How a lucky sighting of a newspaper ad helped a family win back its ancestral lands. When Kevin Torrens’ ageing father-in-law Ernie Hickling asked him to get back the lands of his ancestors, it seemed like an impossible mission. [Story courtesy ABC Online]
“Politically back in those days there was nothing you could do,” said Kevin Torrens.
Mr Torrens is a Wahlabul man from the Bundjalung nation on the New South Wales north coast.
It was the early 1990s, before the Mabo High Court case, when there was a doctrine of terra nullius — or no-one’s land — in most of the country.
The Mabo decision changed that.
It recognised that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders had a unique connection to country and prior rights, before the land was colonised.
Mabo led to the Native Title Act of 1993 which provided a legal process for Indigenous people to claim land rights.
However, that wasn’t an option for Mr Torrens.
Only land not legally owned by someone else can be claimed under native title.
The traditional country that Mr Torrens wanted to claim near Tabulam in northern NSW was freehold land, occupied by colonising setters since the mid 1800s.
Keeping his promise
Five years after his father-in-law died, an advertisement in the local paper caught Mr Torrens’ eye.
“They’d set up this Indigenous Land Corporation [ILC], and if you could prove that if there was land that traditionally belonged to you, you could apply to this mob to buy that back,” Mr Torrens said.
The ILC’s deputy chief executive officer, Tricia Button, said the government established a Land Account on the back of the Mabo decision.
“The Land Account was there to be held in perpetuity to help the ILC buy land for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups,” she said.