Environmental Science
articles by Will Kemp

First Australians – “We are no longer shadows”

The key dimensions of colonization covered by this episode of the SBS television series, First Australians, are Indigenous dispossession and the myth of “terra nullius” which was used to rationalise it.

For over two hundred years, the legal fiction of terra nullius – i.e., the idea that nobody owned Australia when it was claimed by the British – was assumed to be the basis of the land tenure system in Australia. There were attempts to dispute the notion of terra nullius during those two centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when convincing legal arguments were formulated (Reynolds 1992).

The judgement in the case of Mabo vs Qld in 1992 finally dismissed the doctrine of terra nullius and described it as contrary to fundamental common law values and international law (High Court of Australia 1992). This judgement meant that ownership of Australian land by Indigenous people had continued beyond colonization until the present day – except where it had been extinguished by land grants from the crown. Therefore, all crown land was available to be claimed by Indigenous people who could prove ownership.

The Mabo judgement opened the way for large scale Indigenous land ownership. The process of establishing claims to that ownership, however, would be long and drawn out in many cases – and a large proportion of the land in Australia would be incapable of being taken back.

For a number of Indigenous communities this change in the law – or rather this recognition of their traditional law – gave them back control over land, after a two centuries long suspension of their legal rights.

Mexico was colonized five hundred years ago, but similar issues related to Indigenous land rights continue today. These issues, however, don’t date back to colonization in the same way as they do in Australia. To a large extent, the Spanish colonizers left Indigenous people in control of their lands and created self governing communities with communal land ownership (Gledhill 2008).

Land rights problems began after Mexico gained independence from Spain and then went through a civil war in the 19th century. The liberals who won the civil wars were opposed to communal land ownership and most Indigenous land ended up effectively being handed over to large estate owners. After the Mexican revolution (1910-1920), some of this process was reversed and land was redistributed to Indigenous people. However, this went hand in hand with a program of what we would nowadays call “assimilation” (Gledhill 2008).

In the 1940s, Mexican law allowed a return to Indigenous autonomy and communal landholding through communal land grants. Communities which had managed to survive the previous regime were recognised and allowed to reclaim their communal lands. In the state of Chiapas, in the far south east of Mexico, however, this land reform was packaged with greater government control over their communities, which in turn led to cronyism and exploitation (Washbrook 2005, Gledhill 2008).

In Chiapas, major agrarian reform took place after 1940, but it did nothing to relieve the poverty and exploitation of Indigenous people. Lands granted to the Indigenes were often already occupied by large cattle farmers or were adjacent to their farms – both of which led to conflict. Often, too, land granted by the federal government was not handed over. In the 1980s and early 1990s the state government actively and violently suppressed dissent over these issues, causing considerable social unrest. In 1992, the federal government officially ended the land reform process, meaning there would be no more land grants to Indigenous people (Van Der Haar 2005, Washbrook 2005).

It was in this climate that the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) emerged from the Lacandón forest in Chiapas. On January 1st 1994, they issued a declaration of war against the Mexican government, which began “We are the product of 500 years of struggle…” (Rovira 1994). On that day they occupied seven towns in Chiapas and proclaimed their Ley Revolucionaria Agraria (Revolutionary Agrarian Law), which demanded redistribution of land to “those who work it” (Van Der Haar 2005, Gledhill 2008).

This uprising was soon violently suppressed, but by then it had already captured the attention of many people around the world – partly via the new medium of the internet. A large informal international support network assembled itself over the next few months and many supporters from around the world went to Mexico to show their support in person. The presence of these international supporters undoubtedly saved Indigenous lives, as the Mexican army was handicapped by the gaze of the international community. I was an international observer at two rounds of the peace talks between the EZLN and the government in 1995 and it seemed likely that if it had not been for the presence of foreigners, the peace talks could not have gone ahead, as the army would simply have killed the EZLN delegates.

Although the initial uprising only lasted ten days, a low level war continued for more than a year. In 1994 thirty three municipalities in Chiapas declared themselves to be autonomous communities, rejecting the authority of the government. Beginning immediately after the uprising, over 1700 parcels of land were occupied – initially in the name of the EZLN, but later by a wide spectrum of peasant organisations. These occupations effectively reversed the termination of land reform in 1992 pushing land redistribution well beyond its previous boundaries. The following year, the government began a process of legalizing the occupations and entered into peace talks with the Zapatista army (Rovira 1994, Van Der Haar 2005, Washbrook 2005).

The Zapatistas created communities on the occupied properties, which they refered to as “recovered land”. These communities were based on collective production and maintained Indigenous resistance to state control (Van Der Haar 2005).

These two scenarios, taking place on opposite sides of the world, are very different in a number of ways. The modes of colonization were quite different – Indigenous people in Mexico were initially left in control of their land, while Indigenous Australians were not – but Mexican Indigenes were eventually dispossessed and both peoples ended up in similar situations. In Chiapas, it took violence to recover possession of some Indigenous land, while in Australia a similar outcome was the result of legal action. The same sort of scenario is playing out all over the world as Indigenous people use a range of different methods to recover stolen land. It is a slow and frustrating process, but gradually some of the theft is being reversed.


Gledhill, J 2008, ‘Introduction: Anthropological Perspectives on Indigenous Resurgence in Chiapas’, Identities: global studies in culture and power, 15, 5, 483-505.

High Court of Australia 1992, Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (“Mabo case”) [1992] HCA 23; (1992) 175 CLR 1, High Court of Australia. Retrieved from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/HCA/1992/23.html on 18/7/14.

Reynolds, H 1992, The Law of the Land, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic.

Rovira, G 1994, ¡Zapata Vive! la rebelión indigena de Chiapas contada por sus protagonistas, Virus Editorial, Barcelona, Spain.

Van Der Haar, G 2005, ‘Land reform, the state, and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 32, 3-4, 484-507.

Washbrook, S 2005, ‘The Chiapas uprising of 1994: Historical antecedents and political consequences’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 32, 3-4, 417-449.