99-year leases threat to Indigenous communities, say Sisters

Indigenous land owners who speak English as a fourth or fifth language are being pressured to make hasty decisions over their land and the Government's move to impose 99-year leases is a threat to basic rights, say two women religious leaders.

In a statement on behalf of 3,000 Josephite and Mercy Sisters to mark the 20th anniversary yesterday of Pope John Paul's address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Alice Springs, Srs Katrina Brill and Caroline Ryan said that their orders have resolved to stand with Aboriginal people in their struggle for basic human rights.

Sr Brill, leader of the Sisters of St Joseph, and Sr Ryan, Vice-President of the Sisters of Mercy, say that despite the best efforts of many Australians, very little has improved in the last twenty years since the Pope delivered his speech.

"Sisters across Australia work in partnership with Aboriginal peoples in remote, regional and urban communities, at the coal face, in policy think tanks and in advocacy networks," the statement said.

"Aboriginal people still suffer extreme rates of disadvantage on any current socio-economic scale and their communities' rights to self determination can still be over-ridden."

Sr Brill said in the Pope John Paul's historic address to indigenous people, he "lamented that a just and proper settlement of Aboriginal rights had not been achieved.

The Josephite leader said that the Pope recognised the connection between Indigenous communities and their land and emphasised their right to land as the first peoples of this country.

Speaking on behalf of both congregations, she said the Pope's message is particularly pertinent to aspects of the current implementation of the Northern Territory's Land Rights legislation which invites communities "to sign 99-year leases on land that the Aboriginal people already own, poses a threat to basic rights."

"We appreciate that this is a complex issue requiring specialised knowledge, but there continues to be worrying reports from places like Wadeye, Galiwinku and Tiwi Islands about the implementation of the legislation," the congregations said.

The statement said some traditional owners are being pressured to sign over their land.

"Some traditional owners, who do not have access to legal documentation and for whom English may be their fourth or fifth language, feel pressured to make hasty decisions, and feel they are not fully informed of the implications of the choices they make," Sr Brill said.

"Reports suggest some even feel pressured to sign a lease in order to receive essential services such as additional housing, improved education and health services.

"Where there is unequal power, there is extreme danger of coercion," Sr Katrina said.

Calling on "people of good will" to safeguard the rights of all Australians, the Sister said that it is necessary Aboriginal communities "can freely make decisions about matters that affect their livelihood, and that they feel fully informed in the decisions they make, without any coercion to surrender basic rights to gain essential services."

Nuns unite to pledge support for Indigenous Australians (Catholic Social Services Australia, Media Release, 29/11/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Sisters of St Joseph
Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia

Wadeye Indigenous community appeals to Pell (CathNews 21/11/06)
Aboriginal elder tells Catholics to challenge Indigenous injustices (CathNews, 15/9/06)
Bishops' social justice statement focuses on Indigenous disadvantage (CathNews, 14/9/06)

Stark contrasts on Aboriginal Rights in Pope's Alice Springs address (Eureka Street 20/11/06)

30 Nov 2006