Rightful Lands, Rightful Hands

Rightful Lands, Rightful Hands

A silhouette of palm tree leaves at Daintree National Park in Queensland, Australia, which was just returned to its rightful caretakers. (Photograph by Patricio Robles Gil / NaturePL)


WORDS BY Yessenia Funes

Indigenous people around the world are calling for the return of their ancestral lands. The Frontline examines how this is playing out in real time—from Australia to the American Southwest.

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In the United States, many are off from work today (including the Atmos team). It’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Some may still celebrate Columbus Day, but Christopher Columbus (arguably the most famous colonizer of all time) is a relic of a painful past. The world is finally learning to correct the way it tells history—and whom it chooses to honor. Colonialism is having its day in court, but renaming holidays is only the start.


The ultimate goal is land back. Centuries of white violence stripped Indigenous people of their lands—plains on which they used to hunt or forests where they used to forage. Instead, colonizers abused the Earth for their own greed. Now, that’s coming to an end. Governments are returning lands to their rightful caretakers. 


At the end of September, Australia returned more than 395,000 acres of land to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, including the Daintree National Park, which is believed to be the oldest living rainforest in the world. On Friday, the U.S. began the process to reinstate protections for the Bears Ears National Monument and place the management of its 1.35 million acres back into Indigenous hands. 


Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re celebrating land back. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The climate justice movement doesn’t see wins every day, so we gotta find joy where we can. And this, my friends, is a joyous day.







Kallum Clarke didn’t connect much to his Kuku Yalanji culture growing up. It wasn’t until he became a ranger with the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation in Australia that he began to learn the various names of flora and fauna in his Native language. By connecting to the land, Clarke learned to connect with his roots. Now, that connection grows deeper. 


The Australian government has returned hundreds of thousands of acres of land to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, signaling the global success of the Indigenous-led land back movement. For Clarke, the land transfer offers his people the opportunity to repair what centuries of colonialism has wrought on the land. In the face of the climate crisis, Indigenous people like the Kuku Yalanji are best equipped to guard the ancient forests that store our carbon. In this case, we’re talking about 395,000 acres of bubu, which means land in the Kuku Yalanji’s language, and jalun, which means sea.


“Indigenous Australians are an 80,000-year-old culture,” Clarke said. “We’ve been working the land for generations… We want to be at the negotiation table when any decision is made for the bubu or the jalun because who better to look after it than the traditional owners who have learned from their own people, stories, customs, and yearnings to make sure our lands and seas are looked after for future generations?”


The process to return this land to the Kuku Yalanji began in 2007 when the Australian government passed the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act, which allowed for national park territories within the Cape York Peninsula in the northern tip of Queensland to fall under Aboriginal management. While the lands under the recent transfer will be jointly managed between the Eastern Kuku Yalanji and the Queensland government for now, the goal is for the Kuku Yalanji to eventually take over that role entirely.


“That’s an important step for global recognition because, then, it shows the misconception a lot of people have for Indigenous people—oh, they live on reserves or there’s no hope, they’re on drugs,” Clarke said. “A lot of time, all that we need is that connection and that care and that pride to rediscover our culture and country.”


That rediscovery isn’t only beneficial to their culture and well-being. It’s good for all of us. Roughly 80% of the world’s biodiversity is under Indigenous stewardship. Under their protection, forests in Latin America have been able to store more carbon than what’s tucked away in Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo combined. That’s because Indigenous people have a special relationship with the Earth. It’s where their ancestors live and die—and where many say their gods reside, said Julian Brave NoiseCat, a policy expert who is a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen in Canada.

“There cannot be climate change mitigation or adaptation without the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands.”


That worldview informs the way many Indigenous people engage with the land. Whereas the colonized mind sees nature as a resource to extract, many Indigenous cultures see it as a being—as kin. And you don’t hurt family. Returning land to Indigenous communities can help secure its future and protection—which is key to sucking carbon out of the air—while also addressing the suffering their cultures faced when they lost this land.


“There’s this notion that in the process of decarbonization we can also try to right some of the wrongs from our former economic systems,” Brave NoiseCat said. “That can look like stronger protections for workers and their rights to collectively organize. That can look like less environmental racism. And I think it can also look like a more just, equal, and reciprocal relationship with First Peoples. Land return is a very important piece of that.”


Australia carries an especially bloody and racist history with British colonization of the continent. The British arrived in the late 18th century and killed thousands upon thousands of Black Aboriginal people—through disease and murder. The country is still dealing with the systemic racism this history has left in its wake. For instance, Australia’s Aboriginal people disproportionately die in police custody. Colonialism has a way of cascading into the present.


“This history was a combination of anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism,” Brave NoiseCat said. “Indigenous peoples of Australia did not even have the opportunity during colonization to sign treaties with colonists.” 


The return of these lands to the Kuku Yalanji helps some scars heal, but there are plenty more. In the meantime, Indigenous people across the globe are seeing what’s possible when they demand what’s theirs and organize locally for what their communities need. This is a win Indigenous people across the globe share. And it’s fuel to carry on and fight.


“Indigenous people have said their message loud and clear,” said Nick Tilsen, CEO and president of the NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to the land back movement. Their message? Land back. And they mean it.


“There cannot be climate change mitigation or adaptation without the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands,” Tilsen said. “There cannot be a reckoning with the past without the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands.”

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