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An Aboriginal man walks through the Australian outback.

For approximately 40,000 years before the British colonial settlement of Australia, the country had been inhabited mainly by the many aboriginal tribes of the region. Aboriginal groups emphasized the communal ownership of land and resources, a value that endures to this day. However, these peoples’ claims to the land was overlooked and overruled as white settlers from the British Isles, and later from other regions of the world, arrived en masse. Nearly 200 years after Britain land claim to the region, aboriginal peoples began fighting back, and the land rights movement was born.

Since the 1970s, Aborigines have been able to lodge claims to vacant government land in a legal environment, and have succeeded in regaining ownership of many otherwise unoccupied territories. But a surprising yet crucial gain for this movement was made recently when an Australian federal judge granted Aborigines the “native title” to an area including the city of Perth. This controversial move flew in the face of the conventional Australian approach to the land rights movement, as claims to urban or settled areas are often rejected. Although private property law takes precedence over “native titles” under the Australian system, this ruling does allow Aborigines to take control of public areas such as beaches and parks. It is as much a symbolic victory as a financial one.

Aboriginal claims to ownership are further complicated by the discovery of valuable natural resources in certain native-owned territories. The desire of the Australian state to extract these raw materials for profit and the absence of legal regulation of private companies’ practices in regards to such exploitation forms a worrying obstacle for newly-entitled aboriginal groups.

Racial discrimination against aboriginal peoples in Australia is embedded in the culture, and grew unchecked in many sectors of Australian life until recently. Still, there is much progress to be made. The recognition of the legitimacy of the land rights movement is a major step forward in rectifying this situation.

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