Privatise Aboriginal land rights? Lessons from Papua New Guinea

Ecovillage Network UK evnuk at
Wed Apr 20 13:45:07 BST 2005
Privatise Aboriginal land rights? The lessons from Papua New Guinea
Green Left Weekly, April 13, 2005.

Tim Anderson

The federal government, backed by mining company-funded “think tanks”, has 
a new agenda for Aboriginal land rights: privatise them. And privatisation 
here, as elsewhere, means that the sharks will move in.

In February, Indigenous affairs minister Amanda Vanstone announced, “we 
have a bill under preparation dealing with the Northern Territory land 
rights issue”. Without revealing details, she suggested the bill would make 
the Northern Territory Land Rights Act 1976 (the strongest Aboriginal land 
rights legislation in Australia) more “workable”, and would provide 
“greater choice” for Aboriginal people about what to do with their land.

Then in April, Prime Minster John Howard told a Northern Territory audience 
that he wanted to review the law by “looking more towards private 
recognition” of land rights. Similarly, Vanstone’s predecessor, Philip 
Ruddock, announced in 2002 that his government’s priorities included 
“reducing barriers to economic development on Aboriginal land, and 
facilitating effective devolution of control from existing land councils to 
more localised regional bodies”.

There is no mystery about the agenda. Ideologues at the Centre for 
Independent Studies, Helen Hughes and Jenness Warin, have declared 
Aboriginal land rights a socialist conspiracy constructed by 
non-Aboriginals, and have demanded that this experiment in “socialist 
utopia” be replaced by individual property rights. Their views were 
repeated by the Australian newspaper in a February 19 article entitled 
“Land rights should apply to individuals”, and have been echoed by other 
right-wing ideologues like Christopher Pearson.

The ideologues from these “think tanks” are backed by mining companies and 
investment groups that want easy access to Aboriginal land. Though their 
arguments now stress the benefits to Aboriginal communities through 
mortgage and lease facilities, the unspoken danger is that Aboriginal 
communities will be dispossessed of their land a second time.

This is a pattern seen in Papua New Guinea, where there is still customary 
title over 97% of the country. Some communities have been persuaded (with 
very small amounts of money) to register, mortgage and run the serious risk 
of alienating their land. Alternatively they have agreed to long-term 
leases on very poor conditions — often 50 Kina (A$25) per hectare, per 
year. Yet preliminary research I carried out shows that a hectare of good 
village farm land in PNG can be producing an equivalent value of up to 
20,000 Kina (A$10,000) per year.

The result of such land deals has been that the few thousand dollars and a 
few motor vehicles that some groups have gained have been used up and 
rusted out in a few years. But communities have lost their main asset — 
their land. Their children then become destitute, having no ready access to 
fertile land and housing. Community advocates in PNG have seen these 
disasters, and have fiercely opposed Australian government and World Bank 
programs to “register” and “mobilise” their customary lands.

The “privatise land rights” arguments in Australia have made use of some 
Aboriginal commentators, notably Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson who, keen 
to win favour with the major powers (in government, the mass media and big 
corporations), have promoted various corporate “partnerships” and stressed 
“individual responsibility” before social justice.

Warren Mundine — a member of Howard’s newly appointed National Indigenous 
Council, but also ALP vice-president — has openly called for the individual 
titling and sale of Aboriginal community land. Echoing right-wing 
ideologues, but with community welfare arguments, he calls for a “move away 
from communal land ownership and non-profit community based businesses” in 
favour of “home ownership, economic land development and private, 
profit-making businesses”.

The major argument of the ideologues and their helpers has been that — 
after almost 30 years of land rights, and 12 years of “native title” — many 
Aboriginal communities are still poor and destitute. Privatisation is their 
suggested way forward; but this welfare argument is misleading, and 
disguises real interests.

First, Australian Aboriginal people (unlike those in PNG) have not had 
proper recognition of their land rights in the current era. Although around 
20% of the Australian land mass is now subject to some form of land rights 
(14.3% through various successful land rights claims, and 5.7% through the 
Native Title Act), this is mostly arid land and benefits less than 20% of 
the Aboriginal population. Most Aboriginal lands are in the deserts of the 
Northern Territory, South Australia and (more recently) Western Australia. 
Most successful claims under the Native Title Act have also been in the 
north, and in particular the Torres Strait islands.

Second, mismanagement of community land assets will hardy be improved by an 
“opening up” to individual Aboriginal operators and land developers. Since 
when have property developers in Australia represented anything other than 
“get rich quick” schemes for a handful, at the expense of the masses of 
ordinary people?

The PNG experience tells us that poor communities can be tricked out of 
their community assets by registration and privatisation arguments, and 
that a few business people from those communities — usurping the rights and 
assets of those communities — may benefit from their separate deals with 
big companies.

However the wiser heads in the PNG community remind us of the enormous 
social security and community benefits of retaining their central cultural 
institution of customary land. Andrew Lakau told the July 11, 1995 Post 
Courier that “the extended kinship system and customary land holdings are 
the only viable options to provide support and security to the needy in the 
various communities throughout PNG”. Josepha Kanawi added in the Post 
Courier on May 19, 2003, that people’s “economic independence ... is 
achieved only through being in affinity with their land ... [and] land 
groups are the source of authority for institutions of state and 
government” in Papua New Guinea.

Rob Welsh of the NSW Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council has the better 
perspective, quoted on BBC Online on December 7, 2004, as saying that “home 
ownership and private business opportunities for our people is the way 
forward. However these programs should be in addition to, not instead of 
community based land rights, business ventures and services”. Those doing 
best in Papua New Guinea (apart from the operators and robbers) are those 
who have kept their community land and developed opportunities in the cash 

The same mining companies, banks and their paid ideologues are pushing for 
the privatisation of Indigenous land in both Papua New Guinea and 
Australia. Beware of their phony expressed concerns for Indigenous welfare. 
They have the same deceitful arguments, and similar disguised self- interest.

[Tim Anderson is a Sydney University academic and activist with AidWatch. 
AidWatch is organising a tour of PNG land rights speakers in September. For 
more information visit <http://>.]

 From Green Left Weekly, April 13, 2005.

EcoVillage Network UK PeopleFinder -
A new contact point for getting involved in the UK EcoVillage movement.

Subscribe (approx. 1 post/2wks.): ecovillageuk-subscribe at

The UK's Rural Sustainable Settlement Planning Campaign
'Chapter 7 News' - 16-20pp. quarterly - £2.00 ea. £7.00 per annum sub. from
The Potato Store, Flaxdrayton Farm, South Petherton, Somerset, TA13
chapter7 at
Tel. 01460 249204

ECOVILLAGE GUIDE BOOKS - available (postage included) from
Mulberry House, 19 Maple Grove, Bath, BA2 3AF - 01225 484472
UK > 'Diggers and Dreamers' - Annual directory of UK Communities - £6.00
EUROPE > 'Eurotopia' - Directory of Intentional Communities and Ecovillages 
in Europe - £15.00
COTTARS AND SQUATTERS > Reccommended: UK land rights history - £10.00

Quarterly colour mag. for enquiring minds and original thinkers everywhere.
Hyden House Ltd, The Sustainability Centre, East Meon, Hampshire GU32 1HR, 
info at
Tel. 01730 823311

Populating the rhetoric of rural sustainability
Volunteers: Russ Curgenven, Nikki Ali, Tony Gosling, Pam Norris, Joyce 
PO Box 1410, Bristol, BS99 3JP
Tel. 0117 373 0346
evnuk at, office at

DIGGERS AND DREAMERS - Searchable community database
Diggers & Dreamers, a UK guide to communal living for more than 10 years
c/o Edge of Time Ltd, BCM Edge, London, WC1N 3XX, UK
info at
Tel. 07000 780536

Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms
Join WWOOF, do some work, stay for free. Membership includes directory
PO Box 2675, Lewes, Sussex, BN7 1RB
fran at

Supports individuals, projects and groups working with permaculture in Britain
Third Floor Studios, 6 Carr Mills, 322 Meanwood Road, Leeds, West 
Yorkshire, LS7 2HY
office at
Tel/Fax: 07041 390170 and 0113 262 1718

Promoting and developing self-help initiatives with the homeless

Sharing expertise and experience amongst the U.K. cohousing groups.

Camps for kids to get back to nature with the minimum of authority.



Rosa-Luxemburgstr. 89, D-14806 Belzig, Germany - info at - 0049 
33841 44766
Ecovillage Office, Findhorn, The Park, Forres, Moray, Scotland IV36 0TZ - 
ecovillage at - +44 (0)1309 690154
Minutes of meetings
European email list - post <euevforum at> - 
contact  webmaster at

Download free & easy to use PGP encryption at

More information about the Diggers350 mailing list