Indigenous land in Australia: A quantitative assessment of Indigenous landholdings in 2000

Author/editor: Pollack, D
Year published: 2001
Issue no.: 221


This paper estimates the area of land held by Indigenous people in Australia in 2000. It details the legislation and programs that have lead to the accrual of land for Indigenous people in Australia since the concept of Indigenous ownership of land under Australian law, rather than the allocation of reserve lands, was first addressed in the mid 1960s. It is based on a literature review and data provided by a variety of government agencies and Indigenous organisations around Australia. Using this information, the paper estimates that Indigenous Australians either own, control or have management arrangements over land in the range of 16 to 18 per cent of the Australian continent. The lower range is based on reliable data whereas the higher range is speculative due to the fact that the aggregated area of many small landholdings has never been quantified.

As the paper demonstrates, the types of tenures held by Indigenous Australians differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and within jurisdictions. This is a result not only of the federal system of government in Australia, where land management and administration is the role of the State or Territory governments, but also a product of different priorities and objectives set by Federal, State and Territory governments in addressing Indigenous peoples' aspirations for land. In some States and Territories, land rights regimes exist for lands to be claimed across the entire jurisdiction, while in other States and Territories land rights legislation is limited to the grant of specific parcels of land. The plethora of programs, statutes and government agencies involved in dealing with Indigenous land over the past decades has meant that, across Australia today, there is extreme diversity in the types of ownership, beneficiaries, tenures, property rights and governance structures available to Indigenous people.

Indigenous landholdings in Australia in 2000 can be characterised as follows:

  • most Indigenous land is located in the remote rangeland regions of the continent. There are many more Indigenous land parcels in the south-east of the continent; however these parcels are very small in area;
  • about half of the aggregated area of Indigenous land in Australia is located in the Northern Territory as a result of successful claims under the Commonwealth's Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976;
  • the aggregated area of Indigenous land in Australia was yet to be influenced by land subject to native title recognition under the common law or the Native Title Act 1993;
  • the area of land accrued by purchase with the assistance of Indigenous Land Acquisition programs is very small by comparison with land accrued by land rights legislation. However, the significance of the acquisition programs cannot be underestimated as they may be the only means by which Indigenous aspirations to land can be addressed in many parts of Australia.

The paper also assesses the area of Indigenous land in each State and Territory. It details the programs and legislative frameworks of the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments which contribute to addressing Indigenous aspirations for land in each jurisdiction.

ISBN: 0 7315 2656 2

ISSN:1036 1774

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