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Lawyers camp out with traditional custodians

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Cite as: (2006) 80(12) LIJ, p. 22


A trip into the Arabunna has changed the lives of nine Victorian lawyers and led to the establishment of the Lawyers for Marree Arabunna Peoples’ Committee.

It was a mixed group of corporate and property lawyers, mediators, regional practitioners and environmental advocates who accompanied environmental and planning law specialist Leonie Kelleher on an outback excursion with indigenous leaders.

For a week, the group slept under the stars and discovered the sacred sites along the Oodnadatta track between Lake Eyre South and Marree.

Initiated by Arabunna Elder Reg Dodds, the trip opened dialogue between two very different groups bound by a common interest in the law.

For the legal professionals, it was a unique lesson on the spiritual and physical connection between Aboriginal people and their land. For the Arabunna community it was a chance to get an insight into how lawyers look at land and environmental issues.

During the week-long trip in September, the group also learned about the Arabunna’s challenges with native title legislation and the effects of mining activity on the land.

Kyneton lawyer Ian Delacy admitted to having little first-hand experience of native title issues but was struck by the complexities raised by such claims, in particular the relationships of the various claimant groups.

“There may be a role for those of us who practise as mediators to apply our skills in helping to resolve differences between claimant groups so that they may present a united front and common purpose in such claims,” he said.

Blake Dawson Waldron articled clerk Rebecca Nelson was similarly confounded by what she saw as a cumbersome legal system impeding the Arabunna community’s petition to protect its heritage.

The Arabunna have been on the land for tens of thousands of years and regard themselves as the traditional custodians. For decades, they have been challenging the governments and mining groups on issues including threats to water supplies from the Great Artesian Basin, greenhouse gas emissions from mining activity and nuclear waste dumping.

While none of the visiting group were experts in native title, they realised that their professional skills and knowledge of the law could go some way towards assisting the Arabunna people.

Mr Dodds said he was delighted to host the group.

“Just sitting down around the campfire and talking to a group of lawyers in itself was an education,” he said. “Having your legal guys up here, it gives me that support ... every time you have a discussion you learn about the legal issues and stuff.”

This was exactly what Mr Dodds had hoped for when he invited Ms Kelleher to organise a visiting group. The two had met a couple of years previously when Ms Kelleher accompanied her son on a school excursion to the Arabunna. A shared passion for Australian cultural heritage gave them instant rapport.

Back in Melbourne, Ms Kelleher continued to provide what general legal advice she could, whenever it was requested. She has returned several times to the Arabunna, but it was this trip that has had the greatest impact.

On their final night in Marree, the group met to discuss their experiences.

They decided to form an association – The Lawyers for Marree Arabunna Peoples’ Committee, chaired by Ms Kelleher, which would act as a resource for Mr Dodds and the Arabunna community.

Suggestions were made for further investigation. They included social responsibility initiatives, the role of mediation, and broader heritage and environmental issues. Already, members of the Committee have been meeting to discuss particular research projects.

Mr Dodds and Ms Kelleher are planning another trip next year and Ms Kelleher said she would inform the legal community when further details were organised.

“There really is no substitute for getting out into the country and hearing the stories,” Ms Kelleher said.

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