On property prices, colonisation and climate change

Aboriginal access to Country to care for it in self-determined ways is a central theme of Mullumbimby, the novel by Bundjalung author Melissa Lukashenko. The protagonist, Jo Breen, opts to buy land to get it quickly and to ensure security for herself and her daughter. She wants to live on Country, care for it, heal herself and the world in the ways of her ancestors: ‘Land was the lodestone. The foundation of absolutely everything in culture,’ reflects Breen on her motives for wanting to buy property. The Anaiwan #LandBack campaign in the New England Tableland area of New South Wales has done the same thing, but at a local community scale.

The project is led by a group of Anaiwan people who, nearly six years ago, established a community driven program to revitalise their long dormant ancestral language. From January to February 2022, they raised over $350,000 to buy back 600 acres of their Anaiwan high country. Newara Aboriginal Corporation, the group spearheading the #LandBack campaign, plan to use this land for on country language learning, revitalising culture and caring for Country.

As non-Aboriginal people, our interest in their fundraising campaign and subsequent project stems from our work on the Armidale Climate and Health Project. This project is a grassroots community initiative to address climate change, improve community health and centre Indigenous knowledge. But we have always been aware of a major potential pitfall in the project: if we create new communities committed to to healing the environment and people without materially respecting the fact it is Aboriginal land supporting us all, then these projects are just another form of colonisation. As such, considering pathways for Aboriginal access to land for traditional cultural purposes became an important factor when developing programs to heal climate and people. In Armidale this task is not straightforward because most people engaged in the climate movement here are non-Indigenous and see Indigenous land rights issues as separate.

We had many yarns with Aboriginal community leaders, including Uncle Steve Widders and Gabi Briggs, about this issue and how the health of country and people are so intimately connected—to care for Country allows cultural, psychological and physical healing of people. We were initially planning a forum on encouraging white property owners to ‘open the gate’, so to speak, and create pathways for Aboriginal access to Country through private property. However the Anaiwan collective took it to the next level and have just bought their own land back. We talked with Callum about writing this reflection together, but he encouraged us consider what this campaign means from our perspective as white allies in the anti-colonial struggle to mitigate climate change.

The Anaiwan-led #LandBack project helps us to clearly see the connections between colonisation and climate change, as well as being thoroughly entangled with a national obsession: residential property. Firstly, it complicates everyday thinking on intergenerational inheritance and equality in relation to the property market; secondly, it follows a less travelled path for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination on a local community level; and, finally, it invites non-Aboriginal people to materially connect colonisation and environmental crisis, because of the project’s purchase of property in order to care for community and people in collective ways.

Australians are obsessed with property prices, but the terms of this obsession are usually very narrow.

For those who have stakes in the residential market, property prices indicate something about their personal wealth. For those who do not own a home, they manifest how it is increasingly unlikely that ownership will be possible. This new class divide has been called the ‘asset economy’, and is the product of decades of wage stagnation and property price inflation.

The familiar equation of the haves and have nots omits the historical conflict and present-day injustice that underpins the situation: all residential property in Australia is Aboriginal land. In other words, property itself is not a fact of nature, but was actively created through violent dispossession followed by, according to legal scholar Sarah Keenan, the intentional design of property law that encouraged ignorance of the history of land. The injustices of this process reverberate today. The process of how this happened through the creation of an agricultural economy on the colonial frontier in the New England, where the land buy back campaign is located, is documented by Callum Clayton Dixon in his NSW Premier’s History Award Winning book Surviving New England. As beneficiaries of that violent colonial processes, we are now paying off mortgages for our houses on this land. For those of us working on environmental sustainability and social justice on Anaiwan Country in the New England, or anywhere in Australia for that matter, non-Indigenous people need to figure out a way to materially repair colonial harm at the same time.

In addition to the slew of present-day housing injustices (dodgy landlords and real estate agents, high rents, bad housing stock, skyrocketing prices and so on), violent dispossession is also part of the contemporary politics of property prices. While we often think about dispossession at a national scale, it is replayed on a micro level with every property contract exchange. In fact, the Torrens Title system of land registration, through which most people globally secure property rights, is a creation of colonial South Australia. In this way all landowners remain complicit in the colonial project. While this might inspire feelings of guilt, fear and/or defensiveness, once we acknowledge that it is a problem and that there’s no easy solution, we can start to address it. In our view, land buy back campaigns like this one present a possible way forward.

However, this is another reason why regional property price inflation is a concern. For Indigenous people, property price inflation is not just a matter of housing affordability—it is connected to every aspect of the struggle against ongoing colonial harm, because it is related to land. What is more, if Australians generally can no longer access land on a regular wage, where does this leave Aboriginal people in terms of access to their own Country? As prices go up, the problem only gets bigger. The Anaiwan #LandBack campaign models an imperfect but compelling way to solve this complex problem by fundraising for local Aboriginal community ownership—that is, asking those who have benefited from the property price inflation to share some of that wealth by contributing to this campaign, and other campaigns of this nature. At the same time, community scaled ownership also challenges the logic of residential property ownership which is structured around the western nuclear family and expands it to accommodate a different model of kinship.

For Aboriginal groups that can afford the land, Torrens Title provides a different kind of access, authority and autonomy in relation to place than extant means (eg Native Title, joint management agreements with National Parks). Nēwara Aboriginal Corporation have bought back some of their Country using the tools of the property market plan with the vision of utilising the land as a hub for cultural education, on-Country language learning, and the reintroduction of traditional land and water management practices. As such, while this campaign required a huge initial fundraising effort, in some respects it might turn out to be cheaper than the real cost in terms of time and legal fees of other means, while providing capacity for localised Aboriginal community self-determination.

Finally, through our work on the Armidale Climate and Health Project we have sought to respond to the repeated calls to engage Aboriginal experts to support environmental sustainability projects. However, if Aboriginal people themselves cannot access and enjoy their traditional lands, on their own terms, any work we do to consult with Indigenous folks on sustainability issues will necessarily just appropriate their knowledge. When talking to Anaiwan and Gumbaynggirr artist Gabi Briggs about these issues, we learned that this work isn’t easy for anyone, that it’s slow and relational. Not only that it take all kinds, but it needs all kinds.

There is a wealth of data on the links between climate change and health—showing for instance how worsening heatwaves and bushfire smoke exacerbates chronic diseases like heart and lung disease. Aboriginal people already have higher rates of diseases like diabetes, heart and lung disease, and will be affected disproportionately by climate change. In addition, other chronic conditions including mental health and drug and alcohol issues have their roots in the violence and dispossession of colonisation and its ongoing reverberations in terms of family violence, housing instability and intergenerational trauma. Connection back to Country and culture is part of the healing work that is needed on all fronts, and this community owned block of land is an important living connection that could start to repair some of these harms.

At heart, centring Aboriginal knowledge and caring for Country is an essential part of addressing the climate crisis, as well as improving people’s health. Local Aboriginal people owning and caring for Country and modelling what this looks like on their own terms is a vital step on the path of truly healing Country and healing people. As non-Indigenous people working on creating solutions to the environmental crisis, we need to find ways to fully integrate anti-colonial work into our climate activism, so colonial harms are not just replayed in green.

Sujata Allan

Dr Sujata Allan is a GP with Armajun Aboriginal Health Service, adjunct lecturer in medicine and member of Doctors for the Environment.

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Jennifer Hamilton

Jennifer Hamilton is a lecturer in literary studies at the University of New England. She is the co-convenor of the reading group Composting Feminisms and Environmental Humanities.

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