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Drawing a line in the whitest of sand: pristine Shelburne Bay returns to owners after decades-long battle

Posted by on 18/07/2018

A vast area of Shelburne Bay has been returned to its traditional owners, the Wuthathi, on Cape York Peninsula. Photo: Kerry Trapnell The area includes the only untouched area of pure-white sand dunes in Australia, in which small freshwater lakes appear to float. Photo: Kerry Trapnell

The handover ceremony on Thursday was marked by celebratory traditional dancing and singing. Photo: Tony Wright

Lockhart River, Cape York: Eighty years after its original owners were driven off its ancient beauty, and more than 30 years since Queensland’s Bjelke-Peterson government wanted its blindingly white sand mined and exported, one of Australia’s great natural treasures has been saved forever.

More than 1200 square kilometres around Shelburne Bay near the tip of Cape York Peninsula has been handed by the Queensland government back to the Wuthathi Indigenous people, who will jointly manage a new national park covering the most precious areas of its landscape.

It includes the only untouched area of pure-white sand dunes in Australia, in which small freshwater lakes appear to float.

The handover ceremony on Thursday, marked by celebratory traditional dancing and singing, ends one of Australia’s longest environmental and indigenous cultural campaigns – one that brought leading conservationist groups and Indigenous people together to battle mining companies, a corrupt state government and the proponents of a space station, and then to pursue land rights.

Along the way, the Hawke Labor government faced down the Bjelke-Petersen state government to ban the mining and export of Shelburne Bay’s sand in 1989, and more recently Queensland governments, starting with Peter Beattie’s Labor administration, have backed a new approach to “tenure resolution” and Aboriginal ownership of national parks on Cape York.

The Queensland Treasurer, Curtis Pitt, prefaced his speech at the handback at Lockhart River by declaring: “We are about three decades too late.

“This is a handback, not a handover. It is going back to its rightful owners,” he said.

The Wuthathi, who had lived for tens of thousands of years among Shelburne Bay’s sand dunes, wetlands, islands, heathlands and rainforest, were forcibly removed from their country by government authorities in the 1920s and ’30s.

Their ancestral home was turned over to cattle-raising pastoralists, and the Wuthathi were dispersed throughout northern Queensland. Many went to live among other Indigenous groups in settlements around Lockhart River more than 100 kilometres to the south. Others drifted across Australia, spiritually homeless.

The Australian Conservation Foundation first proposed a national park for parts of Shelburne Bay in 1976, and has been intricately involved with the Wuthathi in the campaigns to save the area and return it to the indigenous owners since.

“ACF congratulates the Wuthathi people on this historic day that sees the return of their homelands and thanks them for the creation of Australia’s newest national park,” said ACF Northern Australia Project Officer Andrew Picone.

“The return of land to the Wuthathi people is the best way to protect this area’s natural and cultural heritage.”

The Wilderness Society, which has also been involved in campaigning since the late 1980s to protect the area, hailed the handback and the creation of the Shelburne Bay National Park as “a gift for all Australians”.

“It has been an honour to be able to work with the Wuthathi over the past few decades, especially helping to protect the spectacular snow-white sand dunes from repeated attempts by government and business to sand mine them, and to see them Wuthathi finally get their country back,” said Wilderness Society National Director Lyndon Schneiders.

Mr Picone said that with the Shelburne Bay area handed back, around 3000 square kilometres of Cape York was now permanently owned by Indigenous groups, and about 2000 square kilometres of this area comprised a vast mosaic of national parks. About 1000 square kilometres is Aboriginal freehold land.

“With support from state and Commonwealth governments, the Wuthathi will be well placed to restore culturally appropriate management to the landscape and establish their own enterprises that deliver strong social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes,” Mr Picone said.

Tony Wright travelled to Cape York Peninsula with the assistance of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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