Guardians of the Sand

by Inga Yandell

Human expansion into wild places is often described in terms of species loss or land fragmentation and destruction—rarely do we identify the displacement of native people, not only in terms of home but heritage as well. Indigenous tribes are tied to the land spiritually and culturally, as custodians of nature defined by their role in it’s wellbeing and through traditions influenced by the land like foraging, crafts and story.

Wild places are shaped by ancient cultures, and for natures sake the balance of progress and preservation demands we value these native people as vital to the health and future of any eco-system.

Earlier this year, Australia helped set a precedent for cultural land denomination by restoring ownership of Shelburne Bay in North Queensland, to the Wuthathi people—reinvesting in native guardians and embarking on a new chapter in conservation.

Shelburne represents a role reversal in human impact on nature—empowering people to restore the land and our connections to it. Andrew Picone is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Northern Australia program officer based in Cairns. In this article he outlines the impact of this landmark decision.

Crocodiles, stingrays, sharks, dugongs and turtles can be seen in the shallow turquoise waters of Shelburne Bay. Serpentine estuaries, fed by tannin-stained creeks, support immense mangrove forests while tropical heathlands claim the drier ground. Where the dunes have long-stabilised, ancient araucarian hoop-pines grow to emerge above a windswept rainforest canopy, home to palm cockatoos and cassowaries.

At a recent ceremony in the remote town of Lockhart River on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula in far northern Australia, this remarkable stretch of land was handed back to its traditional custodians, the Wuthathi people.

“Most of the land is significant to us and [a] very cultural place,” Loddy Chippendale, a senior Wuthathi Traditional Owner explains. According to Loddy, only certain Wuthathi people can go to some of the most special places.

Concluding decades of advocacy and negotiation, 118,000 hectares of ancestral homelands was finally returned to the Wuthathi people. For them it has been a near 100-year struggle since they were forced off their traditional homelands. As part of the deal, the Wuthathi agreed to a new 37,282 hectare jointly managed national park, which they own, covering a unique landscape of near-pure silica sand dunes and freshwater lakes.

Rewind to 1985. An Australian-Japanese joint venture called Shelburne Silica Pty Ltd was seeking government approval for a 400,000 tonne sand mining project that would include barge and port facilities on the Great Barrier Reef. The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland’s then coordinator, Don Henry, spearheaded a legal challenge contesting the proposal through the Mining Wardens Court on Thursday Island.

Naively, the mining proponents believed there was no interest in Shelburne Bay from Indigenous people based on an astonishing assumption that the Wuthathi had all passed away. But based on the evidence of then 70-year-old Wuthathi elder Alick Pablo, as well as that of several scientists, economists and others, the Warden’s Court made an unprecedented recommendation against mining.

This recommendation was met with hostility from the state government at the time, which vowed to open up all of the region’s silica dunes to mining.

Realising that the Queensland government wasn’t going to stop sand mining at Shelburne Bay, the Wuthathi people and conservationists convinced then Prime Minister Bob Hawke to intervene. At a press conference in early 1987 the federal government said that although the mine was allowable under foreign ownership rules, it wasn’t in the national interest. In this instance, the national interest was in protecting Shelburne’s environment and the adjacent Great Barrier Reef, by then listed as World Heritage by the United Nations. Hawke made it illegal to export the sand and the proposed mining project collapsed.

But by late 2002, the Wuthathi were forced to take the fight for their country to the Queensland government once again. While Hawke effectively killed off any opportunity to export Shelburne’s sand, the mining leases that had lain dormant were coming up for renewal, a process administered by the state. Knowing there was a risk the licences could be on-sold and renewed, the Wuthathi asked the state government to cancel them.

With support from a growing number of environmental NGOs, including ACF, The Wilderness Society, Queensland Conservation Council and the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre, the Wuthathi were successful in convincing then Premier Peter Beattie to cancel the mining leases.

But it was not until 2004, and under threat yet again, that the Queensland Government designated the entire Shelburne area off limits to mining as a restricted area under State regulations. That was also the year the Queensland Government concluded legal proceedings for the acquisition of the Shelburne pastoral lease.

Reversing the ethos of the colonial era, recent Queensland governments have bought back many pastoral leases, facilitating the return of the land to the Indigenous people. To date, Queensland and federal governments have spent approximately $50 million acquiring the most significant properties across the region. Importantly, these lands have been given back to Aboriginal ownership under a landmark initiative known as the Cape York tenure resolution program.

Since 1995, this program has returned more than 3 million hectares of land to Aboriginal ownership. This includes over 2 million hectares of Aboriginal owned and jointly managed national parks and more than 1 million hectares of Aboriginal freehold.

This handback of Shelburne Bay to the Wuthathi people brings to a close 100 years of dispossession and a long campaign to get their land back. While maintaining unbroken cultural connection to their country, the Wuthathi have been planning to permanently return to continue their cultural practices.

Johnson Chippendale, a Wuthathi elder and Chair of the Wuthathi Corporation, said at the ceremony in Lockhart River in December 2016 that since their removal 100 years ago, cultural practices and country stood still. Now, he says “…we got the opportunity to get back to our country to practice our traditional right and customary law.”

While pastoralists, miners and governments have had their time on Wuthathi country, Johnson says, “It’s Wuthathi people now, we’re heading back to country.”

Follow Andrew @andrew_picone

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
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