The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has released a new document: Towards a Better Distribution of Land, which calls for land reform.

The document is particularly directed at Latin America where vast tracts of land are owned by a small minority of the population. While the situation here in Australia is not identical to that in Latin America, the concentration of large landholdings squeezing out smaller family farms is also a concern here. The sections of the document dealing with indigenous land rights and environmental degradation also have implications for Australia', said Bishop Kevin Manning, Chairman of the Church's national social justice agency.

'The document calls for equitable and rational ways of dealing with the problems of restoring land traditionally occupied by indigenous populations to them, especially that taken away through various forms of violence or discrimination'. It highlights the connection between spirituality, culture and the land for indigenous peoples', said David Rose, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.

'The Vatican document vindicates the bishops' position on Native Title and encourages us to speak out strongly on social justice matters, and this includes the effect of government policy on both indigenous and non-indigenous people in rural areas', said Bishop Manning.

'The tragedy of the native title debate is that rural and indigenous communities have been set against each other. One cannot help but feel that native title has become a scapegoat for the deliberate decisions of government that favour urban areas over the rural.

'The document highlights that 'the neglect of the infrastructures and social services so indispensable in rural areas is having very marked effects'. The quality and quantity of education, the scarcity and poor quality of health services and community services are particular areas of concern. They can effectively amount to a denial of citizens' rights to health and education.

'We are seeing a retreat from the bush by Government. So many Government services in rural areas have closed. Towns have dwindling populations and farms have been repossessed. Many of the poorest communities in Australia are in the rural areas.

'The document quotes Pope John Paul II: 'In many situations radical and urgent changes are therefore needed in order to restore to agriculture - and to rural people - their just value as the basis for a healthy economy, with the social community's development as a whole',' said Bishop Manning.