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The Lake Eyre War of Words

by Sail-World Cruising round-up on 25 Mar 2011
Dramatic photo of water heading for Lake Eyre - but will it be come and gone before permission to sail is granted? SW
A war of words has broken out in connection with permission to sail on Lake Eyre, in one of the best seasons for a long time. Frustrated by an inability for authorities to negotiate with the traditional owners in a timely manner, President of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club, Bob Backway, has taken to talking to his lawyers.

'We've had legal advice that there's very little people could do if we just went and sailed on it as individuals,' he told reporters this week - which means that sailors could be right now sailing on the suddenly-become-controversial Lake Eyre.

The Arabunna people have been quoted as saying that the area is sacred and sailing should be banned.

The usually-dry salt pan only fills when floodwaters reach that area of outback SA, as they have this year.

No sailing permits are being issued for the national park until the dispute is resolved, making it illegal to sail there.

But Lake Eyre Yacht Club commodore Bob Backway thinks sailors may be on the waters anyway.

'The yacht club is not organising anything but we're telling people this is the best boating opportunity since 1989 for the lake and if they want to go out, boat on it, they probably won't get into an awful lot of trouble,' he said.

However Arabunna Native Title chairman Aaron Stuart says yachties need to respect the area. 'If he's encouraging them to break the white fella law, state law or federal law, well obviously he ain't going to give a crap about the Aboriginal law so if he wants to take that risk let him, but he needs to be responsible if anything happens,' he said.

'We're there to look after our country and unfortunately Lake Eyre to us is out of bounds to sailing boats.'

When asked, South Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Grace Portolesi said that those who sailed on the waterway illegally could face penalties of up to $50,000 under the Aboriginal Heritage Act. 'I would urge people to behave rationally and to behave respectfully,' she said.

'They need a permit. They don't have that at this point in time and their behaviour today potentially will influence any capacity for negotiated resolution down the track.'

Now the lawyers for the lake's native title claimants are also making public statements. Stephen Kenny, a lawyer for the Arabunna people who filed a native title claim on the waterway in 1998, says the controversy over the issue has been `disrespectful'.

'Some media circles are appearing to take on a tone of disrespecting the culture of the Arabunna people,' he told AAP on Thursday, according to the ABC.

'It is a place of great significance to them and well documented and well known, and I am pleased the national park is recognising that in their actions.'

Mr Kenny said National Parks' concern was not related to the Arabunna's native title claim but to the Aboriginal Heritage Act which calls for protection of sites of indigenous significance.

'Lake Eyre is a national park and for the yacht club to hold a regatta there they do need permission from National Parks and Wildlife...(who) know Lake Eyre is a significant site for the Arabunna people,' he said.

'There is an Aboriginal Heritage Act in South Australia that allows Aboriginal people to protect their heritage, and it is an offence to do something that is detrimental to Aboriginal heritage.'

'That is a separate issue, and that is what National Parks is concerned about, that the (sailing) activities could infringe (indigenous) spiritual beliefs.'

Mr Kenny said native title only gave Aboriginal people formal recognition as traditional owners of the land and the right to negotiate with miners.

'Native title does not give Aboriginal people the right to exclude others from their land,' he said. 'The tourists can still go there - they can't actually ban anyone from going to Lake Eyre.'
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