Aboriginal Land

December 9th, 2009

I have been reading The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. There are many interesting things in the book, one of these is the notion of land ownership by the aborigines.

Land ownership is traditionally defined by a number of coexisting rights, which are defined independently of each other;

Patrilineal inheritance is the main ownership right and establishes the Kirda (‘owner’ or ‘boss’). The Kirda has the right to inhabit and use the land.

Matrilineal inheritance, establishes a Kurdungurlu (‘caretaker’ or ‘policeman’). The Kurdungurlu is guardian of the religious knowledge associated with the land and makes sure the Kirda performs the correct ceremonial rituals.

Additionally in aboriginal thought the land is traversed by dreaming lines which define the path taken by a particular Ancestor, the dreamline is located by singing the land. Each person ‘inherits’ the dream lines of a particular Ancestor and therefore maintains the path by travelling as their Ancestor did.

For the land to be exploited (either traditionally or for ‘contemporary’ purposes) both the Kirda and Kurdungurlu must consent however the Kirda and Kurdungurlu will always have a different ‘dreaming’ and are usually of different generations. The two will most likely be from neighbouring tribes, all this means they will be unlikely to collude to misuse the land.

This is reinforced by the general motivation to leave the land as found, so the next generation inherits the same dreaming that stretches back to the first Ancestors.

That a neighbouring tribe has a spiritual ‘ownership’ of land they do not inhabit (and they inhabit someone else’s sacred land) also means they are much less likely to be aggressive against their neighbours who may in return despoil the dreamings on their land.

In a land where immediate resources are scarce this inter-tribal limiting of the ability to misuse the land and attack neighbours seems like a robust solution, and Chatwin waxes poetic about the nomadic lifestyle, however it quite demonstrably limited ‘breaking the soil’ to the extent that farming and potential ‘progress’ as on the other continents did not occur. To have such a system in a land with good potential would be counter-productive, to create such a system in a non-nomadic society that depended on the ability to exploit the land and trade resources would be suicidal.

However if you accept that multiple ‘ownership’ an entity eventually leads to a sort of stasis (or stagnation) then you should accept that the EU countries are already on this path – with the ability of each state to legislate ‘its land’ (I know this is already an imposition) being circumscribed by its neighbours.

The attempts at Copenhagen to subordinate nation states to a global ‘climate policeman’ will also lead down a similar path, only in this case the effects will be more pronounced – developing countries will be crippled but countries that have relied heavily on technological innovation and sophisticated use of resources will be retarded or go into decline.

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