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Indigenous Heritage: ‘Native title- 20 years on’

Indigenous Heritage: ‘Native title- 20 years on’


The 20th anniversary of the historic Mabo decision was celebrated in Australia in 2012. 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Native Title act 1999. These two developments highlight the progress Australia has made in recognition of the role of indigenous communities in environmental management and protection (Storey, 2012).

In Australia, environmental responsibilities are incorporated in the customs and traditional laws which provide proof of native title. Requirements for proof of title may involve providing evidence of practices such as hunting and gathering, fire management and seed propagation. In the Crokert Island for instance, people were required to describe the relationship between fishing practices and spiritual beliefs.

In the case of Yorat, demonstration of environmental management practices was used as evidence for ongoing customs and traditions. Consideration of environmental responsibilities has been an important source of evidence for native title because of the apparent connection between these practices and traditional laws of indigenous people. As observed by Muir and Sutherland (2001), in the northern Goldfields of Western Australia, maintenance of water resources, selectively culling fauna and promotion of seed growth are considered as physical equivalents of cultural practices such as rituals.

Since 1992, the settler legal system has enabled indigenous people to have more responsibility for management and protection of the environment. The rights of indigenous peoples to care for the environment have significantly expanded. This is very well observed in Northern Australia where indigenous protected areas have grown considerably.

Determination of native titles and agreement-making has become very prominent in the context of environmental management and protection, and this is attributed to western knowledge systems realizing the significance of an integrated and holistic ecological approach to land and waters (Godden, 2012).

The government of Australia has strongly supported the use of Indigenous Land Use agreements. These agreements have been effective in enabling title holders to negotiate more pragmatic and flexible title outcomes. Indigenous Land Use agreement policies have so far been very effective in compelling commonwealth departments to mitigate or minimize the impact of their activities on native land. The agreements have also enabled indigenous communities to play a bigger role in environmental management and ecological protection.


Godden, L. (2012) Native Title and ecology: agreement-making in an era of market environmentalism, in Weir, J. K. (ed) Country, Native Title and ecology. ANU E Press

Muir, K., and J. Sutherland. ( 2001). «Managing Country: A Legal Overview,» in Working on Country: Contemporary Indigenous Management of Australia’s Lands and Coastal Regions. Edited by R. Baker, J. Davies, and E. Young, pp. 24-46. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Storey, M (2012) 20 years after Mabo vs Commonwealth, Alternative Law Journal, 37 (3), pp 190-191.