When picturing Indigenous land rights and economic development you typically conjure images of remote outstations, the challenges of developing infrastructure many hours’ drive away from proper towns, and establishing an economy in areas with often only triple-digit population.
What you don’t imagine is a place less than two kilometres from the CBD of one of our capital cities. A place with immense potential for development, but whose residents have no power to tap into it.
The story of One Mile Dam is not new. However, the town camp in Darwin continues to speak volumes to the perpetual cycle of disadvantage created by a lack of economic development and private property rights on Indigenous land.
Under a special arrangement signed in 1979, the inner-city enclave was leased in perpetuity to the Aboriginal Development Foundation. The purpose of this was well principled — to ensure an area of special significance to the local Aboriginal community remained in Indigenous hands.
Typically when land is returned to Aboriginal people, control over it passes to land councils and Indigenous organisations, such the ADF. Any decision around housing and investment must be made by these bodies, theoretically on behalf of all traditional owners.
However, this also means that a typical Indigenous person living on this land has little actual input on how it is used. Bureaucracy, conflicting interests and community politics within the landholding body often means decisions are hard to reach and can be controversial. This has meant the return of the land to Indigenous people hasn’t conferred the benefits to individuals it should have.
This is compounded in relation to One Mile Dam by the fact that the foundation renounced the lease in 2004, creating a state of leasing limbo.
This lack of clearly defined ownership makes alleviating the poverty in the community even more difficult. The lack of private property rights makes private investment unlikely and the legal issues make public investment very difficult. This means that the population of One Mile Dam continue to live in derelict sheds.
Similarly, significant commercial interest from developers cannot be enacted upon due to a lack of secure tenure. This is the great tragedy of One Mile Dam. Situated in central Darwin, the area is prime real estate with vast economic potential.
However, One Mile Dam is not beyond salvation. Introducing private property rights, whereby individuals control their own parcels of land, would allow Indigenous residents to circumvent the impasse they currently find themselves in.
This needn’t mean that Indigenous residents are forced to move out of the community. A developer building an apartment block could create a facility that alleviates the housing crisis currently plaguing One Mile Dam, while simultaneously bringing in new rent-paying tenants.
Local Indigenous people could also leverage businesses opportunities from such an influx of people, setting up cafes and shops to cater for the demands of the upper middle-class residents.
Giving property rights to the local indigenous residents would mean developers have to work with them on new projects. It is the absence of these rights that allows the wishes of indigenous residents to be ignored.
To assuage fears that Aboriginal people might lose control of the land, a head lease could be held by an Aboriginal group. Sub-leases could then be designated to individuals, a concept currently being negotiated in East Arnhem Land.
While investors are less interested in remote areas, One Mile Dam’s location in central Darwin makes it the perfect candidate for establishing private tenure. Once land has been divided into allotments it will be the prerogative of the individual owner to make decisions about their land.
At the smaller end of the scale, this might include seeking public or private finance to improve housing. This would create a tangible asset that could generate returns over time. At the large end, landowners could lease their property to the already hungry developers.
The plight of Indigenous communities such as One Mile Dam is an ongoing blight on a city that is growing into a twenty-first-century metropolis. It has been 14 years since the community was thrown into leasing limbo. Now it is time to give Aboriginal residents the power to utilise the land to its full potential.
Charles Jacobs is a Policy Analyst in the Centre for Independent Studies Indigenous Research Program and author of the report: Risky Business: the problems of Indigenous business policy.
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