Media Release 06 April 2016.
More than 50,000 hectares of land at Cape York has been returned to Aboriginal Traditional Owners, after a 22-year effort that might pave the way for further ancestral land tenure resolutions. An area of about 54,500 hectares known as Sandstone East, about 90 kilometres north-west of Cooktown, has been returned to the Binthii, Balnaggarr, Nhirrbanh, Wundall and Wunuurr clans after Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Curtis Pitt handed over the title deeds at a ceremony at Hopevale on Wednesday.
The state government had purchased the area from private landowners in 1994 with the intention to return the land to the traditional owners in the future. Not-for-profit organisation Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation worked on behalf of the traditional owners with the state government for more than two decades to determine areas of significance at Sandstone East and ensure everyone’s voice was heard.
Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation chief operating officer Terry Piper said while the process was lengthy, the journey was important. “It is quite a process and took some years to work through, the journey is just as important as the outcome in terms of how people are involved and ensuring that people feel happy with the outcome,” he said. Binthii traditional owner Stewart Wallace said it felt “amazing” to have this “long struggle” finally sorted out. “We have put a lot into it,” he said. “Now that we have got what we wanted, we are pretty happy, we are ready to stand up in the real world and be counted.”
Mr Wallace said it gave his clan and others the confidence to go into economic and sustainable avenues alongside different levels of government for the benefit of future generations. “The indigenous population as a whole will benefit from around this area for employment and other avenues as well,” he said.
The historical significance was also important, with previous Aboriginal generations having used some of the rock caves in the area to record their everyday lives and events, Mr Stewart said. “The historical significance is extremely close to us, the flora and fauna, the food,” he said. “As the season changes we see what we can look forward to with the changing of the land.” Mr Stewart said the handover had lifted the community. “The feeling of this today, you can feel it reverberating through the community, people are asking when it will happen for them,” he said. “Everyone is standing in line for their turn now to be counted and to be a part of the land. “It gives an Indigenous person a bit of pride to say, ‘This is mine and I want to do something with it, something sustainable and meaningful for the Indigenous people as well.”
More than half of the returned land will become a national park, named Biniir National Park, and will be jointly managed between the Waarnthuurr-iin Aboriginal Corporation and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.
Mr Pitt said the government would commit $100,000 annually towards land management. “We have also committed an additional $10,000 to raise the skills and qualifications of the traditional owners who will manage the park,” he said.
“We are determined to create new opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders to participate economically and if we can do that by involving them in the care of their own country, then this is a terrific win for everyone. “For thousands of years before Europeans arrived, generations of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders cared for the lands and seas of our country and I want to see more Indigenous Queenslanders continuing that ancient tradition in modern context by empowering them to manage protected areas and species in their regions.”
Mr Piper welcomed the state’s commitment to continued funding that he said was a step up from previous negotiations. “This is the first time the state has agreed to funding in perpetuity, which the traditional owners are happy with,” he said. “In the past the funding agreements have been for two or three years with no certainty beyond that.”
Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation chief executive Gerhardt Pearson said the handover paved the way for future resolutions. “Ancestral land tenure resolution is still needed at Shelburne Bay, Bromley and Boynton, Jardine River National Park, and Mt Jack and Battle Camp, to name just a few places,” he said. “This work is essential for the wellbeing of Cape York Aboriginal people, and we look forward to the continued commitment of the state to this process.”
Australian Conservation Foundation Northern Australia program officer Andrew Picone said the handover provided for “social, cultural, economic and environmental” opportunities and he welcomed the joint management of the national park, which contained Sandstone and slate mountain ranges, a significant wildlife corridor and tropical rainforest and woodlands. “While national parks are vital for protecting ecosystems, the Cape York model of joint management can also deliver economic and employment
opportunities for some of Australia’s most remote communities,” he said. A total of 3,383,693 hectares have been returned to traditional owners under the Cape York Peninsula Tenure Resolution Program.