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Cape York Peninsula: World Heritage Spotlight

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Covering a total area of 14 million hectares, Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland could become one of the Southern hemisphere's largest World Heritage areas. Cape York Peninsula is the last intact bioregion of the nearly continuous sweep of the high rainfall and mountainous country that previously covered the eastern coast of Australia.


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Cape York Peninsula: Introduction

Covering a total area of 14 million hectares, Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland could become one of the Southern hemisphere's largest World Heritage areas.

That Cape York contains a wide complement of World Heritage values is beyond doubt.

How to protect these globally important values, whilst supporting the aspirations of the regions indigenous and non-indigenous communities, provides a large, but surmountable, challenge for Government, the Australian people, local residents and the global community.

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Natural Significance

Cape York Peninsula is the last intact bioregion of the nearly continuous sweep of the high rainfall and mountainous country that previously covered the eastern coast of Australia.

Whilst the natural vegetation of the rest of the eastern coast of Australia fell before the axe, chainsaw and dozer of the post colonial period, Cape York Peninsula has survived relatively unscathed.

Frangipanni Beach, Tip of
Cape York Peninsula (by Kerry Trapnell)

It's remoteness, poor agricultural soils and its dramatic monsoonal climate have meant almost all attempts to clear its massive savannah grass and woodlands, log its extensive tropical rainforests and mine its spectacular pure white silica sand dunes have come to nought.

During the seasonal 'wet' from November to April, much of the Cape becomes a series of extensive and shallow wetlands. These wetlands transform Cape York into a paradise for migratory birds that rival the World Heritage listed Kakadu in terms of diversity and numbers.

For much of the past two million years, a land bridge connected Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. As a result, the forests and woodlands of Cape York contain strong genetic links to those of Papua New Guinea. This close connection has been manifested through the sharing of species such as the Riflebirds and the Tree Kangaroos.

Unlike any comparable bioregion in Australia, Cape York still retains a full complement of functioning ecosystems ranging from undisturbed coastal environments, through to wetlands, riverine forests, tropical woodlands, tropical rainforests, dry rainforests, heathlands and dunefields.

It is a priceless mosaic of life and diversity. It's numerous rivers run free and wild, unregulated by dams and weirs. During the 'wet' these rivers become enormous, creating seemingly endless floodplains that fertilise and revitalise the country.

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Cultural Significance

Lotus Lilly, Blue Lagoon, Lakefield National Park
(by Kerry Trapnell)

Despite its remoteness, Cape York Peninsula is certainly not a land without people. The vast landscapes and delicate ecosystems of the region have been managed and cared for by traditional owners throughout the millennia.

Due to its proximity to Papua New Guinea, it is conceivable that Cape York Peninsula was the first part of Australia colonialised by humans from south east Asia many thousands of years ago.

Those who have since walked these lands have witnessed some extraordinary events. As little as ten thousand years ago, during the last glacial cycle, a huge inland lake, Lake Carpentaria, dominated the region. With the rising of the sea levels, this lake was subsequently transformed into the Gulf of Carpentaria. This extraordinary event was conceivably witnessed by the distant relatives of the traditional owner groups that still today call Cape York home.

Control and ownership of a large section of Cape York has now been regained by its traditional owners. It is expected that more of the Cape will be returned to traditional ownership in the coming years.

Protecting the World Heritage values of the 'Cape' must have the support and consent of the traditional owners. The presentation and management of these values can be a key plank of efforts to achieve economic self-determination for the indigenous communities of Cape York.

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A Natural Province Under Threat

Threats to the future of the natural values of Cape York Peninsula come in two forms.

The first is in the form of the expansion of irrigated agriculture. This practice has already engulfed and pauperised much of the natural environment of eastern Australia.

Proposals to dam the Cape's wild rivers to grow cotton and cane; proposals to raze the woodlands for intensive cattle management and tree farm establishment and proposals to mine many high conservation value areas, including existing National Parks, continue to be supported by some State and Commonwealth government agencies and by some Industry groups.

A proposed gas pipeline from Papua New Guinea to Central Queensland threatens to bisect the Cape neatly in half, providing the ideal circumstances for weed invasion and habitat fragmentation.

Burning Tree, Lakefield National Park
(by Kerry Tapnell)

A second, less obvious threat comes in the form of changes to land management, particularly fire management.

It is now widely accepted that large changes in fire management accompanied the expansion of the cattle industry onto Cape York Peninsula. This process had both a significant ecological impact and a massive social impact on indigenous communities.

Although the prospects for a Cape Cattle Industry appear limited, the ecological footprint of the cattle still looms large.

The coming of cattle into this ancient place brought with it a radical change in the timing and intensity of fires across the Peninsula. The ecological balance achieved by previous human land management was ruptured.

At least one bird species, the Golden Shouldered Parrot, has been pushed to the edge of extinction by a variety of causes including changed fire regimes. Elsewhere, natural grasslands are slowly giving way to a thickening of woodlands and forest triggered by changed fire management.

The reintroduction of traditional land management practices by indigenous communities, leaseholders and government agencies is a critical first step toward protecting these environments. This process should be escalated by the return of traditional lands to indigenous communities and by a dramatically improved involvement of traditional owners in the management and protection of Cape York's existing National Park Estate.

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Melaleuca Forest Heathlands,
Cape York Peninsuala (by Kerry Trapnell)

A Greenprint for the Future

The protection of the natural values of Cape York Peninsula, through possible World Heritage listing, has been recognised for much of the past decade.

A commitment to identify and protect these natural wonders according to the significance of their values is embedded in a number of important planning processes since mid 1990's.

The Cape York Land Use Heads of Agreement, signed in 1996 by representatives of Cape York indigenous communities, Cape York cattle graziers and Environment groups includes a tripartite commitment that "areas of high conservation and cultural value shall be identified by a regional assessment process according to objective national and international criteria."

This commitment was echoed by the final Report of the decade long Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy (CYPLUS) that recommended that a 'necessary first task in protecting conservation values is to recognise their significance and to identify their management needs.'

And that a 'comprehensive and systematic comparative evaluation of the significance of natural and cultural conservation values be undertaken as a priority task and that this evaluation should address values at the following levels:

  • Regional
  • State
  • National, and
  • International.

As a result of these recommendations, the Queensland government has recently commissioned a Natural Heritage Significance Assessment of Cape York to assess natural conservation values against relevant local, national, regional and international conservation criteria, including World Heritage criteria.

The report, which will be released before the end of 2000, provides a 'greenprint'

Unfortunately, the Commonwealth government, despite earlier support for the Cape York Land Use Agreement, has decided to oppose this comprehensive and systematic assessment of the Cape's remarkable natural values.

Commonwealth Government failure to support the results of this assessment will further undermine the integrity of the Commonwealth's $40 million plan to protect the natural and cultural values of Cape York through its Cape York Natural Heritage Trust Plan.

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Conclusion

The options that confront the future of Cape York Peninsula are stark. Policy makers can continue to implement the failed agriculture model of development that left many of Australia's natural resources, such as the Murray - Darling Basin, on the brink of ecological and economic collapse.

There is an alternative path. One that values the economic comparative advantage of the region in terms of its extraordinary natural and cultural values, many of World Heritage significance, and which can deliver economic self determination through presentation, protection and management of these values for present and future generations.