Indigenous Barngarla Australians win land claim

Image source, AAP/James Shrimpton
Image caption,
The land claim covered an estimated two-thirds of South Australia's Eyre Peninsula

Australia's indigenous Barngarla people have won a campaign, lasting nearly 20 years, for the law to recognise their right to traditional lands.

The native title claim over a huge tract of land in South Australia has been mostly upheld by a federal court.

Native titles are pre-colonial rights held by Australia's indigenous people, derived from their laws and customs.

The Barngarla people traditionally lived along the north-western shore of the Spencer Gulf in South Australia.

They lodged their claim for the land in 1996. Stakeholders involved in the claim included the Commonwealth government, commercial fishers, mining companies and pastoralists.

The title does not grant freehold to the Barngarla but it means groups such as mining companies must now negotiate with the Barngarla over proposed developments.

The claim covered 44,481 square km (1m acres), including about two-thirds of the Eyre Peninsula.

The Federal Court's Justice John Mansfield upheld most of the claim but excluded the town of Port Augusta, the coastal waters below Port Lincoln and the islands of the Spencer Gulf.

Barngarla elder Eric Paige, present at the court when the judgement was handed down, said the ruling was a step in the right direction.

"I'm really happy," he said, according to local media. "We're going to be getting our country back you know, so that's good."

Image source, BBC map

'Bundle of rights'

The judgement was particularly significant because the area is densely populated, said South Australian Native Title Service Chief Executive Officer Keith Thomas.

"It is important to create some certainty for the Barngarla people about their economic aspirations," Mr Thomas told the BBC.

"They don't own any of the land but they have a bundle of rights that allow them to partake in traditional activities such as hunting, gathering, using bush medicine and protecting sacred sites," said Mr Thomas.

The issue of whether the native title rights have been subsequently extinguished by other land titles such as freehold title will be determined in a subsequent hearing.

Australia's biggest native title claim - covering 14.6m hectares of land and waters - was lodged in a Brisbane court in December.

The claim - filed on behalf of nine traditional owners - refers to much of the Cape York Peninsula in the far north of Queensland. Under that claim, any land development will require consent from the owners.

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