A huge swath of land, including one of Australia’s most iconic tourist areas, has been recognized as Aboriginal land.
In a makeshift courtroom off the Great Ocean Road on a bluff in southern Victoria, the Eastern Marr peoples were awarded their native title over a spectacular 8,578 square kilometer stretch of coastline on Tuesday.
This includes the tourist trail of beaches and towns of the Great Ocean Road along with the viewpoints to see the famous 12 Apostles offshore rock formations and covers part of the Great Otway National Park to the east.
The area also extends to the regional centers of Ararat in the north and Warrnambool in the west.
Jamie Lowe, CEO of the National Native Title Council, told Daily Mail Australia on Wednesday that the Federal Court ruling was historic.
“It’s an acknowledgment in Australian law that you’ve been here forever,” he said.
‘That is quite something. It is extremely significant.
‘We want to invest in our community and we think Native Title helps with that.
“It gives us the right to negotiate our land, manage our natural resources, parkland on land, other tourism developments along the Great Australian Road.”
Mr Lowe said the decision was decades in the making.
“The time to establish native title is extreme,” he said, noting that the original filing was filed in 2012 after 10 years of preparation.
“All the original applicants have died, a story all too familiar to people who make Native Title claims.”
Eastern Maar peoples include those of Gunditjmara, Tjap Wurrung, Peek Whurrong, Keeray Whurrung, Kuurn Kopan Noot and/or Yarro waetch (Tooram tribe) and Gulidjan and/or Gadubanud clans.
Mr Lowe, who as a Gundjitmara Djab wurrung man had a personal interest in the decision, said the ruling had a major impact.
“People were so emotional,” he said.
“You really start to think about the journey and the passing of people, some of the relationships are forged.
“You process all the trauma of the invasion through the claims process, so it also brings up a lot of emotion, so that needs to be given time and space for acknowledgment as well.”
Mr Lowe emphasized that native title is different from land rights, even though the two are often confused.
“We don’t really get our land back, but we do get the chance to do cultural and spiritual practices, as well as hunting and gathering,” he said.
“We have treaty negotiations going on in Victoria, so hopefully this is a platform for that.
“It has always been and always will be Aboriginal land,” the Federal Court judge said yesterday.
Mr Lowe said Native Title is just a first step in recognizing the link between traditional owners and the land.
He said calls to “pay the rent” to indigenous peoples were a more overarching principle that must be properly implemented.
“It has to go to the first peoples of that particular country,” he said.
“There are some plans that are disingenuous about who they represent.
‘Pay the rent is a larger concept around land rights and land taxes.
“If it has always been and always will be Aboriginal land, then its inhabitants must pay the rent.”
The eastern Marr peoples were granted most of the area they claimed for native title, but disputed areas remain along the borders with other native groups, which will be determined by other lawsuits.
“Through the process of invasion and colonization, those boundaries have become blurred, so you go through a process of negotiation,” Lowe said.
In his decision, Federal Court Judge Bernard Murphy wrote that granting an indigenous title to the eastern Marr peoples was “an important step forward for them and for the surrounding community.”
“From the assertion of British sovereignty in 1788 until the mid-1860s, the Aboriginal population of southwestern Victoria declined by more than 90 per cent, reflecting the devastating impact of colonization on Aboriginal communities,” Justice Murphy wrote.
Speaking at Tuesday’s ceremony at Logans Beach near Warrnambool, Djab Wurrung man and lawyer Jidah Clark said it was a momentous occasion.
“Some would say this is about 25 years in the making, others would say it’s over 100 years in the making,” said Mr. Clark.
“The seeds of righteousness are finally beginning to bloom.”
Victoria’s last previous land rights act recognized the Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners of part of central Victoria in 2013 under the Traditional Owner Settlement Act.
Victorian Minister for Treaty and First Peoples Gabrielle Williams said all Australians would benefit from recognizing Indigenous Australians’ connection to land and culture.
‘As a non-Aboriginal Australian, I am so proud of the connection our first peoples have with this land. And so very grateful for their generosity and for sharing that with us,” she said.
Ms Williams said the decision came within a broader context of treaties, truth-telling and the national indigenous voice in parliament.
“All of these things are focused on one outcome and that is achieving better outcomes for our First Nations people,” she said.
“We know better outcomes are achieved for First Nations people when we put our First Nations people in control of their own affairs.”