Cape York Under Attack From Environmental Extremists

by on 12 July, 2016

By Jack Andrew Wilkie-Jans

Cape York is yet again under attack! There’s no other way to put it. While the region is the “conscience” of Australia and thus bandied around the social policy field, the majority of Australians do not have any real insight into the region, the environment and the peoples’ aspirations.

The region is vast, larger than Victoria and most European countries, it has a wealth of cultural, environmental and also natural resource assets. The region is also home to only 16,000 people (give or take according the last census count). Politics as we all know is a numbers game and so too is policy drafting and implementation. With so few people it is no wonder political parties and bureaucrats feel they can walk all over them with no chance of any serious backlash at the polls. Yet in spite of the minute population and internal politics, the people of Cape York have always been able to pull through in defiance against city based policy makers for the preservation of their own best interests. This is a credit to their political nous and determination. Mostly the Cape has been battling against ‘lock-up’ policies generated by the Greens and Labor, instead in favour of pursuing a future of economic prosperity and social cohesion.

After successfully banding together and keeping the Cape viable back in 2011, the Cape is yet again under attack by Queensland’s Labor government.

The second weekend prior to the election, very close to two hundred people from Cape York attended the ‘Stop Beating the Bush Around’ rally at Lakeland which was organised by Cape York Sustainable Futures (CYSF), AgForce and the Lakeland Progress Association. Amidst the good news that a water plan is being conducted for Cape York, along with the announcement that CYSF will be conducting a feasibility study into water storage and irrigation needs for the region, combined with the prospects the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia and recent trade agreements presents, concerns are, however, rife about several other announcements from the Queensland Government. The key issues attendees (most of whom were Traditional Owners and property managers) identified are: the threat to primary industries which State Labor’s proposed changes to the Vegetation Management Act pose, the high likelihood for a return to both Wild Rivers (now called Pristine Rivers in the new State budget) and World Heritage ‘lock-up’, the fact that Federal Labor are also looking to introduce their own vegetation and land management laws to supersede State & Territory Governments’ jurisdiction. The latter of which I hope they are not successfully able to bring to pass- which is why the Independents must remain steadfast with the Coalition and why the Senate must remain working in the best interests of remote and rural working communities.

The concerns people have with the vegetation and land management proposed laws simply is that they will restrict the viability of their properties to venture into food and crop production- especially in the face of a dying cattle industry as well as chronic drought. The disregard of several legal vestiges also has civil and criminal law experts concerned regarding the implications the following changes will have on criminalisation of farmers; for example, the new laws proposed by the Queensland Government will be made retrospective (to before the last amendment by the Newman lead Government) and furthermore, the onus of proof (of having cleared or not cleared land on their properties) is on the defendant, i.e. the farmer, who may well have been acting within their legal rights at the previous time. What has truly given rise to concern above all this is the fact that the mapping data which the Queensland Government will pursue with and base such prosecution on is severly outdated, in some areas just plain wrong and also not ground truthed. During the very short and location wise, very selective (only the Mt Isa hearing is what I would call “remote”) Parliamentary Committee hearings consulting with the community regarding the proposed changes to vegetation management, one property owner said that according the map (the one enshrining the government’s basis for accusing property managers of clearing en masse), where there is supposedly a dense section of pristine trees is actually- and as has been for 90 or so years- the homestead. In fact all the vegetation on his property, as is the case pretty much across the board regarding cattle stations, is re-growth from fires and destruction by feral pigs.


I could easily go on and on and dissect each discrepancy within the proposed amendments (formally known as the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill) however there are already numerous news articles, opinion pieces and not to mention submissions made to the Agriculture & Environment Parliamentary Committee which do this- and are worth perusing. The problems are already abundantly clear and so are the wants and wishes of the bush (Far North Queensland and other affected regions such as Central Queensland and Central West Queensland). The time has come to beseech and seek commitments from MPs, including Federal election candidate as to where they stand.


I have pointed out time and again over the past few months, the hypocrisy of the State Labor party regarding their rhetoric on “supporting” the initiatives set out in the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia compared with their very adamant pursuit of locking up Cape York and throwing away the key. The reason behind this is that Cape York is the environmental conscience of Australia and as such, the political linch pin to securing support from the inner-city urbanites (many of whom have no idea that Cape York is not, contrary to popular belief, covered in lush rainforest riddled with Koalas). Because of this fact many Brisbane and South East Corner and capital city based Federal politicians lobby on the kudos they can gain by perpetuating these mistruths and holding on to the rather racist mentality that Aboriginal peoples just want to sit around half naked in lap-laps corroborating and looking at the trees. Where as the truth of the matter is actually that Aboriginal peoples in Cape York want to be actively involved in the greater food production economy touted as the renaissance of Australia’s export industry! The feel-good policies at play in Cape York are actually belittling of the true Indigenous struggle and are at odds with government rhetoric on “Indigenous advancement”, “close the gap” and “Indigenous employment”.


In order to address environmental concerns I will say that it’s pretty obvious that vigilant environmental care is symbiotic to the success of food producers and farmers.


What bewilders the entirety of Cape York is the fact of how many times they are compelled to stand together and defend their future interests against paternalistic and patronising policies such as Wild Rivers, World Heritage nomination and general ‘lock-up’ policies! Once again all the above are snuck into this year’s mid-term budget by Curtis Pitt- against any mandate. The Queensland Government’s acquisition of cattle stations across the state to envelop them into National Park areas is the most hostile and ludicrous. These acquisitions are compulsory and unable to be appealed. This is the forced removal of families who have invested hundreds of thousands- in many cases millions- of dollars into infrastructure and in keeping their businesses afloat in times of drought and economic uncertainty. It is also confusing as to why these stations would be engulfed into National Park considering for up to a century (sometimes longer for some stations) these properties have known infrastructure, cattle running and whatnot, meaning these areas are definitely not pristine and as such are useful to employment and industry.


Another widely overlooked fact is that for the most part cattle stations were selected due to them historically having been vast expanses of grass lands and that most tree coverage existing today was actually fostered by the station managers to provide shelter to their livestock. Another debate against clearing re-growth, soft-wood trees is the risk to carbon emissions and erosion (damaging the Great Barrier Reef). Contrary to the misinformation spouted, grass lands actually contributes far more to retaining carbon in soil and to protecting the soil from erosion and runoff than forestation.


Cape York is already home to some magnificent National Parks where key sites and features have already been identified. The message the region has been putting out to the public which is being ignored is that working the land for agricultural (i.e. growing) purposes isn’t destructive and in fact by using traditional land management practices industries such as cattle or cropping are sustainable to the environment that they need to remain healthy and thrive. One of the factors in campaigns against agriculture and cattle in Cape York is the misguided fear of dams. Well in Cape York there is not a single, nor proposed, stream based dam. All dams in Cape York are runoff dams and rainfall catchment dams. Therefore the scaremongering used to push Wild Rivers or Pristine Rivers is false and nothing short of lies as streams and rivers are presented zero risk of habitat and flow destruction.


Even with all the talk around welfare dependency and “lazy blackfellas bludging off the system”, there is still no emphasis on economic development placed by the policy makers- which is befuddling to say the least. Economic developed goes hand in hand with social development after all and this is the one factor being omitted from the Welfare Reform debate. We now have communities full of people on Welfare Reform Trials, no longer welfare dependent they are now instead Welfare Reform Trial dependent. Their superannuation’s are held by the administrators of the Trials and their income and bank balances are micromanaged all the while where there are no job prospects and the cost of living, such as food and services, is unnecessarily through the roof. With all this nannying and paternalism going on it’s laughable to think that it’s all done so on the whim that such direction is supposed to somehow empower the people living under such policies. Even more scary to think these are opt in-able but communities cannot opt out.


How does one truly break the cycle of welfare dependency? By introducing economic opportunities for people to be weaned off of welfare onto. As such projects like the South of Embley or Amrun mine and the Aurukun bauxite mine look to be promising.


These are large projects and will require a large contingent of highly skilled workers to see them come to fruition- this means many FIFO workers will be employed over locals. This is due simply to the fact that the training has never been available for locals in areas such as Aurukun because for so long such training seemed pointless, until now of course. While much emphasis and unwarranted controversy has been placed on these two projects, two proposals north of Mapoon on the Western Cape of the peninsula are overlooked and have received zero political backing. In the Skardon River district there are two boutique mines currently undergoing long drawn out approval and environmental impact assessment processes. Where these projects differ from Amrun and Aurukun is that these projects are smaller, less intrusive to the environment (as the sites were previously kaolin mines and the riverways survey shows no dredging is required) and will be able to employ a larger contingent of locals on a statistical level due to their proximity to Mapoon, Injinoo, Seisia and Bamaga, Napranum and Weipa.


Not only are all projects and infrastructure development projects held to ransom by the Greenies in the cities and thrown under the bus by politicians too afraid to see what would happen if they lost their urban vote to [heaven forbid] promote the best chances for rural areas, but they are also held up by the very familiar, on going issues relating to Native Title which arise from stoushes between Traditional Owner groups. Arguments over traditionally owned land have moved on since the time of Eddie Mabo’s advocacy, instead they have shifted from the altruistic to the greedy, with the emphasis now solely placed on the Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUA) and on royalties as opposed to traditional value and preservation of cultural history/connection. The organisation I work for had successfully pushed to have the Peninsula Development Road (PDR) sealed and now that is underway. However it was held up considerably by a surprise slapping of a Native Title claim and subsequently an ILUA over the easements of the road by the Cape York Land Council (CYLC). Due to this leverage the CYLC were successful in cutting out countless workers and TO groups from being involved in the upgrade process by dictating where contracts should and shouldn’t be awarded. This is a serious oversight from the Queensland Government’s Transport and Main Roads department (TMR) as like with all Native Title determinations, in the event of a dispute over boundaries the ILUA and resulting contracts would have to be renegotiated- and fairly so I would say. Although in this case it would be from TO groups who want to maintain their cultural autonomy of their respective lands by questioning, in the High Court, the legitimacy of a blanket, ‘One’ Claim over the entire of Cape York- authorised by only nine claimants. If this One Claim persists we can say goodbye to a large percentage of any development’s budget, including dams, bridges (such as the Jardine River bridge) along the PDR and in unclaimed areas. So not only does this One [blanket] Claim negatively affect development opportunities it also contradicts the essence of Native Title and that is simply that nobody can speak for someone else’s country; it overlooks the cultural autonomy and individuality of each tribal group which took so long to make known to the wider community. Furthermore, the favouritism at play within the elite of the CYLC is jeopardising the future of Traditional Owners, members of the CYLC, who are left out of royalty deals, ILUA and relating contract negotiations due to petty disagreements between membership and CYLC board & staff. This is exemplified by the fact that, according to a number of Aboriginal Corporations in Cape York, funding allocated by the Federal Government to the regional Native Title representative bodies, such as CYLC, for the purpose of being distributed to the local Prescribed Body Corporates is not happening. In such instances it would be a fair question to ask where this sum of around $100,000 p/a, per Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) is going within the Native Title representative body’s accounting? Furthermore it has also been alleged that CYLC has inappropriately advised TMR regarding Cultural Heritage surveying along the PDR which would be a massive breach of their powers as Native Title representative bodies are not legislated under the Cultural Heritage Act. This is yet another example of alleged misconduct and how local TOs battle against their own “representative” body for fair and culturally appropriate representation of the membership’s interest.


Native Title discrepancies and disputes aside, the long and short of it is, is that no matter what the prospects are with proposed developments or potential Native Title action, neither of these things will be able to take place if the Green agenda is not brought to a realistic level of implementation and compromise. The one thing all of the peoples of Cape York can agree on is that they do not want any further restrictive policies. The Cape York Regional Plan is another such policy introduced by the former Newman government and has currently been placed on the back burner even though it desperately needs revisiting and amending. The zoning it legislates is restrictive and is a Wild Rivers Pt. 2.


We in the Cape will stop Pristine Rivers, AKA Wild Rivers Pt. 3, we will see the Cape York Regional Plan reviewed and re-assessed, we will highlight how Curtis Pitt’s $2.2 Million may as well be a donation to UNESCO because we will stop the World Heritage nomination yet again, and we will stop the changes to vegetation and land management act at all tiers. We will do all of this because we deserve a future. We may only be about 16,000 strong but Cape York is committed to itself and to doing away with meddlesome policies which inhibit personal growth of those in apartheid governed Aboriginal communities and to doing away with the noose of environmental extremism.


While the region has joined their multicultural hands in the past and stopped such interventions many times before, we now have a policy in place which offers us the future we’ve been vying for all these years. The Northern Australia development policies of the Federal Government and the opportunities expanded via the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement means that neighbouring regions alike need each other to succeed. Cairns for examples needs agricultural prospects to be realised in the Cape for the idea of a multi-industry port to be realised, i.e. the Cape’s prospects will be further leverage to see Cairns port successfully expanded. Currently the Queensland Government have only committed to a commitment pending a successfully cleared Environmental Impact Statement- which the Greens in the departments irk and hinder at every turn imaginable.


Greater partnership between regions, to realise the autonomy and role of each region’s economic development NGOs and to support them is needed. So far Queensland’s outcomes from the Northern Australia development policies are fewer than Western Australia and Northern Territory and that is due to the fact that the most viable and potentially lucrative region, being Cape York, is deliberately being excluded by and large in favour of it being ‘locked-up’.


My organisation Cape York Sustainable Futures (of which I am the Deputy Chair), which is the Cape’s peak body organisation for social and economic development, is working towards this future and have been working very successfully with our counterparts in the Gulf of Carpentaria region. Cairns’ future is not in real estate or retail and will only remain in tourism pending an ease of cyclonic devastation and a willingness to expand tourism friendly business and infrastructure (which is happening and looking great and is a credit to the economic development organisations in Cairns). In fact Cairns’ future is directly tied to the economic highs and lows of the entire country. Unlike metropolitan cities, regional cities feel these highs and lows the most. Therefore, like Cape York, Cairns’ economic prospects are directly linked to the future revival of export and production opportunities which have slowly died out over the past few decades. An expanded Cairns port could easily work hand in hand with the work CYSF will be commencing shortly to determine the water security and storage needs in the southern part of Cape York- the part with the most potential for commercial level agricultural production.


As much as the Far North’s economy suffered when fishing bans were placed in the Coral Sea and as much as the tourism industry will continue to be hurt by the fallacies spread internationally about the health of the Great Barrier Reef, the future of Cape York is also on a knife’s edge due to the conjecture of outsiders with the worst kind of vested interests.

Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Aboriginal Affairs Advocate, Artist and Artsworker

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