The story of the protection of Shelburne Bay on Cape York’s northern tip goes back several decades and involves a cast of many including the Wuthathi people, former PM Bob Hawke, former ACF CEO Don Henry and countless others. But it is the current Queensland Government, that is working towards delivering a national park for the area.
CLIMBING the immense white sand dunes of Shelburne Bay with the Wuthathi people, behind the big grins, somersaulting kids and photo posing, I saw a profound and palpable sense of pride.
Back in 2010 I worked with the Wuthathi people, Traditional Owners of Shelburne Bay, to help them hold one of their largest on country meetings in modern times. With about 60 Wuthathi people in attendance it was the first time many family groups had come together on their ancestral homelands. It was also the first time many young Wuthathi kids had come back to their home turf.
A year later in 2011 we chartered the large catamaran Pelican 1— to takes us to the most sacred of Wuthathi places, Wulungun, also known as White Point. It was here, half way up the immense dunes, struggling in the glare and tropical heat with a camera in each hand that I realised the enormity of the moment.
Before arriving at the dunes, Wuthathi ancestors were notified through song. The cultural significance of these dunes is immeasurable, as is the Wuthathi’s unbroken connection to their country. This connection has been a driving force in their determination to reclaim ownership of their land through both native title and tenure ownership.
Back in 1985, Don Henry who was then the coordinator of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, challenged a mining application by an Australian-Japanese joint venture over 75,000 hectares of Shelburne. He took the challenge to the Mining Warden’s Court Thursday Island.
Naively, the mining proponents believed there was no Aboriginal interest in Shelburne Bay based on an astonishing assumption that the Wuthanthi had all passed away. Henry, of course, had done some legwork and persuaded the then 70 year-old (now deceased) Alick Pablo to give evidence. Based on Alick’s evidence, as well as that of several scientists, economists and others, the Warden’s Court made an unprecedented recommendation against mining.
In response, Queensland’s then Minister for Northern Development, none-other than Bob Katter declared, “I will not let the conservation lobby to stop the mining of silica in one small part of the Peninsula”. At the time, and as recently as last year, Katter has quipped that the sand is only going to blow into the sea and therefore should be mined.
Realising that a Queensland Government under Joh Bjelke-Petersen wasn’t going to protect Shelburne Bay from the miners, Don Henry and the Wuthathi sought federal intervention. Then Prime Minister Bob Hawke effectively exterminated the project by making it illegal to export the sand.
Narrowly avoiding a disastrous mine, by 1990 the Wuthathi were again forced to defend country along with the support of their Kaanju and Kuuku Ya’u neighbours to the south.
Although Bjekle-Petersen’s reign of Queensland had come to an inglorious end, his mad-capped idea to build Australia’s first spaceport within coo-ee Shelburne’s sand dunes was gaining momentum. Despite the corporate push by the Cape York Space Agency, the Traditional Owners unanimously opposed the development and it was shelved.
As the left-over mining leases approached expiration, then Premier Peter Beattie introduced legislation to the Queensland Parliament that prevented their renewal with the support of the then Liberal Opposition leader Bob Quinn.
With the threat of on-going exploration the Beattie government moved to amended Queensland legislation and declare the entire Shelburne lease a restricted area, thus prohibiting any future prospecting, exploration and mining.
While the Wuthathi have battled to protect their homelands from inappropriate development, they have also been pursuing native title through the Federal courts for over 12 years. In addition, the Wuthathi have sought ownership of the Shelburne lease directly negotiating with the Queensland Government.
The long road to native title and ownership of their homelands may conclude this year, with the Queensland Government finalising negotiations with the Wuthathi people including the delivery of a new national park. Part of this process includes the declaration of the new 51,370 hectare Wuthathi (Shelburne Bay) National Park (Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land).
“It’s been about 100 years since our ancestors were removed,” explains Johnson Chippendale, Chair of the Wuthathi Corporation. “After 25 years, it’s really coming together. It’s Wuthathi people now, and we’re heading back to country.”
First published in Habitat 42 (4) October 2014