|Michael Ross (r) with Andrew Picone (Photo: K Trapnell)|
With barely any fanfare, an enormous transfer of land is currently under way in Australia. The vast Cape York peninsula is the setting for a steady, determined handover that is repairing a historical wrong.
Huge tracts of Cape York’s landscape are being returned to traditional owners under a process that started in 1996. In the past decade, the Queensland government has spent more than $50m on pastoral land to return it to traditional owners.
At the latest tally, 2.2m hectares of land has been returned to people who often had it forcibly ripped away from them. Traditional owners were previously banished to work in towns or farms far from their country.
The returned land includes about a million hectares of national park, with Indigenous rangers bringing back ancient but largely ignored techniques on how to control feral pests and weeds and protect endangered species.
Just one group, the Olkola people, is set to become the largest non-government landholder in the region later this year, with the handover of five former pastoral slabs of land in south-central Cape York totalling 800,000 hectares.
The Olkola already jointly manage the Alwal National Park. Alwal is a name used for the threatened golden-shouldered parrot, a totem for the Olkola.
Michael Ross, a traditional Olkola owner, says he is proud of how Alwal has been tended since it was handed back. He’s now looking forward to doing the same with the five new properties.
“There are historical and cultural values there,” he says. “We have our burial grounds in there, you can see them from the air, placed in circles. We want to get the cattle and feral pigs off there because they are shifting the stones around.”
Dr Jeff Shellberg, a Griffith University academic, has been working with the Olkola and the Kunjen, a neighbouring tribe, on land management.
Shellberg says that once traditional owners are let back on the land, the fire regime changes. Land managers burn patchworks of landscape early in the fire season, to prevent huge bushfires that can destroy habitat and threatened species.
“This will really benefit small mammals such as the sugar glider and northern bettong, which are in huge decline in northern Australia,” he says. “Traditional owners know a huge amount about the land and some of that cultural knowledge is held quite tightly. They don’t want to give it up.
“That’s fair enough really because after getting their land back after forced removal, they don’t always want outsiders telling them what to do.”
Ross could have pushed for a land use agreement that would allow mushrooming development on the Olkola land, but he would rather it be conserved.
“It’s on the backbone of the great dividing range where the east and west waters come out,” he says, joining his fingers to form a pyramid. “You can’t do much there. You’ve got a lot of cultural values there and you’ve got Alwal himself there. That’s his home and he plays a major part there as one of our totems.
“You’ve got to keep that backbone in place. Mining is coming close but you have to leave it where it is. I really don’t want mining because I know what it does to country.”
Instead, Ross is eyeing more incremental goals. He wants ecotourism on the land and other nature-based activities. Crucially, the land hand-backs also allow Indigenous people to return to their ancestral home, to tend to the land and the rivers.
It’s a pattern being replicated across Cape York. Rather than seize the chance to cash in via mining, traditional owners are focusing on land management and species conservation.
It is, potentially, a whole new way of generating economic, as well as cultural, rewards for Australia’s first people - rewards that aren’t harmful to the environment or dependent upon a fluctuating commodity price.
“I think we could offer tourists something different,” Ross says, warming to his theme. “I mean, the cape changes all the time as you travel it.”
Larissa Hale is also in search of a viable business for the area handed back to her people in 2006. Archers Point, a wedge of undulating hills, bluffs and coast 20km south of Cooktown, is Yuku Baja Muliku land.
Before the handover, Archers Point was a place “people came to get lost in”, as Hale puts it. Squatters tried to blend in among the trees. Some tried to build houses without planning permission. It took about three years to clean up the rubbish they left.
Government funding has delivered about 12 Indigenous rangers, who have mapped the area. To their surprise they found Bennett’s tree kangaroos and started eradicating weeds. Hale, who heads things up, wears a number of hats - there’s an environmental education program for visiting schools and a sea turtle hospital for injured animals.
Things have, generally speaking, improved. The land is in better shape and the regular poaching sorties that picked off sea turtles and led to ugly confrontations with traditional owners have dwindled.
“It’s been a learning process of bringing in the knowledge of the older people who know this land and how to burn it [for fire management],” Hale says.
“I’d talk to my aunties to ask how they’d do the traditional burns, how to watch the wind patterns and see what’s flowering. If the government had its way we’d burn 90% of it each year, but we want to leave some of it to protect the wildlife.”
But not everything is perfect. Hale says she is unhappy because the local council is ramming a new road through the edge of her people’s land in order to access a quarry.
The area is rich in cultural significance for Hale’s people, yet the road is going ahead regardless. We later visit the spot and can see a strip of flattened trees, ready for the diggers.
“They said they had a walk around and couldn’t see anything important,” Hale says. “I said ‘you wouldn’t even know what you’re looking for, you’re a white man, not a traditional owner, you don’t know the stories for this area.’”
The issue is a raw one for Hale. Her grandfather was removed from Archers Point to work for a family when he was eight years old. Other family members were sent to look after racehorses.
“Sometimes when we’re sitting by the fire my grandmother will open up a little bit until she gets too emotional and then stops,” says Hale. “It was pretty full on.
“We know families were buried here. I wasn’t meant to know that, as it wasn’t women’s business. But a lot of families were massacred, starved to death or moved. I’d love to bring the families back so they could see this country again.”
Right now, there’s a struggle to get funding from state and federal governments keen to cut back on such things. Ultimately, Hale wants, in the politician’s vernacular, to stand on her own two feet, to run a viable business. Balkanu, a non-profit organisation that facilitates such things, may be able to help her get there.
Until then Hale has to deal with issues it’s hard to imagine that non-Indigenous landowners in the southern states would have to grapple with.
“The council complains that we are shutting up all the beaches and that they want access for everyone, but we’ve said we want a camping resort down there so it will be open,” she says.
“Hopefully someone can take my job so I can just be a ranger for a while. I’m sick of all the arguing.”
A bone of contention is the level of protection that the land tenure provides to traditional owners. While Ross doesn’t want mining on Olkola land, he admits that he can’t do much about the exploration licences that are strewn across the properties his people are set to receive.
Andrew Cripps, as Queensland’s minister for natural resources and mines, signs off on the indigenous land handovers. He has around 1.5 million hectares set to go through the lengthy process of identifying land, legitimate owners and sale conditions.
“Once it is handed over there are opportunities that can be unlocked, such as grazing and tourism,” Cripps says. “Where there’s a proposal for resource projects, landholders have the right to be informed and object. There are plenty of chances to object.”
Cripps says the process is going well and that he’s “personally very satisfied” by further measures brought in by the Queensland government that allow Indigenous people to apply for freehold land and own their own home.
Further, sustained support is required from state and federal governments if the land handovers are to fulfil their glittering promise, according to groups who work with traditional owners.
The Working on Country Indigenous ranger initiative may have survived the axe, but with $500 million removed from Indigenous programs in this year’s federal budget, nervousness abounds.
“The return of land to traditional owners on Cape York is one of the most progressive land tenure initiatives in the country,” says Andrew Picone, northern Australia campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation.
“It rights a wrong from past injustices, delivers social and economic outcomes, while ensuring cultural and environmental management of the landscape.
“It is absolutely critical that the successes of the Working on Country program are built on and not undermined by changes in funding priorities and approaches.”
For Olkola traditional owner Ross, the land handovers are crucial, but he’s reticent to dwell on the dispossession and trauma that requires the ledger to be settled.
“Every now and then I drift back to the past with my young ones, to let them know that this can’t happen again,” he says.
“But we want to build this country up together. I don’t want to go back on old times. My mum used to tell me ‘don’t worry about it, it happened and we can’t fix it up’. It’s like a scar. You look down at it, it’s there, but you move on.”