Aborigines reclaim ownership of tribal homeland

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The Independent Online

The Githabul, an Aboriginal tribe, call the rainforest a "supermarket", full of their traditional foods, such as turtles and spiny ant-eaters known as echidnas. But when they hunt these native creatures, they risk being prosecuted and fined.

Not for much longer. The Githabul are about to sign an agreement with the New South Wales government recognising their historic ownership of a large parcel of the state, and giving them joint control over 19 national parks and state forests.

The area covers more than 6,000 sq km in northern New South Wales, and includes World Heritage-listed national parks with some of Australia's most picturesque scenery, as well as rugged mountain peaks said to be home to powerful ancestral spirits.

The deal, biggest of its kind struck in New South Wales, will create jobs for the 250 members of the Githabul tribe, and give them the right to traditional activities in the forests, including hunting protected native animals.

Aborigines have fought to reclaim their ancestral lands since 1992, when a landmark court decision rejected the doctrine of terra nullius, the idea that the continent was empty when the British arrived in 1788.

Last year, a court in Perth ruled that the Noongar people were the traditional owners of the city and its surrounds, upholding a claim to a major urban area for the first time. The state and federal governments say it could restrict the public's access to parks and riverbanks and are appealing against the decision.

Native title does not give Aborigines exclusive ownership, but recognises their right to shared access. It means they can look after sacred sites and care for the land, as well as using it to hunt and fish and camp.

Trevor Close, who led the Githabul claim, told The Australian that it was lodged because "our boys were sick of being pulled up for doing what they had always done". He said: "We are all people of the rainforest. It is a supermarket of food."

The agreement, to be signed next month, also opens up the prospect of jobs - in forestry, tourism, and land management - for people suffering from poverty and high unemployment.

Tony Fleming, director of the state department of environment and conservation, said Aborigines would have "much greater involvement" in the management of the land. "I think for a lot of our visitors to national parks, it adds a huge dimension to their experience," he said.

"They'll get access to the knowledge of the Githabul people, the interpretation of this part of the state from an Aboriginal perspective, and we as land managers learn a lot from Aboriginal people about how to look after these sorts of places."

The area adjoins southern Queensland, and Githa-bul elders hope to sign a similar agreement with the state government, giving them access to land on the other side of the border.

Warren Mundine, chief executive of a group that funded the New South Wales claim, described the deal as "a watershed for the Githabul people"adding: "The pride of that community is going to change."

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