These roots run deep: How Australia’s British colonial history has shaped modern land use

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Anna Burnard

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Abstract

Contemporary laws and norms regarding how land is managed in Australia are rooted in colonial legacy. The inheritance of English social, legal and agricultural systems, the marginalisation and displacement of Indigenous Australians, and a fundamental ignorance of Australian ecosystems profoundly shaped land management in Australia’s settlement period. English feudal society equated land ownership with power, and as such gave landowners absolute dominion over their property; a norm that has lasted into the present day. The eighteenth-century legal decision of declaring Australia as terra nullius, and the subsequent disruption of Indigenous land management practices, has similarly had ramifications into the twenty-first century. Early settlement farming practices on the continent replicated traditional European farming, despite this being not well suited to the Australian environment; another norm that remains firmly in place today, despite the environmental consequences and poor agricultural yield. Though the country’s cultural and social landscapes have changed in the intervening centuries, our land management systems remain inextricably linked to their colonial origins. In order to understand our present land management systems and practices, it is vital we understand how they grew from the legal, social and environmental contexts of settlement.

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