In March this year, a summit of Torres Strait Islanders resolved to ban commercial fishing in their “sea country” and this ban could soon extend across northern Australia. While not legally enforceable, it is an assertion by the traditional owners of their rights over the waters they’ve fished and looked after for thousands of years. The Torres Strait Islanders intend to back it up with a Native Title claim, as did the Indigenous inhabitants of Croker Island near Darwin who, in 1994, were the first to claim sea rights under the Native Title Act. The High Court’s ruling is expected later this year and will be awaited as anxiously as the Mabo judgment which in 1992 overturned the myth of terra nullius.
Rich in resources, the waters north of Australia are set to be battlefields in a new war between Indigenous and corporate interests. Australia’s “salt water people” are taking on powerful stakeholders. The fishing industry, for one, extracts $4.5 million worth of barramundi annually from Arnhem Land alone. It also harvests other marine species, including pearl-bearing oysters. It is responsible for the depleted populations of sea life, from the unwanted fish caught in its huge nets to dugong and turtles. Like pillaged land, a plundered sea means economic and cultural devastation for the Indigenous owners.
The unity among Indigenous islanders is historic. For Mary Yarmirr, a principal claimant in the Croker test case, the prize is “control, management and ownership of what is ours.” If the High Court decides for her people, then we can expect hysteria from big business which, as it did after the Mabo judgment, will pull every possible string to keep them dispossessed.
But no group can fight on its own. All whose rights are being trampled by corporate raiders have a stake in ending more than two centuries of dispossession, because our liberation is bound together. All who seek a better world need to back a treaty that recognises Australia’s Indigenous peoples as sovereign nations with the right to shape their cultures and economies. Unite to end capitalist plunder!