The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA) was passed in 1983 and in the three decades since then Aboriginal Land Councils have accumulated more than 80,000 hectares of land valued at over $2 billion. Now, for the first time, a study led by Professor Heidi Norman is looking at how the Aboriginal community perceive the benefits of land repossession under the Act.
Two years into her three-year ARC Discovery Indigenous project, Professor Norman says the uneven return of land means it’s a complex picture. Some land has been able to be developed by land councils for economic purposes. Other returned land is degraded or the subject of conservation, meaning fewer opportunities for wealth generation but raising other opportunities for communities to benefit from their land holdings.
Her research is revealing a picture of land councils being highly adaptive and creative in how they manage what is in effect a property asset for community benefit. These approaches have ranged from more conventional economic development such as residential estates through to Indigenous communities regenerating their country, with social and cultural wellbeing benefits.
“This research has been focused on what we view are the benefits of having our land returned and how those benefits can be measured,” Professor Norman says. “Some of those ‘benefits’ include things not as readily measured or counted – like a sense of community and belonging, cultural authority, or even political power and advocacy – but which are nonetheless vital aspects of land rights.
“When we say ‘economic benefit’, what does that mean? Is it about accumulation and capitalisation of land or does the Aboriginal economy look different?”
Having considered these questions her aim is to identify how governments can support Indigenous communities in achieving their goals for land ownership.
Professor Norman has conducted interviews with over 40 land councils. She hopes to conduct a large-scale survey of over 100 councils, and thousands of members, once a trial survey has been undertaken.
She’s also keen to bring land council representatives into UTS for a multidisciplinary workshop that makes use of the expertise in areas such as business, engineering, science and health to do some “blue sky thinking” about land assets, community priorities and future possibilities.