Just over 30 years ago in October of 1977, the Queensland Government proclaimed the 37,000 hectare Mitchell-Alice Rivers National Park. Back then, there was little consideration given to the aspirations of Traditional Owners, the Kunjen and Oykangand, many of who now reside in the nearby community of Kowanyama.
Almost to the day 32 years later, in October 2009 the Mitchell-Alice Rivers National Park has been reborn as Errk Oykangand National Park (Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land) and is now owned and managed by Traditional Owners.
This has been possible through a remarkable process which arose out of the historic1996 Cape York Heads of Agreement (CYHOA), a framework that brought together Indigenous, pastoralist and conservation interests. In 2001 the then Premier Peter Beattie signed onto the CYHOA that saw the Queensland Government invest in the Cape York Peninsula land tenure resolution process. The Wilderness Society, the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre and the Australian Conservation Foundation, continued this involvement as the Conservation Sector in the Cape York Tenure Resolution Implementation Group (CYTRIG). Indigenous interests in CYTRIG are represented by the Cape York Land Council and Balkanu Development Corporation. The Conservation Sector, Indigenous Interests and the Queensland Government work together to ensure these positive land tenure outcomes become a reality.
Since 2004 the Queensland Government has spent $24 million on buying out pastoral leases for the dual purpose of returning homelands back to Traditional Owners and expanding the protected area estate on Cape York Peninsula. This process has seen over 400,000 hectares of land become national park. There have been extensions to Lakefield and Cape Melville National Parks and the creation of Jack River, Melsonby (Gaarraay) and Annan River (Yuku Baja-Muliku) National Parks. Including additional areas that were protected in the years leading up to 2004, brings the total area to over 500,000 hectares.
Since the introduction of the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act 2007, we have also seen the creation of a new type of national park tenure, one in which the underlying ownership is Aboriginal. Both the KULLA (McIlwraith) and Lama Lama National Parks have been created under this arrangement; National Park (Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal land (CYPAL)). In addition to the expansion of the conservation estate, over 500,000 hectares have been returned to Traditional Owners as Aboriginal Freehold Land.
The former Mitchell-Alice Rivers National Park was the first existing national park in Queensland to be returned to Traditional Owners. On 23 October the final signing of documents, the Deed of Grant of Land and an Indigenous Management Agreement, was undertaken in a ceremony at Kowanyama that saw the old park renamed Errk Oykangand National Park (CYPAL). Kate Jones, Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability, together with local MP Jason O’Brien and federal MP Jim Turnour attended the handover event, which was also attended by many elders from Kowanyama and nearby Pormpuraaw, Michael Ross (Chair of the Cape York Land Council), and many other guests from the Kowanyama community including a few hundred primary school students.
Relative to the rest of Cape York Peninsula the Park contains few rare, threatened or endemic species. However, there are also few dedicated conservation reserves in this part of the region. The park ensures representation of typical western Cape York or Northern Gulf regional ecosystems including wetlands, box and bloodwood savannahs, monsoonal closed/ open forests fringing lagoons and open forests along watercourses.
The park includes sites of enormous cultural significance to the Kunjen and Oykangand language groups.
The Kowanyama Aboriginal Land and Natural Resource Management Office (KALNRMO) now have primary responsibility for the day-to-day management of the park and also have a strong say in broader management planning processes.
The return of this park to its traditional owners represents a significant achievement of the Kowanyama community who have pursued the return of this land since it was first declared park and acquired by the State in 1977. Viv Sinnomon, KALNRMO Manager said “We’ve been working on this for a long long time… we’re really looking forward to working with the Parks on this agreement. ”
First published: December 2009 in Ecotone (vol 29 no.4)