Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
I had been searching for the quintessential statement by a wilderness campaigner in opposition to Aboriginal interests to illustrate the problem that I have referred to in earlier lectures: the refusal among the romantics, leftists and worshippers of nature to admit Aboriginal people have an economic life, are caught up in the transforming encounter with modernity, and have economic rights.
An illuminating quote was not difficult to find. While I was writing this piece, Tim Flannery's article in The Quarterly Essay, ''After the Future: Australia's New Extinction Crisis'', was published.
He writes: ''Mining often takes priority over nature protection. Even under Labor governments with a strong green bent, national parks are not always safe. In 2010, the Queensland Bligh government began the process of de-gazetting a large part of Mungkan Kandju National Park on Cape York Peninsula, with a view to giving the land back to its traditional Aboriginal owners.''
What is wrong with Flannery's idea that the land is not ''safe'' if it is owned by an Aboriginal person or entity?
First, it implies such a title is less ''safe'' from mining than if it remains a national park. It also infers that any title owned by a non-Aboriginal person is ''safer'' than one owned by an Aboriginal person or entity.
Neither is the case.
Australian law is such that the Crown has the power to de-gazette national parks and compulsorily acquire any title for any purpose. Thus, it makes no difference at law if the title is a national park, freehold, pastoral lease or any other title. As well, it makes no difference if the title holder is white or Aboriginal, or Chinese, for that matter.
Did Flannery intend in this statement to be provocative and racist - asserting wrongly that mining would occur in this area because of the transfer of title to Aboriginal people - or has he succumbed to the environmental campaign ideology that Australia's first people are the enemies of nature? I don't know which answer is the sadder. Such an intelligent man and yet this is not the only instance of his misrepresentation of Aboriginal people in his published works.
Another implication of Flannery's remark can be seen in the Bligh government's gazettal of large areas of Aboriginal-owned land in Cape York Peninsula under the Wild Rivers Act. Aboriginal landowners had no say whatsoever, and the racist assumption in the Wild Rivers Act was that the rivers were unsafe from development while the banks and river basins were owned by Aboriginal people. What were they going to do to these rivers? Scare the fish? This is not a trivial remark.
For 40 years, this racist assumption in the green movement about Aboriginal people being the enemies of the wilderness has been a leitmotif during deals between conservation groups and state governments; it has denied Aboriginal people their rights as landowners and citizens of Australia. The Wild Rivers Act, now repealed by the Newman government, was one of many deals of this kind.
There is another issue to consider in this presumption that we Aboriginal people are the threat to nature. Most Australians, until recently, were spared the experience of living with mining projects. With the development of shale gas and fracking projects and their expansion into valuable farming land, farmers, rural Australians and even suburban Australians have objected stridently, and begun to demand protections much as Aboriginal people did 50 years ago when large-scale mining projects impacted on their world.
Most mining projects are located in remote and rural Australia; 60 per cent of them are located near Aboriginal communities. It is Aboriginal people who have borne the brunt of the impacts of mining, and tamed the industry with a range of campaigns and strategies during the past half-century.
Moreover, Aboriginal land is targeted both by mining companies and conservation campaigners precisely because it is Aboriginal land.
These vast areas owned by Aboriginal people are the repository of Australia's mega-diversity of fauna, flora and ecosystems because of the ancient Aboriginal system of management, and because Aboriginal people fought to protect their territories from white incursion. They are not wilderness areas. They are Aboriginal homelands, shaped over millennia by Aboriginal people.
The presumption by conservationists that these areas need to be rescued from Aboriginal people - as made clear by Flannery and in the Wild Rivers saga in Queensland - is a strange twist on the racist fiction of terra nullius that was overturned by the Mabo case.
Some conservationists and conservation groups have been complicit in political chicanery, racism and further expropriation of our homelands. The examples are numerous, but time permits discussion of only one, the events leading up to the High Court case Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen 30 years ago.
Queensland state governments, from the early 1970s to the 1990s, used environmental conservation legislation and instruments to prevent Aboriginal groups from acquiring and using land. The most notorious of such actions was that taken against the late John Koowarta of the Winychanam group of Cape York.
He was sometimes a resident at Aurukun and also at settlements further inland following his attempted purchase, with the assistance of the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission, of the Archer River pastoral holding, located on his traditional territory in central Cape York.
In February 1976, Koowarta and the Aboriginal Land Commission entered into a written contract with the lessees for the purchase of the lease. The sale and transfer of the lease was subject to the approval or permission of the minister for lands in Queensland. The minister refused to grant consent or permission to the transfer.
Queensland government policy explicitly opposed ''proposals to acquire large areas of additional freehold land or leasehold land for development by Aborigines or Aboriginal groups in isolation''. The government gazetted a number of national parks over the pastoral properties that Aboriginal people had expressed interest in buying, to prevent them from legally purchasing the land.
Koowarta's appeal to the High Court was successful. In 1982, the High Court overruled the Queensland government's action.
However, Koowarta and the Winychanam group were never able to acquire title to their beloved country. The Queensland government had gazetted the lease area as the Archer Bend National Park.
This national park became the Mungkan Kandju National Park - yes, the same park that Flannery laments was to be returned to its traditional Aboriginal owners.
Although Koowarta was unable to acquire land because of the racist intransigence of Bjelke-Petersen's government, he scored a key victory in opposing racial discrimination.
The case also confirmed the role of the federal government in Aboriginal land rights legislation. The Koowarta case is the first example of the Commonwealth using the external affairs power as the basis for legislation able to limit the actions of state governments.
Even given this history of racist chicanery - as in the Koowarta case and in the conservationist deals with governments to colonise Aboriginal land under the green flag, such as the Wild Rivers Act - the plain fact is that, far more than any other group of citizens in Australia, Aboriginal people have dedicated their land to environmental and biodiversity conservation.
The facts prove Flannery and his colleagues in the so-called wilderness movement wrong.
So far, under the Indigenous Protected Area scheme and other arrangements, Aboriginal people have dedicated more than 30 million hectares of their own land to environmental and biodiversity conservation. This represents more than 25 per cent of the National Reserve System, while Aboriginal people represent less than 3 per cent of the population.
This is the fourth in a series of five edited extracts of the 2012 ABC Boyer Lectures by Professor Marcia Langton, the chair of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne. It will be broadcast on ABC Radio at 5.30pm on Sunday and will be available online at abc.net.au/radionational/boyerlectures. A book of the Boyers will be published early next year.
Professor Langton's 2012 Boyer Lecture series drew on research funded by mining companies Woodside Energy, Rio Tinto and Santos, as well the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Marnda Mia Central Negotiating Committee.