Huge land handover to traditional Cape York owners

23rd September 2014 at 7:51am

With barely any fanfare, an enormous transfer of land is currently under way in Australia. The vast Cape York peninsula is the setting for a steady, determined handover that is repairing a historical wrong.

Huge tracts of Cape York’s landscape are being returned to traditional owners under a process that started in 1996. In the past decade, the Queenslandgovernment has spent more than $50m on pastoral land to return it to traditional owners.

At the latest tally, 2.2m hectares of land has been returned to people who often had it forcibly ripped away from them. Traditional owners were previously banished to work in towns or farms far from their country.

The returned land includes about a million hectares of national park, with Indigenous rangers bringing back ancient but largely ignored techniques on how to control feral pests and weeds and protect endangered species.

Just one group, the Olkola people, is set to become the largest non-government landholder in the region later this year, with the handover of five former pastoral slabs of land in south-central Cape York totalling 800,000 hectares.

The Olkola already jointly manage the Alwal National Park. Alwal is a name used for the threatened golden-shouldered parrot, a totem for the Olkola.

Michael Ross, a traditional Olkola owner, says he is proud of how Alwal has been tended since it was handed back. He’s now looking forward to doing the same with the five new properties.

“There are historical and cultural values there,” he says. “We have our burial grounds in there, you can see them from the air, placed in circles. We want to get the cattle and feral pigs off there because they are shifting the stones around.”

Dr Jeff Shellberg, a Griffith University academic, has been working with the Olkola and the Kunjen, a neighbouring tribe, on land management.

Shellberg says that once traditional owners are let back on the land, the fire regime changes. Land managers burn patchworks of landscape early in the fire season, to prevent huge bushfires that can destroy habitat and threatened species.

“This will really benefit small mammals such as the sugar glider and northern bettong, which are in huge decline in northern Australia,” he says. “Traditional owners know a huge amount about the land and some of that cultural knowledge is held quite tightly. They don’t want to give it up.

“That’s fair enough really because after getting their land back after forced removal, they don’t always want outsiders telling them what to do.”

Ross could have pushed for a land use agreement that would allow mushrooming development on the Olkola land, but he would rather it be conserved.

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“It’s on the backbone of the great dividing range where the east and west waters come out,” he says, joining his fingers to form a pyramid. “You can’t do much there. You’ve got a lot of cultural values there and you’ve got Alwal himself there. That’s his home and he plays a major part there as one of our totems.

“You’ve got to keep that backbone in place. Mining is coming close but you have to leave it where it is. I really don’t want mining because I know what it does to country.”

Instead, Ross is eyeing more incremental goals. He wants ecotourism on the land and other nature-based activities. Crucially, the land hand-backs also allow Indigenous people to return to their ancestral home, to tend to the land and the rivers.

It’s a pattern being replicated across Cape York. Rather than seize the chance to cash in via mining, traditional owners are focusing on land management and species conservation.

It is, potentially, a whole new way of generating economic, as well as cultural, rewards for Australia’s first people – rewards that aren’t harmful to the environment or dependent upon a fluctuating commodity price.

“I think we could offer tourists something different,” Ross says, warming to his theme. “I mean, the cape changes all the time as you travel it.”

Larissa Hale is also in search of a viable business for the area handed back to her people in 2006. Archers Point, a wedge of undulating hills, bluffs and coast 20km south of Cooktown, is Yuku Baja Muliku land.

Before the handover, Archers Point was a place “people came to get lost in”, as Hale puts it. Squatters tried to blend in among the trees. Some tried to build houses without planning permission. It took about three years to clean up the rubbish they left.

Government funding has delivered about 12 Indigenous rangers, who have mapped the area. To their surprise they found Bennett’s tree kangaroos and started eradicating weeds. Hale, who heads things up, wears a number of hats – there’s an environmental education program for visiting schools and a sea turtle hospital for injured animals.

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