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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People's Autonomy and Control

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 2535 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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As Altman and Markham write in ‘Burgeoning Indigenous Land Ownership’ (Native Title from Mabo to Akiba, 2015), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have some form of title to 2.5 million kilometres, or 33 per cent, of Australia’s land mass—including some 82 per cent of northern Australia—through land rights, native-title laws or other forms of acquisition. Do you think this gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities greater autonomy and control over the uses of their country and its resources? Discuss in relation to some current environmental conflicts.



After the European invasion, the percentage of Indigenous land ownership dropped to almost none, but with the implementation of laws and land rights, a large percentage of Australia’s land has been given back to the Indigenous people (Altman, & Markham, 2015). This essay will explore how time has changed how much control the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have over the resources and land they own and how environmental justice in politics has played a part in ensuring that they retain their Indigenous land history. Whilst not being a native Australian myself, I can only give my best interpretation and analysation of how much control they have over their land. Autonomy and control in this context can be defined as how a society can be more independent and have greater influence over the commodities within their land. To an extent, a large land ownership allows some control as Indigenous people can decide what to do with their resources and country without much influence from the government. However, this essay will argue that they do not have total control as the government, while trying to promote aboriginal history is also dampening their access to resources, like water, within their land. It can also be said that they do not have total control due to the government’s way of controlling resources in a more environmentally sustainable manner. In this essay, I will discuss current environmental conflicts in relation to native title rights and how the European invasion has changed land ownership over the years.

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The impact of the European invasion and Implementation of land rights and Native title Acts

Following the 1788 European invasion of Australia, native communities lost their land to the Europeans, especially in regions where resources were abundant. Barta (1987) summarised that land and food supplies were forcefully taken, and many people were killed. This did not come without resistance. Smith (2000) states that the Sturt Creek Basin in the Kimberley of Western Australia, which was not abundant in resources until a season of rain, had evidences of aboriginal resistance where tribes attacked early settlers, taken from historical drawings by invaders during the mapping of the basin. It is understandable that the Aboriginal people resisted colonisation as by taking over their land, the Europeans were taking away their livelihood and food security, making it harder for communities to thrive in the country.

Smith (2000) also states that the Europeans believed that their race was superior and showed a lack of environmental justice during colonisation and suppressed Indigenous groups. Laws and rights like the Native Title Act started in 1993 and the Aboriginal Land Rights act 1976 were implemented to ensure that Indigenous land ownership remains an integral part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Rowse (1993) summarised that these title rights allowed aboriginal people to claim some of their land back under traditional customs, giving them greater access to resources as well as giving them a sense of social and environmental justice. This is in relation to the changing environment and how the government wants to ensure that finite resources are being used in the most efficient manner.

The irrelevance of native-title laws, land rights and acquisition of land

Although rights have increased land ownership of Australia’s land mass, it does not mean that it increases autonomy and control over resources in the land. Chan (2019) reported that with the decrease in rainfall, there have been protests, especially in Albury-Wodonga, by indigenous farmers on the increased water prices and unequal allocation of water from their farmlands to bigger businesses, preventing water access to farmers. Water is a finite resource and must be used in a sustainable manner. The challenge for indigenous water rights have been ongoing ever since water and land rights have been decoupled years ago and there have been many conflicts in the distribution of water within Australia (Jackson, 2018).

With increasing environmental issues, the government must ensure that resources are being used in an efficient manner, even though it means that Indigenous farmers have less access to water while owning large areas of land. Jackson (2018) found that water laws have overlooked Indigenous cultural rights and this stems from the suppression of the Indigenous people during colonisation which led to unfair environmental justice. For farmers in Albury-Wodonga, their income comes from farming, and the decrease in water allocation would result in lower crop yields. Without a say in how much water access they have for farming, they may find it hard to secure the water they need for plantation and this strips them of their cultural identity and history. Jackson and Barber (2013) state that denying Indigenous people rights to water shows the negative side of water laws set by the government and even with water resource policies, the government needs to acknowledge and respect the cultural values of Indigenous people. 

As the government and Indigenous people have different views, there is a need to establish what is the appropriate amount of water allocation. With the less control of water within their land, an increase in land rights concludes that they do not have better control or autonomy over resources due to the government’s regulation of resource allocation. 

The benefits of Indigenous Land ownership

Title rights have given some benefits to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in terms of control and autonomy over land and resource use. Ross, Farrow-Smith and Herbert (2019) reported that the Bundjalung people at Byron Bay have been given their sea and land title claim, allowing them to have greater access to the ocean and are now legally allowed to fish. Most Indigenous people rely on their surrounding environment to sustain their livelihood. Giving the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people greater land ownership allows them to have greater access to the resources available. When these communities are given greater land ownership, they have greater decision making power over the uses of their country and resources and as seen by the Bundjalung people, and are able to live and do things the way they are culturally and historically used to, without having to face the suppression by the government or that left behind by colonisation.

Campbell and Hunt (2013) state that mining booms in Indigenous land has increased income earned by the Indigenous communities who own the land due to the native title act and land rights agreements which have allowed the communities to have greater control over resources and have a bigger say in how the resources are utilised. In my opinion, for Indigenous communities to have more power in decision making, it allows them to have greater control over their country, land and resources. For the Bundjalung people to have total access to their land and sea that they own, it allows them to retain their cultural identity. However, it is less common now as the government is trying to control most of the countries land to ensure sustainable developments of the environment.

The effects of environmental conflicts on Indigenous land ownership 

Rather than total control, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only have some control over their country and resources. Relating back to the environmental conflict of Indigenous land ownership water allocation, the government has increased water prices to lower water usage from the drying up Murray-Darling Basin managed by the Paakantji people, to a more sustainable way (Bloodworth, 2019). Because the government is controlling the price of water and redistributing water to bigger corporations who can utilise the water more efficiently, we can see that this causes the Indigenous people to lose control of the water. Water is essential to their everyday life as it has been part of their livelihood since before the European Invasion. By imposing high prices on water during this drought, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lose most of their control on their resources.

Ross, Grant, Robinson, Izurieta, Smyth and Rist (2009) discuss that with the changing environment and increase in global average temperatures, the government has implemented co-management methods to help sustain Indigenous land area and keep them well protected as part of conservation attempts. This enable the Indigenous groups to work with the government to decide how the resources and land are used. In the Kimberley, Aboriginal people are hired as rangers to help manage and kill the excessive growth of weeds as they have the cultural knowledge on how to manage the land which would aid in keeping the land environmentally sustainable as well as maintain their cultural identity and although the rangers have different views on managing invasive species, they understand that the government has better methods in ensuring the environment is kept healthy (Bach, Kull, & Rangan, 2019).

Whilst the Indigenous people do not have total control over the land and resources, they may not have the proper knowledge on how to deal with the changing environment. Co-management of the land and resources ensures that the land is kept sustainable and healthy. In terms of water allocation, I think there should also be co-management so at least the Indigenous people has a say in who their water gets allocated to.


Even though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples own 33% of Australia’s land mass, I do not think this gives them greater autonomy and control over their country and resources. With increasing environmental conflicts, I think the government’s regulation of resources are appropriate as they have better technology and knowledge on how to keep the usage of resources sustainable. Native title laws may have little to do with resource utilisation by the Indigenous communities as even with large land ownership, the government still controls the uses of resources, like water, so that they can ensure that water is not over supplied. However, land rights can also be beneficial to Indigenous communities as it allows them to legally utilise their resources and maintain their cultural livelihood by relying on their surrounding environment as their ancestors once did. In conclusion, Indigenous land ownership only gives better control of resources to a small extent and in order for land ownership to be coupled with greater control of resources, the country needs to improve on their technological advantage so as to find more sustainable methods of energy production and fuel, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities should also try to adapt to the changing environment and understand that they might not be able to live the way they once did.


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  • Chan, G. (2019, April 9). Farmers’ protest is a sign water politics is about to go into hyperdrive. The Guardian. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/apr/09/farmers-protest-is-a-sign-water-politics-is-about-to-go-into-hyperdrive
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  • Ross, H., Farrow-Smith, E., & Herbert, B. (2019, April 30). Byron Bay’s Bundjalung people celebrate long-awaited land and sea native title determination. ABC News. Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-30/byron-bay-native-title-land-rights/11057896
  • Ross, H., Grant, C., Robinson, C. J., Izurieta, A., Smyth, D., & Rist, P. (2009). Co-management and Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia: Achievements and Ways Forward. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management,16(4), 242-252. doi:https://doi-org.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/10.1080/14486563.2009.9725240
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  • Smith, P. A. (2000). Into the Kimberley: The invasion of Sturt Creek basin [Kimberley region, Western Australia] and evidence of Aboriginal resistance. Aboriginal History,24, 62-74.


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