The Cape is tragic proof colonisation is far from dead

Peter Pearce The Australian May 01, 2010

Throughout our exploration of the Queensland government's Wild Rivers legislation, it has dawned on me that colonisation of indigenous lands is a current process, not just something from the history books.

Until this point of realisation, my commonsense understanding of history held that colonisation was a process completed in my great-grandfather's day.

I do know about the forced removal and demolition of the Mapoon community on northern Cape York in the 1960s, but I guess I took that as an aberration - the aberrant behaviour of a now-discredited government - that could not happen today.

The shotguns and bulldozers of the Mapoon case don't occur today, but colonisation of a more pernicious kind is still a reality.

Today it's happening under the banner of land management law driven by a political constituency for environmental protection.

It's about creation without consent of an ever-expanding body of land management law that has as its overall effect reduction in the level of autonomy indigenous people are able to exercise when managing their land.

The overall effect of non-consensual reduction of autonomy is denial of the established cultural processes of indigenous land management, and devaluation of the property rights of those indigenous land holders who have had their land management autonomy stripped away.

Given the outcomes of legal cases such as Mabo and Wik, which confirmed in certain places the continuous existence, not gracious reinstatement by the court or a government of the day, of native title over indigenous lands, does not the imposition of new land management law that denies traditional land management processes and reduces the underlying value of title constitute a colonial act? I think it does, and in this day and age that strikes me as a shameful thing for our society to accept.

I mentioned earlier the existence of a powerful political constituency for legislation protecting the environmental values of indigenous lands.

The Queensland government has its political allies for the Wild Rivers laws.

During the course of our research on Wild Rivers, we met some of the environmental groups engaged on this issue.

The passion, commitment, erudition, knowledge and political skill of these groups are undeniably attractive.

It's easy to understand how members are attracted to the cause.

But when they deploy these enviable skills to the project of legislating away, without consent, the property rights of indigenous people, they are partners in a new wave of colonisation of the cape.

Indigenous property rights are subordinated to an environmental aesthetic that is supported by sophisticated political clout, and so is successful.

Where historically indigenous property was taken so the colonisers could put the land to economic use, now it is taken to save the planet; to make up for the harm done to the planet through urban industrialisation and agriculture.

Indigenous communities can pay the price for our environmental miscreance.

Again, it shames me to think we find this tolerable.

As a consequence of working these things through, I've come to thinking about indigenous land management sovereignty. I wonder what we could come up with if we tried, in partnership with indigenous landholders on the cape and their leaders, to truly give authority over land management matters back to those people.

Perhaps we could recognise what, for me, seems to be the deeper meaning of native title.

It's their land, always was and always should be.

Peter Pearce is the executive leader of the Brisbane Anglican Church's Community Services Commission Social Justice Advocacy Program. This article is a modified version of an article first published in Focus, the newspaper of the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane.