The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area (WHA) of far north Queensland is 22 years old and in some ways, it has come of age.
Back in the late 1980s, when Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland Government was trying to log, sell or sub-divide as much of the Wet Tropics as possible, the Commonwealth Government was weighing up its options on nominating the area for World Heritage listing. Beginning with the Bloomfield track, the controversial road linking Cape Tribulation with coastal communities such as Ayton, Bloomfield and Wujal Wujal, the nation’s attention was drawn to the region with the slogan ‘Save the Daintree’.
The struggle to save the rainforests from immediate threats saw the region’s natural values celebrated. Ancient origins, endemic species, rare and endangered fluffy creatures like the White Lemuroid Ringtail Possum captured the publics’ imagination and convinced the Hawke Government of the day to take a stance against the state and declare World Heritage listing of its natural values.
But that was only half the story. The Wet Tropics WHA includes part or all of the traditional homelands of more than 20 Aboriginal clans. Traditional Owners of the region continue to maintain strong cultural association to their country despite 200 odd years of European dispossession.
There is widespread recognition within the region today that Traditional Owners were not properly consulted during the World Heritage process. There has also been ongoing frustration that management authorities and regional organisations have been slow to include cultural values in management plans and engage with Traditional Owners on joint management arrangements.
Leah Talbot, a Yalanji Traditional Owners from the Bloomfield River area and ACF’s Cape York campaigner explains: “Indigenous recognition and involvement in management of the Wet Tropics WHA remains outstanding. The Queensland Government needs to apply consistent recognition to Indigenous people and protected areas and expand the principles of joint management as it is currently doing on Cape York to the Wet Tropics. It’s very important our landscapes are recognised for their cultural significance as well as their natural values. Such an icon like the Wet Tropics has had continuous Indigenous connections that need to be recognised.”
The Commonwealth Government has set in motion a process to re-nominate the Wet Tropics WHA for its cultural values. This is in response to over 15 years of pressure from Traditional Owner groups from the Wet Tropics region with support from the conservation movement.
Originally published in Habitat (Vol 39 No. 3) May 2011