Law students’ arid lands field trip for Pastoral Land Reform project

Earlier this month a group of law, science, and economics academics from Adelaide University, and 4 Adelaide law students, completed a detailed submission to the State Government advocating change to the Pastoral Lands Management Act.

40% of South Australian land is pastoral land, set aside for grazing, covering some of the most arid and marginal land in Australia. Since colonisation, the land has been earmarked for stock grazing – cows and sheep. Degradation of the land over the last hundred and fifty years has been significant. Clearing of vegetation, soil erosion, over grazing, drought, and an explosion of the population of feral species have combined to decimate native plant and animal species and left our marginal grazing lands in a precarious position. The millennium drought never really ended for these regions, and there has been precious little rainfall in the past few years.  Aboriginal land title holders, graziers, the land, vegetation, and animals are all doing it very very tough. Even the feral goats are struggling.

Our 30 page multidisciplinary submission focussed on the preservation of the rangelands for the future. Climate change, ecological degradation, increased periods of drought, and extreme weather events all threaten the health of our rangelands. We argued that a new approach to managing these lands needs to recognize that different ecosystems are interconnected, and that the way the land has been divided up and managed over the last century won’t work into the future. Predictive data suggests that the rangelands will get hotter, drier, and that the arid regions of South Australia will gradually expand south. It is possible that large areas of the grazing lands won’t be usable in the future, if something isn’t done now.

As part of their Clinical Legal Education (CLE) elective subject, four final year law students worked on this submission, focussing on international law, environment, and Aboriginal rights to manage and protect the land.

Mt Serle Station. The land has not seen rain for 2-3 years. Pic: E.Gilsenen-Reed

We worked closely with Terrence Coulthard, Adnyamathanha Elder and manager of the Iga Warta Aboriginal Homelands Corporation to argue that Aboriginal people should be actively involved in land management. Iga Warta is a cultural centre in the Gammon Ranges. In the first initiative of its kind in South Australia, Iga Warta has obtained permission to start work revegetating and conserving the fragile ecosystem on an area of Significant Environmental Benefit on Mount Serle pastoral lease in the Gammon Ranges.

A couple of weeks ago a group of 8 students and 2 Academics from Adelaide Law School travelled up to Iga Warta to gather more information about the role and vision of Aboriginal traditional landowners.  We also planted the very first quadrat markers to start the conservation and regeneration work in the area of Significant Environmental Benefit.  In 20 year’s time our students will be able to point to “their” stake in what we hope will be a very different landscape to the one we see today.

It was an amazing opportunity for our students to walk on and engage with the very land that we argue should be better managed for the challenges of the future.

Spending time with Terry and the other Adnyamathanha people at Iga Warta opened our minds to other ways of seeing the landscape, and helped our students understand the breadth and complexity of land law reform.

First stop: The team at Pt Augusta. Pic: M.Castles

Law students Nick, Matt and Josh with Adnyamathanha Elder Terry Coulthard finding the GPS position of one of the quadrat sites. Pic: E. Gilsenen-Reed

Scientists Ben Sparrow, Nick Gellie, and Jose Facelli from the Adelaide University Faculty of Sciences contributed their scientific expertise in ecology, ecosystem protection,  land care and management. Patrick O’Connor from the Adelaide University Center for Global Food and Resources focussed on the economic viability of complex land management strategies. Margaret Castles, Paul Leadbeter and Michelle Lim from the Adelaide University Law School focussed on the operation of the Pastoral Lands Act, the potential for changed lease and land use arrangements, and the impact of International agreements and undertakings.

Our students Andre McPherson, Eleanor Small, Nicholas Munday, and Ethenia Gilsenen-Reed had first hand experience in working on a significant law reform submission, as well as connecting that work with the “real life” environmental and economic challenges in the arid rangelands of South Australia.

“Visiting Iga Warta and the Mt Serle area of Significant Environmental Benefit was such a rewarding experience, it really consolidated the research that we have all put into this submission. The trip gave us the opportunity both to see the desiccation of the land from drought and over-exploitation as well as get a sense of the potential for recovery if managed appropriately into the future.” CLE Student Eleanor Small

“Being on Adnyamathanha land, and seeing first hand the devastating effects of drought and the impacts of prolonged pastoral use, was an eye-opening experience. While there is much to be left disappointed by in terms of the current land condition, seeing the resilience of the people and their drive to help the land to recover was something to be admired.” –CLE student Nicholas Munday

Installing a Quadrat Marker Pic: N.Munday

“Travelling up to such a remote part of the world is always insightful. The Adnyamathanha peoples experience and knowledge of the land and how they can rejuvenate it and recover it is incredible. Each time I’ve travelled up there an absolute wealth of knowledge has been shared with me.” – CLE student Andre McPherson

 “Personally, I found the trip to Iga Warta to be both an insightful and enriching experience. Visiting and surveying various sites in the Mount Serle pastoral lease gave me a deeper understanding of the issues facing pastoralists and indigenous land owners in South Australia, and to see the land condition first hand was truly eye-opening. It was also a privilege to be able to meet and work with Terry, an Adnyamathanha elder, who had a wealth of knowledge and many fascinating insights into the history of the region and indigenous land management.” – CLE student Ethenia Gilsenen-Reed

This initiative, the result of passionate commitment to evidence based land reform by Adelaide University academics and students, was supported and funded by the Adelaide University Law School. It strengthens the links to the Adnyamathanha Aboriginal community that the Clinical Legal Education program has initiated and provides our students with a unique opportunity to work and learn in diverse parts of the wider Australian community.

For a copy of the submission discussed above please contact Margaret Castles at


Students engaged in this exercise did so as part of their enrolment in the Law School Clinical Legal Education program, which offers 5 legal advice clinics for members of the community in SA, including this remote Aboriginal outreach initiative. Program director Margaret Castles who initiated both the submission and this field trip explains: “It is important for students in the CLE program to get a unique educational experience, but it is just as important for them and for the Law School to have meaningful community impact. The CLE law clinics program already provides free legal advice to hundreds of people in SA each year. This regional outreach is a logical extension that responds to the challenges of remote access to legal services in SA.”

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