More than 160,000 hectares of land in Far North Queensland was returned to its traditional owners, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, in a moving ceremony last week.
Most important points:
- The Daintree National Park was returned to its traditional owners last week
- The traditional owners will now manage the land jointly with the Queensland Government
- There are no changes in access to the national parks for individuals or businesses, but this may change
The country includes several national parks, including the UNESCO-listed Daintree National Park, the oldest living rainforest on Earth.
Traditional owners will now jointly manage the land with the Queensland Government, with the plan to eventually have it run solely by Indigenous groups.
What does it mean for traditional owners?
Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation chairman and Kuku Yalanji wife Lynette Johnson said the people of eastern Kuku Yalanji were looking forward to taking care of the holy sites in the region and giving more information to the public on how to respect their land .
“A cultural center is coming, that is in the future,” she said.
Ms Johnson said all developments on the land should now come through Jabalbina Aboriginal Yalanji Corporation, as well as the state government and other established bodies.
The administrative processes for developers currently remain the same.
Aside from new job opportunities and the chance to share cultural experiences, the return is of immense cultural and spiritual significance to traditional owners.
During the official ceremony, elders spoke about the long struggle to take over Bubu (land), how proud their ancestors would be of the handback and their hope that more young Yalanji Bama (people) would return to live on Bubu . .
What does it mean for tourism and travelers?
The Douglas Shire, which includes many of the areas now being returned, relies heavily on tourists to support its economy.
Before the pandemic, the region usually received nearly 700,000 visitors a year, accounting for about $574 million, while providing more than 2,500 jobs.
Tourism Port Douglas Daintree CEO Tara Bennett said she hoped the new agreement would open up more opportunities for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses.
But she said much remains to be negotiated, including what the region’s new ownership status would mean for access to the national parks.
“It’s really too early to say,” she said.
Ms Bennett said businesses were currently using a permit system to access the parks, and it was not clear if or how that system might change.
Ms Bennett said the handback created a new opportunity for the tourism industry in Far North Queensland.
“We really hope that signing this agreement will help spark some new experiences that will really increase visitors’ engagement with our traditional cultures,” she said.
What does this mean for the local population?
The region is home to about 12,000 people, although only 40 percent live outside the main population centers of Port Douglas and Mossman.
Nearly 8 percent of the Douglas Shire population identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
Mrs Johnson said the same lines about access and use of the national parks as before.
She said people could camp in designated areas in the national parks, but they were asked not to go to prohibited places, including sacred sites.
Douglas Shire Council Mayor Michael Kerr said there would be no changes at this stage for residents or businesses located in the handback area.
“The state government will continue to do what it does, but instead you also have the Kuku Yalanji people, as co-owners of the land, and they will participate in decisions as they go along.”
In June of this year, the federal government allocated $19.3 million to build Phase 1 of a microgrid — a solar-to-hydrogen option — in the Daintree.
Cr Kerr said the project would not be affected by the return.
“The electrical grid runs through the road reserves, which are council road reserves, they are not part of the national park and they are not part of Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service,” he said.