Cape York Land Rights

Cape York Indigenous Land Rights a fitting tribute to the Pearson brothers and the elders of Cape York Peninsula

7 June 2007 was a significant day for the Indigenous people of Cape York Peninsula. Legislation was introduced in the Queensland parliament yesterday that will enable the handing over of all Cape York land including national parks that had been claimed by Aboriginal traditional owners.

This has been a significant achievement for the leadership of Noel and Gerhardt Pearson and the many elders who have supported them over the past 17 years. The laws will give indigenous people joint management of national parks and will allow developments such as aquaculture, grazing and agriculture on Aboriginal land.

Yesterday was of great poignancy for Noel Pearson who sees the land rights victory as something which was very much overdue. He noted: "This is a day of very, very turbulent feelings, because it comes 17 years after we first embarked on this crusade". Mr. Pearson paid tribute to the late Rick Farley who had done some very hard yards over the past decade in bringing pastoralists to the point where they recognized Indigenous land rights. But there were many others who Mr. Pearson must have been thinking of including elders who have passed away and people who have worked with him since the days of the formation of the Cape York Land Council in 1990. His elder brother Gerhardt has been very much a general in the community in holding people together when things have been tough. Mr. Richard Aken has also been a very important catalyst in linking the aspirations of Torres Strait and Cape York people over this period. Mention should also be made of Lew Griffiths who has been with Mr. Pearson for over seventeen years when as a television cameraman he came to the Cape to cover a story and mention should be made of Jan Goettson, his wife Karen and their family who have also supported the Indigenous struggle for the past seventeen years.

The last few months must have also been a roller coaster ride of emotions for Indigenous leaders. Because of the backward nature of successive post war Qld governments, land rights came much later for Cape York Indigenous peoples than for those who benefited from the Whitlam government initiatives in the Northern Territory and later changes in Western Australia. The main struggle on Cape York literally began in 1990. Leaders such as Noel and Gerhardt Pearson, and Richie Ahmat achieved a great deal in a short time. They had been promised much by the former Goss Labor Government. But its surprise electoral loss set Indigenous land rights back twenty years on Cape York. Then came Beattie. After many long years of negotiation, to the point where it seemed the Queensland government would deliver substantially for Indigenous people, in recent times the Wilderness Society, of all groups, argued for an environmental quarantine of Wild Rivers that excluded Indigenous people's economic and cultural rights and their environmental expertise. This must have been a bitter blow. 

However yesterdays agreement ameliorated that concern to the point where Mr. Pearson could say: "I really do feel that land rights is going to be put behind us ...and we can get on to the social agenda of development and welfare reform and social recovery."

However there is no doubt that the continuing struggle for Indigenous rights of economic and cultural development will need to continue against perhaps a new group of adversaries in the form of uninformed environmentalists who have more expertise in relation to inner city backyard environments than the large acreages of remote Australia. What Indigenous people have argued for a long time is that the "land needs its people", in other words land needs stewardship and cannot just be left to itself. This may seem common sense in an era where feral animals and plants have already invaded most parts of Australia. However many environmentalists are infected with a very naïve European worship of wilderness that pays no account of the ways in which land and environment changes and the need for active management. These naïve environmentalists simply advocate the creation of large national parks with no resources to look after them and which prohibit active management. This philosophy is responsible for the terrible bush fires which have swept many of the Eastern states in recent years and in effect simply quarantines a very un-natural environment that bears little resemblance to the environment before European settlement. Indigenous land managers argue vehemently against these concepts because they argue for active management of land and environment through careful burning strategies and other techniques. It is amazing that until recently for example, Indigenous people have been prohibited from undertaking the burning that has protected the flora and fauna for thousands of years. And only after national parks have been literally burned to ash, that now in the South Eastern states the recognition of controlled burning is coming once again to the fore.

Beattie's new plan creates some balance about 17 per cent of the Cape will be protected from development. This has the support of conservationists, pastoralists and the resources industry and will allow environmentally friendly economic development, such as aquaculture, eco-tourism or grazing, on Aboriginal land.

Premier Beattie said it would give the 10,000 people living in the area job opportunities and an economic future.

"It provides for sensible economic opportunities for indigenous people in Cape York, while at the same time protecting the environment and also acknowledges the rights of pastoralists," he said.

State laws which limit tree-clearing will be eased in the area, while indigenous people also will be able to continue to access wild rivers in the region as their native title rights will be protected.

Mr Beattie told parliament that the bill provided for all stakeholders on the Cape: the Indigenous communities, pastoralists and environmental groups.

It also spelt out specific land use arrangements, which effectively watered down the recently introduced Wild Rivers Act interpreted by Mr Pearson and other indigenous leaders as hindering the establishment of businesses.

Mr Beattie said the new legislation would amend the Wild Rivers Act "to recognise prior native title rights and ensure allocations made as part of a wild rivers declaration included a reserve of water for future use by indigenous communities for sustainable development".

"For conservation interests, the bill identifies areas of potential world heritage significance and removes current impediments to the declaration of national parks by establishing joint management arrangements with indigenous land owners," the Premier said.

"And for the pastoral industry, it rewards graziers who choose to protect world heritage values on their properties and provides for the consideration of the impact on the Cape York grazing industry of any decision to transfer ownership or covert a lease to another tenure."

Pastoralist leader Peter Kenny said his organisation, Agforce, would work with indigenous people who wanted to establish cattle grazing properties. Cape York once ran hundreds of thousands of cattle, but the numbers now are a mere fraction of that herd.

Mr Beattie said $15 million had been allocated in this week's budget to implement the Cape York initiatives, including funding to employ 20 rangers to oversee the national parks.

Wilderness Society spokesman Lyndon Schneider said the laws would offer the long-term protection of the Cape, while Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said it would allow the industry to offer better economic opportunities to indigenous communities.