How Native Land Disputes Can Be Win-Win for All Court Endorses Big Aborigine Claims. but One Tribe Find an Alternative

By Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

How Native Land Disputes Can Be Win-Win for All Court Endorses Big Aborigine Claims. but One Tribe Find an Alternative


Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For thousands of years, Rossy Fejofirth's ancestors hunted kangaroos, fished for barramundi, and watched the night skies from these hills. Now, Mr. Fejofirth, lean and dusty, is working with surveyors and dynamite crews who are gouging mineral-laden ore at the Pegasus Gold mine, one of the largest in Australia.

Fejofirth is a member of the Jawoyn tribe, the original inhabitants of the Katherine region known for its gorges and crocodiles. The Jawoyn, through an association, are joint-venture partners in the development of the mine. They require that Pegasus, based in Spokane, Wash., hire indigenous people and offer training for youths. In the future, the tribe will collect 10 percent of the revenues (and pay 10 percent of the costs) of mining gold-bearing rock near the current operations.

Such joint ventures between Aboriginal tribes and mining companies, although rare, are on the rise. In the Northern Territory, an area the size of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas combined, Aboriginal people own 40 percent of the land. The Jawoyn - a group of about 600 people - claim lands with an area the size of West Virginia. "Since the Jawoyn {joint venture}, a lot more Aboriginal groups are looking at joint ventures," says Grant Watt, president of the Northern Territory Minerals Council in Darwin. Aboriginal land ownership may become much larger. In a recent decision, the Australian Supreme Court ruled that native title can coexist with pastoralist (ranching) and mining leases. On April 16, Prime Minister John Howard said that 78 percent of Australia is potentially open to native title claims. The National Farmers Federation, a powerful interest group, pressed for legislation that would eliminate any native claims. Instead, in early May, Mr. Howard submitted a 10-point plan that attempts to make it harder for Aborigines to make claims, especially in cities and towns. The plan also would make it more difficult to challenge mining and ranching activity. In return, both the state and federal governments would pay compensation to Aboriginal titleholders. The plan must now be approved by Parliament. Aboriginal leaders say they will fight it in court. While the government and indigenous leaders are ready to thrash it out, Robert Lee, the chairman of the Jawoyn Association, says the experiences of his tribe may be a useful model. "Instead of getting frightened about native title - like we used to be here in Katherine about land rights - maybe they should be thinking about ways to get it to work for everyone's benefit," he says. The Jawoyn tribe, which represents 7 percent of the region's population, started the process about 15 years ago when it decided to strive for economic independence. By 1985, the tribe had established an association. Four years later, it argued that Katherine Gorge (called Nitmiluk by the Jawoyn) should be returned to the tribe. The gorge is a mini-Grand Canyon etched out by the swift Katherine River. The Northern Territory government agreed with the tribe, and the Jawoyn then leased the land back to be used as a park "to be shared by all Australians." One person sharing that park with visitors is Alfred King, a tour guide. "I enjoy being with people I haven't met before," says Mr. King, whose mother is a Jawoyn. Mr. King and the other tour guides give visitors a taste of traditional Jawoyn stories about the region. "They say the gorge is created by the rainbow serpent so he would have a place to rest, deep among the rocks," King says. King takes visitors to see Aboriginal artwork etched into the rocks along the water. There are little "Mimi spirits," stick figures that Aborigines say live in the cracks, as well as carvings of turtles and wallabies, small marsupials related kangaroos. Jesse Brown, another Jawoyn who works as park ranger, takes visitors on "bush tucker" tours that include explaining which natural fruits, roots, and insects are edible. …

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