Historic agreement for Yamatji people

A cheque for $10 million was the first of benefits to be transferred to a trust fund for the Yamatji Nation in May, providing compensation for damage to native title rights.

The Yamatji Nation agreement was made possible by the determination of native title in October 2020. The claim covers about 48,000 square kilometres, including the Geraldton town site, and supersedes other claims over parts of Yamatji country. The Yamatji Nation Indigenous Land Use Agreement, concerns the use of the land by the state government and community.

Under the ILUA, the trust fund will receive $325 million over the next 15 years to compensate for impaired native title over part of the claim area.

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Stephen Dawson said the historic agreement would benefit everyone living in the Midwest region. “This is really a significant agreement for the Yamatji people, so it’s fantastic to see things moving so quickly into the implementation phase.” 

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Stephen Dawson handing over the cheque to Carol Martin, Leedham Papertalk and Shirley McPherson. Photo: Supplied.

First legislated in 1982, native title is the recognition by the Australian legal system of traditional custodians rights to land and water. ILUAs are voluntary agreements between registered Native Title claim holders and other land users, such as governments, mining companies and pastoralists, over the use of land and water.

The Yamatji ILUA and trust fund are the results of a two year process to determine native title over the whole of Yamatji country, but not everyone agrees they they give adequate recognition of land rights for Indigenous people. 

Data courtesy of the National Native Title Tribunal. Infographic by Gabrielle Becerra Mellet.

Michael Anderson is a Euahlayi man and Aboriginal land rights activist from New South Wales. He said, historically, ILUAs have been an abuse of power and authority: “The Native Title Act circumvents the Aboriginal peoples’ ability to be able to claim a common law right.”

While agreements such as the Yamatji ILUA establish financial compensation, Mr Anderson said the ILUA system “was a very cleverly manipulated program to deny Aboriginal people common law rights to land and water resources.”

A map showing registered ILUAs in Western Australia. Map reproduced with the kind permission of the National Native Title Tribunal.

He explained some of the problems that arise because of the Act included agreements failing to take into account different clan groups within Indigenous nations. Divergent perspectives of different Aboriginal communities may be overridden by a single group party to the ILUA. 

Mr Anderson also said ILUAs often included clauses declaring all future acts shall be seen as past acts, which negates any rights to negotiate on future developments.

“People are surrendering all future claims and that stifles the rights of future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids.” 

Associate Professor at Curtin Law School Margaret Stephenson said it would be preferable to have a traditional method of dealing with authorisation of ILUAs, to ensure all interests were heard. 

Professor Stephenson said to superimpose a Western method of managing property under trusts would always have the potential to complicate traditional decision making processes for Indigenous communities, however, overall the system was a positive one. 

“It does allow the state or mining companies to enter into agreements with traditional owners,” she said. “From the numbers of ILUAs being reached, this demonstrates that there is workability within the system.” 

Artwork by Yamatji man, Rhys Paddick. He says: “I think it captures the relationship that the smallest of us have with boodjar (Mother Earth)”.

Shirley McPherson is a Yamatji woman from the Widi mob who worked with the State Government and community to negotiate, what she describes as “unanimous support” of the Yamatji ILUA. 

She explained that to ensure the community was fully informed and supportive of the agreement, her team and the State Government were in constant communication with the community. This included consultations, meetings and expos with visual depictions of the native title areas to be determined. 

“We broke down the barriers of them and us. We became a team working together,” she said. 

Ms McPherson said in order to combat the long and complex process of determining native title, you need energy, patience and a focus on the end result. 

“It was two years of solid negotiation and it’s great to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We had parents, aunties and cousins before us fighting for this. It was our turn to take up the torch.”