KOWANYAMA, Queensland, Australia, October 26, 2009 (ENS) – The historic first return to indigenous owners of an Australian national park in the state of Queensland took place Friday on the Cape York Peninsula.

Queensland Climate Change and Sustainability Minister Kate Jones visited the Aboriginal town of Kowanyama to hand back ownership of the 37,000-hectare Mitchell-Alice Rivers National Park to the region’s traditional owners, the Kunjen and Oykangand People.

“This is the first existing national park to be returned to traditional owners,” Jones said at the ceremony marking the transfer. “This is a momentous occasion and represents a breakthrough in indigenous land tenure resolutions.”

Established in October 1977 as the Mitchell-Alice Rivers National Park, the park covers an area of 371 square kilometers (143 sq miles) between the Mitchell and Alice Rivers 30 km (20 miles) northeast of Kowanyama on the Gulf of Carpinteria side of the Cape.

It was renamed the Errk Oykangand National Park (Cape York Aboriginal Land) on Friday. This protected area will be jointly managed by traditional owners and the Queensland government, under an Indigenous Management Agreement.

Uw Oykangand elder Colin Lawrence said the move was the culmination of 19 years of “hard work and dedication to land management.”

Jones said, “The park has many sacred places so I’m pleased an area of such significant cultural heritage has been passed back to traditional owners to ensure their traditions can be kept alive for future generations.”

“Our national parks, long valued for their ecological significance, are also places where traditional owners need access to be able to carry out their obligations to care for their country and their cultural heritage,” said Jones.

Paperbark trees line the Mitchell River near Kowanyama. (Photo by Kerry Trapnell courtesy Story Place)

The park is inhabited by over 300 species, including the estuarine crocodile. During its annual cycle, the entire area is flooded every wet season, while in the dry season water flows only in lagoons and creeks.

Jones said, “The new management approach will support employment and training of indigenous rangers allowing them to join new skills with traditional knowledge.

Of the ranger staff who work across the region covered by the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act, more than one-third are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.

The Indigenous Management Agreement sets out the responsibilities of the Land Trust and the Queensland Government for ongoing management of the park. The Kowanyama Aboriginal Land and Natural Resource Management Office will implement the agreement on behalf of the Land Trust.

The transfer of the park to Aboriginal ownership coincides with legal recognition of the Kowanyama People as native title holders of 2,731 square kilometers of land and waters in southwestern Cape York.

Friday at Kowanyama, Justice Andrew Greenwood of the Federal Court of Australia made a consent determination recognizing the Kowanyama People’s exclusive native title rights over 2,518 sq km (972 sq miles) of Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) land and their non-exclusive rights over 213 sq km (82 sq miles) of sea, beach and tidal areas.

Kowanyama young people adorned for the title recognition ceremonies October 22, 2009. (Photo by Feral Arts)

The outcome will acknowledge that the Kowanyama People’s native title has always existed, and continues to exist, under their traditional laws and customs.

Their right to possess, occupy, use and enjoy the DOGIT land exclusively, and also to hunt, fish, gather, use water and traditional natural resources, light fires and protect significant places on the rest of the determination area was confirmed by the court.

The consent determination is a partial settlement of the Kowanyama People’s 19,800 sq km (7,644 sq mile) native title claim. Two other parts of the native title recognition claim are yet to be settled.

National Native Title Tribunal Member Graham Fletcher, who mediated between the parties, said the outcome demonstrates what can be achieved when parties make it a priority to negotiate settlement of a native title claim.

“Due to the parties’ willingness to put time and resources into this claim and focus on settling native title through agreement, negotiations were fast-tracked this year,” he said.

“Having successfully settled the first part of the claim, the Kowanyama People and other parties are in a good position to continue negotiations and settle native title and tenure issues over the next two stages of the claim area.”

An estuarine crocodile in Queensland (Photo by Maynard)

The return of the park results from the work of the Cape York Tenure Resolution Group, CYTRIG. This unique partnership among the Cape York Land Council, Balkanu Development Corporation, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society, and the Queensland Government, is working to return lands to traditional owners and protect areas of outstanding environmental and cultural significance.

In 2007, the CYTRIG parties negotiated the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act 2007. The Act creates a new class of national park called Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land, paving the way for the future transfer of all national parks in Cape York to their indigenous custodians. The Errk Oykangaard National Park is the first of many transfers planned.

“This is the first ever handback of a national park in Queensland, and is another breakthrough for land justice on Cape York, delivered with the active support of conservation groups,” said Anthony Esposito of The Wilderness Society. “It empowers local indigenous communities and provides local jobs, at the same time as protecting the globally significant environment of Cape York and creating one of the largest indigenous conservation estates in the world.”

Australian Conservation Foundation Executive Director Don Henry said this outcome is recognition that conservation must not only benefit indigenous people, but must also be achieved in an equitable and just manner.

“It is very satisfying to witness an old national park, established back in the 1970s without traditional owner consent, become a model of modern conservation. I also want to congratulate the Queensland Government for its ongoing work to deliver conservation and land justice to Cape York’s indigenous people through initiatives such as joint management,” Henry said.

Jones said, “Today’s agreement perfectly demonstrates the state government’s commitment to work in partnership with Cape indigenous leaders and communities to deliver real land and social justice while benefiting all Queenslanders.”

Over the past 15 years, the Queensland and federal governments have purchased around two million hectares of land for the dual purpose of conservation and return of homelands to traditional owners.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.