FoEA Indigenous Land and Rights Policy

Background

Friends of the Earth (FoE) Australia is a federation of independent groups operating in most of Australia. FoE is an environmental organisation that understands that social issues are inseparable from environmental considerations. FoE is actively working for both an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable future. It is the Australian member of FoE International, a global federation with member groups in 73 countries.

Basic understandings of FoEA include: - recognition that Australia was forcibly occupied by European colonisers and that pre-existing sovereignty of Indigenous people has not been relinquished by Indigenous people. Correspondingly, the organisation continues to recognise this sovereignty irregardless of whether Australian common law deems that this is the case or not.

The basic understanding is therefore that all of Australia remains ‘Aboriginal land’. At the very least, it is necessary to recognise the co-existence of indigenous legal systems and the mainstream legal system.

FoEA does not recognise or agree with the assertions of common/international law which maintains that ‘Title’ has or may have been extinguished throughout much of the Australian continent. Correspondingly, it commits to work to recognise ongoing sovereignty where Indigenous people assert that sovereignty, regardless of location. 

- In practical terms, given that many Acts of state and commonwealth governments provide certain rights to Indigenous people, FoEA supports these Acts- including the Native Title Act 1993, the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, etc. Attempts to modify these Acts that are done in order to undermine Indigenous interests rather than increase them must therefore be opposed. Any laws made that affect Indigenous people should clearly be made for the benefit of Indigenous people.

This does not imply that ‘Native Title’ (which is like other property rights such as freehold/ leasehold/ mining licenses etc in the sense that it is sourced from common law and the Crown still asserts underlying sovereignty) is the most equitable manner of recognising pre-existing sovereignty. Native Title is, at best, an opportunity to gain certain rights, but should not be considered the best possible option for Indigenous people.

Recognition of the fact that all of Australia remains Indigenous land, where it can be said to be owned by identifiable groups of Indigenous people, has considerable implications for a non-Indigenous organisation, for the conclusion drawn must be that the organisation exists on land taken by force without any form of compensation or semblance of justice. Coming to terms with the nature of this displacement through negotiation with local traditional Aboriginal owners becomes a fundamental requirement of all non-Indigenous people rather than simply a consideration regarding how land and marine ecosystems (and in particular, the conservation estate) should be managed.

Alliances

FoEA believes that it is necessary to understand that ‘environmentalism’ has been responsible for ongoing dispossession of Indigenous people, throughout the world, and to actively work in a manner that seeks to break this pattern.

Clearly there is the need for some form of ‘reconciliation’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this country. There are no clear directions for achieving this ‘reconciliation’, and certainly no generic model that will work everywhere in Australia. However, solutions will include the need for non-Indigenous people to listen to Aboriginal and Islander people, to actively support struggles to maintain or re-assert self-determination, and maintain long term commitment that sees support for the aspirations of Indigenous people as being fundamental to any of the usual questions and issues confronting us as environmentalists.
Pay the Rent schemes and negotiating treaties with the relevant Elders in Council are two practical grassroots options.

FoEA sees that there are 3 key issues to consider in its work with Indigenous people, and that they operate in a hierarchy of importance:

  1. human rights/ social justice considerations
  2. recognition of Indigenous connection to their lands and seas
  3. Indigenous expertise in land and sea management.

 Point 3 acts as the motivating force for much of the environment movements alliances with Indigenous people. Understanding that human rights are the primary consideration means that FoE seeks to develop alliances with Indigenous people not simply to gain environmental outcomes from that alliance. Fundamental to this is the commitment not to undermine Indigenous peoples decision making structures or ventures simply to gain environmental outcomes.

Key issues relating to the interface between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous environmentalists (for example, development on Aboriginal lands, hunting, fishing and gathering rights, consultation regarding conservation and land management, funding, employment and development issues, education and training) are left to the discretion of the relevant local FoE groups working directly with Indigenous people and organisations. However, FoEA seeks to work with both appropriate ‘peak’ and representative Indigenous bodies (such as the National Indigenous Working Group on Native Title and Land Councils) and local community organisations. Fundamental to this desire to work in alliances with Indigenous organisations is the acknowledgment of ongoing Indigenous connection to land and marine ecosystems, and the value of Indigenous perspectives on environmental management. A fundamental role of the environment movement in these alliances should be the provision, where requested, of political support, information and resources to Indigenous communities.

It is a fundamental right of Indigenous people to control their intellectual and cultural property according to their laws and to control any earnings derived from it.

Any attempt at moving towards ‘reconciliation’ must include acknowledgment that the invaders have been the aggressors and that the impact of European invasion has lead to terrible suffering and damage to culture, lands, seas and people.

adopted at the national meeting, Camp Mallon, SE Qld, June 1998
 

A note on ‘Wilderness’

FoE Australia understands that there is no such thing as ‘wilderness’ in Australia. The natural landscapes of the continent are effectively cultural landscapes that have been formed over thousands of years through the interplay between natural processes and human management regimes. FoEA therefore does not endorse the use of the term ‘wilderness’.

The term ‘wilderness’ implies ‘empty’ or ‘unmodified’ land and hence effectively removes Indigenous people from ecological history.  FoEA acknowledges that the environment movement has been complicit in the dispossession of Indigenous people on a number significant occasions in Australia and accordingly recognises the necessity of working in solidarity with Indigenous peoples to ensure this never happens again. Fundamental to this is the need to cease using any terms which fail to recognise  connection to country.