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Cape York Peninsula: decades of hard work, relationship-building and trust are paying off as Aboriginal homelands are given back to Traditional Owners. Andrew Picone and Leah Talbot report on the historic result of the bold agreement to protect both natural and cultural values.


Indigenous groups and the conservation movement reached an historic agreement over 15 years ago to campaign together to protect both the natural and cultural values of Cape York Peninsula. This has proven a successful partnership.


Early successes include pressuring the Queensland Government to acquire the 200,000 hectare Starcke pastoral lease back in 1993. This stretch of rugged coastal and mountain country sits between Cape Melville and Cooktown on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula.

This led, in 1996, to the establishment of the Cape York Peninsula Heads of Agreement. The agreement's objective was to develop an ecologically, economically, socially and culturally sustainable land use plan for Cape York Peninsula.

A key element of the agreement was the purchase and management of lands with high natural and cultural values by state and federal governments, and eventual assessment of these lands for World Heritage values.

Remarkably, over 1.3 million hectares, comprising 14 large pastoral properties have been acquired by the Queensland Government since 1993. However, it was not until the introduction of the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act in 2007 that new and existing national parks could be Aboriginal owned.

This unique piece of legislation provides the state with the means to establish new Aboriginal owned national parks, transfer existing national parks declared since the 1970s to Aboriginal ownership and also enter into joint management agreements with the Traditional Owners of those parks. A key principle in this process is that the declaration of new national parks has the consent from the Traditional Owners of that particular area.

While manager of ACF's Northern Australia Program, Dr Rosemary Hill (now one of our Vice Presidents) together with our CEO Don Henry played a pivotal role in backing the regional Indigenous organisations' push for a new approach to the way national parks are declared, who owns them and how they are managed.


Consistent with the 1996 agreement, culturally and environmentally sustainable economic opportunities are fostered through the provision of freehold land to Aboriginal land trusts alongside the new national parks.

This year Lakefield National Park, Cape York's largest and most popular national park was returned to Traditional Owners and renamed Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park (Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land (CYPAL)). The signing of the deed of agreement, which returned ownership of the park to Traditional Owners took place on June 22 this year at Kalpower Crossing, a popular camping area within the park. Over 200 people attended, including Elders and the young, and the return of the park was met with mixed emotions.

Traditional Owners who spoke at the historic ceremony, lamented the passing of Elders who had long dreamed of their country coming back to their people, while at the same time asserting pride that persistence and determination had finally delivered justice after a 21 year struggle for the return of their country.

Rinyirru, the new national park name, signifies two sites of very high cultural significance to the Traditional Owners including the Lama Lama and Kuku Thaypan peoples, the Bagaarrmugu, Mbarimakarranma, Muunydyiwarra, Magarrmagarrwarra, Balnggarrwarra and Gunduurwarra clans.

Stretching from Princess Charlotte Bay in the north to near Laura in the south, Rinyirru National Park (CYPAL) is over 544,000 hectares. Extensive estuarine habitats support diverse mangrove communities, endangered spear-toothed sharks and saltwater crocodiles. Grasslands, studded with termite mounds support Golden Shouldered-parrots while an extensive network of lagoons are home to a wealth of birds including brolgas, magpie geese and an array of other waterbirds, within a landscape of monsoon rainforest and savannah.

This year has also seen the return of Iron Range National Park as the Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) to Traditional Owners. Located near the Township of Lockhart River, Kutini-Payamu is famous for its rare wildlife. Palm cockatoos, eclectus parrots, spotted cus-cus (large possums) and green-tree pythons call this place home.

The process of reforming the land tenure of Cape York Peninsula includes the return of all the existing national parks to Traditional Owners and supporting their aspirations to build better economies for future generations on their own homelands.

Economic opportunity and empowerment through land justice are essential first steps on the road to any nomination of appropriate areas of Cape York Peninsula for World Heritage listing for both its cultural and natural values.

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Author:Picone, Andrew; Talbot, Leah
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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