Australia’s longest native title claim decided for world heritage-listed Kimberley national park

The country’s longest running native title claim over one of Western Australia’s premier tourist destinations

The country’s longest running native title claim over one of Western Australia’s premier tourist destinations has finally been decided in the state’s north.

The Federal Court has today recognised Purnululu and Gajangana Jaru native title groups as exclusive native title holders of the world heritage-listed Purnululu National Park in the state’s Kimberley region.

The claim has been running since 1994, and has been the centre of a dispute between Kimberley native title holders for as many years.

The park is home to the Bungle Bungle Ranges, a sacred place for Indigenous people in the East Kimberley, and is wedged between Gija [or Kija] land to the north and Jaru to the south.

There had been no agreement on a boundary for centuries.

Federal Court Justice Debra Mortimer said the proceedings had a long history.

“Disputes over who are the right people for Purnululu National Park, and some of the areas surrounding it, have extended almost back to the conception of the [native title act] itself,” she said.

“It is a matter of considerable moment that these three proceedings have concluded in a positive, cooperative and forward-looking way.

Tourism WA still image from latest tourism campaign (September, 2013)
The Bungle Bungles are a huge tourist attraction for people visiting the East Kimberley.(Supplied: Tourism WA)

“Jaru, Kija and Malngin people … are to be warmly congratulated on their spirit of determination, and their acceptance of the need to work and walk together to achieve this outcome.”

The agreement is expected to cover 4,500 hectares including the nearby conservation park.

It will mark the second time in WA history native title will be recognised in a conservation reserve.

Important decision for traditional owners

In a statement, Purnululu elder Shirley Drill said it was an important moment for her group.

A wide shot showing hikers walking along a path leading up to the Bungle Bungle range in the WA Kimberley.
The Bungle Bungle Range has been a sacred place for traditional owners for thousands of years.(AAP: Tony Bartlett)

“This is a very happy moment, but this process has taken too long,” she said.

“Now it is finished and now we can finally have our land back — I want to stay out there on my country and I want my children to stay on country.”

Gija woman from Purnululu, Sophia Mung, said the long court process had been stressful but she was happy about the decision handed down. 

“I feel like our old people were working for us, for our country. I just feel really overwhelmed and happy that this has been recognised for us mob,” she said. 

Gija Woman, Sophia Mung
Gija woman from Purnululu, Sophia Mung, says the decision will help her community. (Supplied: Libby Hammond)

“It’s opened our whole world up now, because we can just go out on our own country and do what our old people did.” 

Ms Mung said the determination would let the next generation connect with country and provide them with employment opportunities. 

“It’s going to make a real difference because we can take them out there, they can do their own connection on country and do tourism,” she said.

The way forward

A Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions spokesman has previously told the ABC the department hoped to set up a joint management system once native title holders established a prescribed body corporate.

helicopter flies above beehive-like  rock formations
The Purnululu claim was lodged in 1994, making it the oldest active native title claim in Australia. (Supplied: Helispirit)

The Bungle Bungles Aboriginal Corporation was registered with the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations in October, and Justice Mortimer said it would be the vehicle for change in the park.

“The court’s orders and determination mark a new start for the protection and management of the Purnululu National Park and the surrounding areas; a new start to the protection and management of country, and the ongoing practice of culture,” she said.

The Kimberley Land Council has provided support to both native title groups throughout the process.

Its chief executive, Tyronne Garstone, said it was a histoic moment for all of Australia.

Tyronne Garstone in front of the Kimberley Land Council
Tyronne Garstone says the land council is happy an agreement has been reached.(ABC Kimberley: Ben Collins)

“Native title can be quite a divisive bit of legislation; what we do find is there are some disagreements,” Mr Garstone said.

“[But] these two groups have come together acknowledging which parts of the country they belong to and hopefully move forward and form a new partnership.”