(Published in Habitat 2011)
When in 1977 Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared Archer Bend National Park, his motivation was not conservation. This declaration was, as current Premier Anna Bligh put it, “a shameful chapter in Queensland’s history”.
Bjelke-Petersen’s use of national park legislation was a deliberate and unprecedented act of racial discrimination that denied Aboriginal people ownership of land.
John Koowarta and a number of his fellow Wik Mungkan countrymen sought to purchase the Archer Bend pastoral holding in 1974. This land was part of the Wik Mungkan people’s traditional homelands. They had maintained a strong connection with their country by working and living on the Archer Bend property for many years.
Koowarta and his countrymen were highly skilled cattlemen and planned to buy back their homelands and start their own cattle enterprise.
With support of the then Aboriginal Land Fund Commission they approached Archer Bend’s owner who agreed to sell. A contract for sale was prepared in 1976. Then Premier Bjelke- Petersen intervened, preventing the Queensland Minister of Lands approving the sale. Bjelke-Petersen is on record expressing that he did not want Aboriginal people to own large tracts of land and the proposed sale was ‘land rights by the back door’.
Koowarta began a legal challenge beginning with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1976. Koowarta asserted the Queensland Government was discriminating against Aboriginal people by preventing their acquisition of large areas of land and that this was in contravention of the Commonwealth’s Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Astonishingly, Bjelke-Petersen contested that this Act was not valid and the Commonwealth had no power to implement it.
In 1982 the High Court found in favour of Koowarta. The High Court’s landmark decision tested the Commonwealth’s ability to ensure the states honour their obligations under international treaties. In this instance, the United Nations Charter on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Bjelke-Petersen declared the Archer Bend pastoral lease a national park, pre-empting the High Court’s decision in favour of Koowarta and denying the Wik people their lands.
This injustice has remained unfinished business for the last 30 years and many Aboriginal people have seen this as an example of how protected areas can serve as another form of dispossession. Revoking this part of the national park has significant symbolic value, and for many it represents recognition of past injustices. It also provides opportunities for conservation and Indigenous interests to work together.
This resolution has only been made possible by a unique land tenure reform process occurring across Cape York Peninsula. ACF’s Don Henry and Leah Talbot are members of the Cape York Tenure Resolution Implementation Group (CYTRIG), which also draws membership from The Wilderness Society, Cape York Land Council, Balkanu Development Corporation and the Queensland Government.
Through negotiated agreement, CYTRIG has delivered over one million hectares of land back to Aboriginal Traditional Owners, and with their consent more than half of this has been declared Aboriginal-owned national parks managed jointly with the Queensland Government. The Queensland Government has spent approximately $24 million purchasing pastoral leases of high cultural and conservation significance since 2004 to achieve this.
Another key aspect of CYTRIG is the return of all existing national parks on Cape York Peninsula to Aboriginal ownership. The first existing national park to be transferred back to Aboriginal ownership on Cape York was the former Mitchell-Alice Rivers National Park.
The park is jointly managed by the Kowanyama Aboriginal Land and Natural Resource Management Office and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service as the Errk Oykangand National Park (Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal land). Other national parks scheduled for return to Traditional Owners in 2011 include Lakefield, Iron Range and Mungkan Kandju to which Archer Bend was amalgamated with in 1994.
The Archer Bend revocation accounts for only 17 per cent of the park’s former 456,000 hectares. Of the revoked 75,854 hectares approximately 32,000 hectares is proposed as a nature refuge, demonstrating the Traditional Owner’s goodwill and commitment to conservation.
The remaining 380,500 hectares of Mungkan Kandju national park will be transferred to an underlying tenure of Aboriginal ownership, jointly managed by its Traditional Owners and the Queensland Government.
Queensland Climate Change and Sustainability Minister Kate Jones stated: “The revocation of any national park is a serious matter and is never taken lightly. It should only be contemplated by the Government in exceptional circumstances.”
Endorsing a national park revocation is a watershed for ACF, but this must be viewed in the historical context. CYTRIG is a unique process that delivers social justice and environmental outcomes. It is also an area where conservation and Indigenous interests still work closely with the Queensland Government despite differences over other areas including Wild Rivers.
Originally published in Habitat (Vol 39 No. 2) March 2011