Back

Luritja Land Fight wins Tempe Downs

December 1993

After more than 20 years the patient but continuously frustrated struggle of a large group of Luritja people to win back some of their land in Central Australia has finally met with success.

The neighbouring pastoral leases, Tempe Downs and Middleton Ponds, together totalling approximately 4,750 square kilometres were purchased on behalf of the traditional landowners in December 1993.

More than 350 traditional landowners who live or intend to live on their land will directly benefit from the purchase, while preliminary land claim research suggests that an overall total of more than 500 people have traditional affiliations to the area.

The purchase was considered to be the single most important land acquisition in the Central Land Council region.

It was a long-awaited victory for the Luritja group, who first incorporated the Luritja land Association in 1974, the first Aboriginal land rights organisation established in Central Australia. It was formed even before the Central Land Council and the advent of land rights in the Northern Territory.

Over more than 20 years the Luritja tried and exhausted every opportunity to win back some of their land. The first attempt by the group, led by Kunmanara Breaden, the current Chairman of the CLC, to seek help to purchase Tempe Downs was made in 1973 when the property was offered for sale to the then Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA).

Apparently failing to give any weight to the immense significance of the land for the traditional owners, the DAA rejected the offer on the grounds that parts of the lease were considered non-viable for a cattle enterprise and were being considered for use as a national park. Since then five Federal Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs and every statutory authority with the capacity to make the purchase has been approached to assist the Luritja to buy the land, but a major obstacle was the unwillingness of the Adelaide-based owners to sell.

On many occasions the traditional landowners also attempted direct action to return to their country, but were thwarted by sometimes severe harassment from station management, illness, water, transport and supply problems.

Although the Lake Amadeus land claim was lodged on an area to the south of Tempe Downs in1980, the Northern Territory Government attempted to thwart the claim by granting a lease over the area for a tourist enterprise in 1981.

It was not until 1989 that Federal Court action initiated by the Northern Territory Government established that the lease was invalid. Despite the recommendation of the Land Commissioner, no land has yet been granted because of the failure of negotiations to resolve detriment to the leaseholders. Further Federal Court action, initially supported by the NT Government, was also taken last year to attempt to prevent the grant of the land under Aboriginal freehold title.

In the meantime, some 800 square kilometres of Tempe Downs was acquired for the Kings Canyon (Watarrka) National Park in 1983.

Ben Clyne expressed the extreme frustration and mistrust felt by the group towards the NT Government: "Gambling with Aboriginal people's lives like playing cards. For 10 years we've been asking quietly, 'Can we have some land? Here? Here? Here? Or where?' and all the time it's the same, they say 'No you can't have it.' This time we're being told it's for tourists. Before it was for cattle. All the time it's the same. We can't go on any longer like this." (Land Rights News 1983)

While three groups were eventually able to obtain tiny living areas within the park, only one living area was successfully negotiated on the pastoral lease.

The four totalled only 2.75 square kilometres from a total area of around 5,000 square kilometres.

"When they made the park we got a small area to live. This one is a small one you know, you can't run your horses. I've had to feed the horses, buying hay and all that," Mr Breaden said. The horses were to be part of a tourist trail ride enterprise associated with the national park, but without sufficient land for feed, the group could not proceed with their plans.

However since the purchase of Tempe Downs, the future is looking considerably brighter. A further six or seven groups which were unable to negotiate living areas with the previous leaseholder are keen to set up outstations on Tempe Downs.

"It's a good thing for me now, for other people too. I can run my horses, and we're looking forward to getting cattle at Tempe Downs too. We want to get steers for a start, for a couple of years, to see how we get on and then if it goes all right we might get breeders." "A lot of people will benefit too. We've got about seven outstations there now, trying to go back and stop there," said Mr Breaden.

"People are very happy. There's a lot of traditional owners - we purchased it for the whole lot, all the traditional owners. Some were born there, some with traditional interests - they're happy to come out there." "We might get a school at Tempe Downs later on. That's a long way away though. First we need proper houses, not tin sheds, but fixed houses. We need bores as well."

"That's a good thing that we've got that now. We've been struggling for over 20 years - before land rights started we were talking to the station owners. Now we've got the station now - we've purchased it. That's pretty good, for kids especially, for the next generation.

"I think they'll have a very different life from us. They might have different ideas. They won't have the struggle we older ones have had all our lives. They'll be all right. They'll be able to go ahead and do the work they like."

A pastoral management agreement is already in place and preliminary research has commenced on a land claim over the lease area. For Mr Breaden, who was born and worked on Tempe Downs and Middleton Ponds as a young man, the action can't begin too soon.

"I want to see the work start now. I want to do something straight away. I'm not ready to retire yet. I want to run the cattle - I'm still a bit lively! I still ride horse and I'm still all right."