Today on Cape York Peninsula over 354,000 hectares of State owned and managed national park will today be given back to Traditional Owners . Cape Melville, Jack River and a series of smaller parks including Islands, about 70km north of Cooktown, will be returned to Traditional Owners as Aboriginal owned national parks under the Queensland government’s long running land tenure resolution process.
Today’s land hand-over concludes over two decades of negotiation between Traditional Owners and Government that began in 1992 and has been made possible through bipartisan support for a process of land tenure resolution unique to Cape York.
Related negotiations led to a historic 1996 agreement where the Queensland Government agreed to acquire naturally and culturally significant pastoral leases for divestment to Aboriginal ownership, and hand these properties and all national parks on Cape York back to Traditional Owners.
Through this ground breaking process, over 2 million hectares of land has been returned to Aboriginal ownership since 2004. Approximately 1.3 million hectares of this land are jointly managed national parks where the state has entered into joint management agreements with Traditional Owner groups for each park.
Joint management of national parks is becoming more common around Australia in formal recognition of the ongoing cultural significance these landscapes continue to play in the cultural survival of Australia’s first peoples. While the primary purpose of national parks remains focused on nature conservation; there now exists the growing recognition that this need not be to the exclusion of living Indigenous cultures.
From Tasmania to the Torres Straits – State, Territory and national governments continue to shift National Park policy toward a more inclusive model for Indigenous Australians. Mostly this is in the right direction, although governments can still underestimate the significance of cultural governance in the legislative framework.
The benefits of joint management include an increase in a much needed National Park workforce capacity and diversified and increased funding streams for park management. In remote regions there are also significant socio-economic benefits, particularly across northern Australia. Career opportunities, niche tourism enterprises and cultural maintenance all arise from the joint management approach.
But joint management is not without its critics, and from different ends of the spectrum. Some view conservation as simply a science and insist we must get on with the job of saving species without the ‘hum-bug’ of cultural appropriateness. Conversely, others see joint management as another covert colonial instrument to disempower Indigenous people and reinforces Euro-centric ideas of Aboriginality.
In reality, a best-practice model probably delivers outcomes somewhere in the middle – with more practical positives than negatives. The model of joint management being delivered on Cape York, at least in principle, is setting a high bar for other Traditional Owner groups and governments to follow.
On Cape York, all existing and any future national parks will have an underlying tenure of Aboriginal land. Through the engagement of anthropologists, native title holders and Aboriginal people connected to the region are all consulted to ascertain their views and aspirations for the land. In the case of national park transfers, an Indigenous Management Agreement sets out the roles, responsibilities and expectations of both the State and the Traditional Owners.
Cape York has a unique brand in the natural and cultural tourism industries. As tourism is one of the Newman Government’s four priority ‘pillars of the economy’, it makes good sense to invest in the Cape’s unique tenure of Aboriginal owned national parks.
By having a strong say in park management including any tourism opportunities, Traditional Owners will ultimately be in a much more empowered position to take advantage of economic opportunities.
Through well managed land tenure initiatives like the one taking place today on Cape York, we can go some way toward getting the balance right between recognising the importance of national parks, the significance of these landscape to Traditional Owners and the role of Aboriginal stewardship in land management. While national parks protect important habitat and ecosystems, these outcomes also serve to deliver economic and employment opportunities for some of Australia’s most remote communities.