The Guardian August 2, 2000


Native title triumph
over Northern Territory Government obstruction

by Peter Mac

After legal battles lasting more than ten years the Federal Court has 
upheld native title rights over 7,500 sq. km. of land at the old St Vidgeon 
Station and the nearby Roper, Cox and Limmen Bight Rivers near the Gulf of 
Carpentaria.

The original land claim lodged by the traditional owners in the 1980s under 
the Northern Territory Land Rights Act was immediately blocked by the NT 
Government, which transferred the land to the NT Land Corporation.

This had the effect of removing the right to claim by traditional 
landowners, because it was no longer Crown land, even though the NT Land 
Corporation was set up by and belongs to the NT Government.

In 1994 the mining corporation Rio Tinto reached an agreement regarding 
minerals exploration and extraction on the St Vidgeon property with the 
traditional owners, and in 1995 this was formalised as the Walgundu 
agreement.

Under this agreement the company agreed to provide site protection and to 
allocate a percentage of the exploration costs to the traditional owners, 
who subsequently lodged a claim under the federal Native Title Act.

However, regardless of the arrangement with Rio Tinto, the Northern 
Territory Government disputed the Native Title claim and took the matter to 
the Federal Court.

Northern Territory Land Council chairman Galarrwuy Yunipingu commented: "It 
is disappointing and frustrating to continually find the NT Government 
trying to deny Native Title and holding up these processes...

"A speedy agreement [with Rio Tinto] was reached. However, the NT 
Government instead of recognising the obvious, yet again forced the matter 
through the expensive and time-consuming legal process."

The latest Court decision was not an unqualified success for the 
traditional owners. The Court found that Native Title had been extinguished 
over part of a stock route in the north-west part of the claim site.

However, the decision has major implications for land claims in the 
Northern Territory, as it contradicts an earlier decision regarding a land 
rights claim to the "Devil's Marbles" site, which the traditional owners 
lost because the area had also been transferred to the NT Land Corporation.

The St Vidgeon decision therefore appears to undermine the whole strategy 
of the NT Government in using the Land Corporation to block claims by 
traditional owners.

The Government is expected to appeal against the decision and to argue that 
Native title does not exist on NT Land Corporation land. If they do so, the 
outcome will have major implications for the Northern Territory Aboriginal 
people's long struggle for access to their traditional land.

For the moment, however, the mood among traditional owners is jubilant. Mr 
Yunipingu commented: "The outcome of this case ... is good news for all 
native title claimants, and indicates that similar native title rights most 
likely exist on other NT Land Corporation land, which accounts for about 10 
per cent of the Territory."

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