Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Landmark case compensates Australian aboriginal group for land incursions

Landmark case compensates Australian aboriginal group for land incursions
05 Sep
2019
In a landmark case, Australia’s High Court has awarded damages to an Aboriginal group in compensation for historic incursions on their land, opening the way for billions of dollar’s worth of potential claims

When British colonists landed in Australia and began their incremental flag-planting of the terrain, they decided that, legally speaking, the land belonged to no one. This concept – called terra nullius – denied the Aboriginal population, at that time up to a million strong, any legal right to the land they lived on.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

It wasn’t until 1992 that the Australian courts finally recognised that the Australian land mass had not been a ‘no man’s land’. A new concept called ‘native title’ was introduced stating that Aboriginal people had always had rights to land and water according to their traditional law and customs. The case provided compensation where any act committed after 1975 led to native title being extinguished.

Now, in a landmark ruling, Australia’s High Court has discussed how this compensation should be calculated, upholding an award of AUD2.53m in damages to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali Aboriginal people, based in a remote part of the Northern Territory. The money is to compensate for acts committed by the Northern Territory government which built roads and infrastructure through a town called Timber Creek in the 1980s and 1990s. The ruling could have ramifications far beyond this one case. Lawyers representing governments and mining companies which own land in remote areas, have been reported as saying that the case paves the way for billions of dollars in compensation nationally.

Megan Brayne, a native title lawyer, explains that the ruling is particularly important, and unusual, because the compensation takes into account both economic loss and non-economic loss, with the latter focused on the spiritual and cultural disruption suffered by the groups – an alien concept in English law. ‘The High Court conceptualised the landscape like a painting with holes punched in where different tenure was granted,’ says Brayne. ‘They said you can’t just quantify loss as the loss of each lot alone – it’s the impact on the whole painting, the impact on the whole spiritual and cultural landscape.’

In determining this spiritual and cultural loss, the judge took into account several different disrupted practices. Evidence included the fact that the Aboriginal population was hurt by an important initiation site being too close to the town. The work also disrupted the tribe’s ‘dreaming track’ – a path across the land or the sky which marks the route followed by an Aboriginal ancestor.

Brayne is confident that this case will spark many other compensation claims. She says the estimate of several billions of dollars seems fair, though she also cautions that future claims may be contested: ‘There will be arguments run by other governments that this case should be distinguished and that less money should be paid in other claims, and Aboriginal groups may run arguments to increase the compensation amount.’

The case only applies to the loss of native title after 1975, so the precedent is limited in scope. Nevertheless, it remains an important win for Aboriginal people. ‘It’s not the golden ticket, but it’s a very significant step in the right direction,’ says Brayne.

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

I’m a Geographer

Chris Morgan is an ecologist and award-winning conservationist, educator, TV…

Global Health

The technology of mRNA-based vaccines – first approved for immunising…

People

The decades-long decline in hunger has now ended, despite the…

Explorers

Trapped at home in Vancouver during the pandemic, but with…

Cultures

The dramatic scenery of the Jurassic Coast and the fossils…

Global Health

With millions of lives at stake, scientists have accelerated research…

Explorers

Polar explorer Felicity Aston and her Icelandic husband took on…

Development

Pressure is mounting on steelmakers to decarbonise, but it’s proving…

Explorers

Applying Western geographical concepts to distant lands isn’t always a…

Cultures

Dawn Starin learns more about the orchids being sipped, slurped and…

Development

The recipient of the 2018 Land Rover bursary, supported by…

Refugees

Climate change is forecast to trigger the mass migration of…

Cultures

Life on the outskirts of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia,…

I’m a Geographer

Steven Amstrup has dedicated his life to polar bears, working…

Cultures

Every autumn in the Caucasus Mountains, men climb to the…