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This year, in the heart of Australia, the Central Land Council will celebrate half a century of advocacy for the rights and interests of Aboriginal communities.

Set up in response to the 1973 Woodward Royal Commission, which called for a council representing the views of Central Australian Aboriginal people, and enshrined as a Commonwealth corporate entity under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, the CLC is the undisputed voice of the bush. 

During its early years, it used the Land Rights Act to help its constituents claim back their ancestral lands, forever altering the landscape of Aboriginal rights in the NT. 

Today, Aboriginal people hold inalienable freehold title to more than half of the land across the southern half of the NT and enjoy native title rights to a further 161,000 square kilometres. 

The council has been a catalyst for change from the Warlpiri and Kartangarurru-Gurindji land claim to the historic handback of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. 

It has carried its vision of Aboriginal people managing, developing and thriving on their lands through to the post-land claim era. 


In 2000, it launched its first ranger group, which has grown to 14 dedicated groups looking after 500,000 square kilometres of Aboriginal land. Under the guidance of traditional owners, CLC rangers protect native plants and animals, sacred sites and water holes against threats such as wildfires, feral animals and introduced weeds. 

The rangers manage four vast protected areas where they conserve precious and priceless natural and cultural values in the national interest. 

In its anniversary year, the council is preparing to add a fifth, the Central Western Desert Indigenous Protected Area. It will become a strategic link between 14 neighboring protected areas in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia that form a 72.6 million hectare corridor where Aboriginal rangers protect threatened plants and animals. 

The traditional owners of the 21 national parks in the CLC region manage them jointly with the NT and Australian governments, supported by the CLC’s land management team. Joint management is not just about asserting traditional owner priorities and creating jobs on country. Just as important is the development of the places where the parks’ owners live. 

Aboriginal groups have successfully invested land use income to drive their community development priorities, from a community-owned and managed pool in Mutitjulu near Uluru to a traditional owner built-and-financed hiking and cycling trail in the Yeperenye Nature Park near Alice Springs. 


What makes the CLC’s community development program unique is that it enables traditional owners to use their collective income for projects their communities want and run them as they see fit, without waiting for government funding. 

Instead of wondering if they will ever see a local language and culture curriculum for their schools, run a playgroup with local workers, build a skate park or a recording studio, or reward good school attendance with excursions to capital cities and bush camping trips they are just getting on with their projects. 

Since the program’s inception in 2005, 40 remote communities have joined and created their own local and regional governance groups. 

The CLC’s community development team supports more than 100 Aboriginal groups in prioritising, planning and monitoring community development projects. To date, these groups have invested their rent, royalty, leasing and compensation income in more than 2600 initiatives that maintain their languages, cultures and connection to country. These projects have also improved health, education, training and employment outcomes, with 400 to 650 remote community residents employed every year as a result of the program. 

A decade of independent monitoring and evaluation of the CLC’s community development program documents how Aboriginal people in remote communities have built their capacity to govern, plan and deliver large community infrastructure projects. Lajamanu’s popular water park, which opened its gates in August 2022, is a case in point. 

Over the past 50 years, the CLC’s 90 elected members have fought off many attempts to undermine their land rights. More recently, they have expanded their focus on the source of all life – water. Unsustainable development, weak government policy and regulation, unsafe drinking water, as well as climate change, are threatening the continued ability of Aboriginal people to live on country. 

As former CLC chair Sammy Wilson put it: “Water rights are the new land rights.” 

The CLC’s legal action against a massive 40 giga litre water licence for a horticulture project on Singleton Station south of Tennant Creek shows that it is not afraid to take on those who would endanger its constituents’ livelihoods and sacred sites. 

The CLC’s achievements are a testament to the power of collective action and perseverance in the face of adversity. 

It is this power Aboriginal people in Central Australia will tap into during the CLC’s 50th anniversary celebrations later this year as they remember their land rights heroes and heroines and get on with shaping a future where their voices are heard and valued and where their cultures and communities thrive for generations to come. 

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