Myth 5: Wilderness is the same as Terra Nullius

Myth: Wilderness is the same as Terra Nullius (Flannery 1994, Langton 1996) and is a ‘mystification of genocide’ (Langton 1996)

Truth: Terra Nullius under the Mabo High Court judgment did not in fact mean that nobody lived here, it meant that nobody ‘owned the land’. The objectionable doctrine of Terra Nullius argued that Aborigines did not have a real civilisation and hence ownership. The essence of the concept of wilderness is ‘large natural areas’ – so Terra Nullius and wilderness thus have nothing to do with each other. Similarly, wilderness has nothing as such to do with genocide. Large natural areas do not kill people, they are the remaining natural areas that people have not degraded. The wilderness movement knows that it has several things in common with the traditional Aboriginal relationship with the land including:

  • a belief in sharing;
  • ownership of land by the community;
  • a sense of kinship with the environment;
  • love of quiet contemplation of one’s surroundings;
  • an awareness of the spiritual quality of places.

The conflict arises where Aborigines want to use the land for modern technological processes, have motor vehicle access or manage the land in a way which interferes with natural processes (such as European grazing practices). One response to this myth has been that:

wilderness’ today does not represent a perpetuation of the notions of ‘wasteland’ and terra nullius that have been so effectively and tragically used by Europeans to overcome Australia’s Aboriginal societies. (Brown 1992)

Support for wilderness today reflects the rediscovery by non-Aboriginal people of an objective that has never ceased to be a fundamental Aboriginal concern - ‘caring for country’, or fulfilment of responsibility toward community and land (Brown 1992). The particular meaning of wilderness as ‘pure nature’ has been said not to recognise the prior presence and agency of indigenous people in the land, suggesting there has been no human influence (Plumwood 2002). However, the same scholar later clarified that terra nullius ‘denies both nonhuman nature and indigenous humans as prior and constraining presences’, so that neither are valued (Plumwood 2003).