The huge area of land in Australia's north-east rivals the Amazon as one of the last truly wild places on Earth. Cape York Peninsula is filled with rainforests, wetlands, pristine rivers, savannah grasslands and immense biodiversity. Understandably, it is high on the lists of environmental groups who want to see the area preserved for future generations to enjoy. It is also home to 10 000 Aboriginal people, living in 16 communities spread throughout the Cape.
The peninsula's sensitive ecology is predominantly threatened on two fronts: widespread feral infestations of weeds, and feral pigs that, among other things, prey on the eggs of endangered turtles to such an extent that there hasn't been a proper hatching for 30 years on the Cape's west coast. There are also emerging pressure from resource exploration and other private development initiatives.
For the past decade the interests of the environmental and indigenous organisations largely coincided--the Aboriginal people were passionate about protecting and caring for their country; green groups were equally passionate about environmental protection, land rights and social justice.
But in early 2007, the relationship between the local people and one of their main allies broke down. Aboriginal groups had got wind of a plan by the Wilderness Society to register the entire Cape York region as a World Heritage Area, starting with lobbying the Queensland Government to declare more than a dozen rivers on Cape York 'Wild Rivers'. (1) While this denomination gives the healthy free-flowing rivers protected status, it also puts limits on newly won rights to use the waterways for traditional activities such as hunting, and on future economic development.
Apart from a belief that this 19th century way of looking after country by locking it up is not the answer--similar mismanagement in the past has apparently led to today's feral species invasions--the local people also felt they had been cut out of the debate while their attention was focused on fighting poverty and trying to bring about social reform.
So they fought back, accusing the Wilderness Society of supporting a new form of dispossession and treating them in a neocolonialist manner.
Out of this was born the Indigenous Environment Foundation (IEF), a philanthropically funded advocacy group founded by young Aboriginal leaders with associates based in Sydney, Brisbane and Cape York.
Shaun Edwards, a member of the Kokoberrin people and one of the group's founders, says he was goaded to action when he found out that the Staaten River, on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula where his people live, was one of the first to be declared a Wild River.
'No one is disputing the need to protect and conserve Cape York; he says. 'We have been doing it--and doing it well--for 40 000 years.'
'But like anyone whose livelihood and future is threatened, we strongly resent that this decision has been forced upon us without consultation. It will severely restrict what activities the local people can engage in, without providing any viable alternative forms of income.'
He says the IEF was formed to advocate for indigenous people of Cape York, and provide them with a united voice. 'We would like government to recognise the value of our traditional knowledge when considering policy development in Cape York. This means working with a range of groups to develop sensible economic and sustainable opportunities.'
Broadening indigenous representation
Supported by sister Cape York organisations, traditional owner groups and community land and sea centres, the IEF is also lobbying the government for the resources they need to look after their homeland. This includes the thorny question of who will pay to eradicate millions of feral pigs and weeds that are infesting the Cape, as a result of it being 'locked up' with minimal pest management, preservation and conservation work. …