australia. Mr Pearson said the latest ruling restored indigenous rights in relation to cities and southern regions.

Fred Chaney, the deputy chairman of the National Native Title Tribunal, said the Nyoongar people had been "subjected to pretty incredible interference and dislocation ... they've been shifted around, shunted around, their families have been broken up".

He added: "The extraordinary thing is that they've been able to demonstrate to the judge that there is still continuing Nyoongar law and culture, which is understood, which still binds them to the country, and which regulates their relationships. So it's an amazing example of cultural survival under extremely adverse circumstances."

One conservative politician in Western Australia warned of dire consequences, claiming that the public could be charged a fee to use parks and waterways. Alan Eggleston, a state Liberal senator, said: "This really could have quite profound and significant implications, and change our way of life."

Aboriginal Australian groups dismissed his claims as baseless "scaremongering". Glen Kelly, head of the South West Aboriginal Land Council, told ABC radio that the Nyoongar would seek a say in the management of parkland and state forests, but that "in general life will go on as it currently is".

Mr Justice Wilcox ruled that the Nyoongar are the traditional owners of the entire area to which they claim native title: 200,000 sq km of south-western Australia. But he has yet to decide whether to grant native title to land outside the Perth metropolitan district.

The state government said it would appeal as the judgment contradicted the High Court's Yorta Yorta ruling, which decided that native title had been "washed away by the tide of history".

Mr Howard said: "Many people will regard it as somewhat incongruous - there could still be some residual native title claim in a major settled metropolitan area."