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World Heritage and Cape York

Why World Heritage? Because it provides the best protection nature and culture can receive while providing real economic development and employment opportunities for Cape and Cairns residents.

The federal Labor government supports a World Heritage listing for Cape York by February 2013, while the Queensland LNP government supports the listing of appropriate areas or icons. Both governments say World Heritage listing is contingent upon Traditional Owner consent.

The Wilderness Society believes that all of Cape York Peninsula has World Heritage values and these should be protected and managed holistically across the region. The boundary for a proposed World Heritage area should reflect the vast extent and integrity of these values across the Peninsula, and the need to safeguard them for the future. Read more about this initiative

The quintessential values of Cape York Peninsula are its rich biological and ecosystem diversity, its enduring Aboriginal Stories and cultural landscapes, and its large scale and exceptional integrity at a global scale.

To acknowledge, protect and manage these universally significant values, based on the World Heritage criteria, a nomination would likely encompass a significant proportion of the region. More about the Wilderness Society's position on World Heritage


A successful nomination for Cape York Peninsula World Heritage listing would see the creation of the world’s largest terrestrial World Heritage area.

A successful nomination for Cape York Peninsula World Heritage listing would see the creation of the world’s largest terrestrial World Heritage area.

The Wilderness Society advocates a mixed World Heritage nomination of natural and cultural values, with a strong focus on cultural landscapes. One large, encompassing, area is optimal for protection and management across the natural values and ecological systems of the region.

It is the Wilderness Society’s policy that we will only support a World Heritage nomination that has the consent of Traditional Owners.  The process to determine whether there is consent from the relevant Traditional Owners should be afforded the necessary support and resources from the Federal and State Governments, with reasonable timeframes set in which Government can be sure it has informed agreement of the Traditional Owners.

It is the Wilderness Society’s view that developing a World Heritage nomination provides an opportunity for the people of Cape York, and the wider Australian community, to set a visionary direction for the social, environmental, economic and cultural future of the region. 

Why World Heritage?

Because it provides the best protection nature and culture can receive while providing real economic development and employment opportunities for Cape and Cairns residents. 

Cape York’s natural and cultural values stack up against any of these World Heritage Areas - it deserves to share company with the ‘best of the best’ places on earth. In 1982 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the body which advises the World Heritage bureau on World Heritage nominations, produced a list of the 219 natural sites worldwide deserving World Heritage protection. Reflecting the richness of Australia’s natural beauty and heritage 13 sites were identified in Australia including Cape York. 

Thirty years later, our opportunity to give Cape York the world’s highest recognition and protection is now. 

Selection Criteria for World Heritage Sites

There are 10 selection criteria for World Heritage sites. Six refer cultural values and four to natural values. To qualify for World Heritage a site must meet at least one of the ten criteria. 

i. to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; 

ii. to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design; 

iii. to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared; 

iv. to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history; 

v. to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change; 

vi. to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria); 

vii. to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance; 

viii. to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features; 

ix. to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals; 

x. to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

The protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties are also important considerations.

Since 1992 significant interactions between people and the natural environment have been recognized as cultural landscapesFind out more about World Heritage Criteria

Does Cape York fit the criteria?

The Wilderness Society is confident that Cape York fulfils all four of the natural criteria. The strong connection between the land and the ancient culture of the Cape’s Traditional Owners make Cape York a perfect example of the World Heritage Treaty’s Cultural Landscapes category for protection.  The Australian Government is committed to pursuing World Heritage protection for Cape York’s natural and cultural values.

The Commonwealth and Queensland governments are also undertaking an assessment of the cultural values of Cape York against the six cultural values criteria. This is a voluntary process where traditional owners choose to opt into a transparent and authentic consent process to make an informed decision about World Heritage. The process involves Traditional Owners and government agencies working together to come up with a Country Based Plan, after which Traditional Owners make a decision about whether they want to proceed with World Heritage for their country. 

In 2006 the Queensland government commissioned World Heritage expert, Assoc Professor Peter Valentine from James Cook University to write a report on World Heritage and Cape York Peninsula. He identified Cape York’s World Heritage values and discussed options for proceeding with a nomination. Read this report here

    What World Heritage Listing Would Deliver for Cape York

    1. World class management
    One of the obligations that goes with World Heritage listing is that the country which is custodian of the place must ensure it is protected in the interests of the entire globe. World Heritage listing would ensure that both state and Federal governments must provide adequate funding to ensure management of the Cape. Currently funding is hopelessly inadequate and problems such as feral animals and weeds, and poor fire management continue unabated. 

    Weeds such as gamba grass and rubbervine and feral animals such as pigs are major threats to the Cape and adequate funding is necessary to eradicate them. Traditional and ecological fire regimes also need to be reintroduced and funded. 

    With World Heritage listing also comes resources for the presentation, interpretation and protection of specific sites and improved access to them, so that the public can experience and enjoy the values for which Cape York is listed but in a responsible and sustainable way. 

    2. Removal of threats
    Over the last 200 years we have done significant damage to the biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes of Australia. For example, we have the worst record for mammal extinctions of any nation on earth.

    Land clearing, dams, over extraction from rivers, logging, mining and urban development have all taken their toll, especially on the southern two thirds of the continent. The fate of the Murray Darling Basin is perhaps the most glaring example of what happens when development inherited from the northern hemisphere is used on our fragile continent.

    In the mostly intact landscapes of northern Australia we still have a chance and a responsibility to learn from this legacy, and do things differently.

    But the mining boom is driving a wave of new bauxite, coal, kaolin and sand mining proposals for the Cape and the federal Opposition is pushing for the damming of pristine rivers and land clearing for major agricultural expansion.  

    3. Economic development
    The Cape is one of the most impoverished parts of Australia, with living standards, especially for indigenous people, far below the national average. The Cape needs a new economic development model to create jobs and improve living standards.

    World Heritage will provide opportunities to protect Cape York while building a new sustainable economic model that works with the land rather than against it.

    "There are lessons to be learnt from indigenous land use which did not involve large scale clearing and was based on more integrated notions of the relationship between nature and society. Cape York Peninsula presents an unique opportunity to work with instead of against nature."
    — Natural Heritage Significance of Cape York Peninsula (Queensland State Government 2001) 

    The Cape could lead the way in developing a conservation economy for northern Australia but it will be no easy task. The notion that national prosperity is inextricably tied to exploiting our natural resources is deeply engrained in our national psyche. 

    But there is a way forward if we exercise courage, innovation and political leadership. It involves a departure from the development model of southern Australia – a conservation economy with a large, interconnected network of protected areas at its core, complimented with viable and sustainable industries and enterprises. 

    This world class reserve system would be a mix of World Heritage, National Parks, Indigenous Protected Areas and nature refuges.

    Compatible industries may involve: low impact grazing on native pastures, eco and culture based tourism, fishing, mining projects with a small ecological footprint, biosecurity, defence, providing health, education and other government services, information technology, small scale agriculture, horticulture and forestry plantations. Indigenous industries include bush food and medicines, tourism and maintaining sustainable fisheries.

    Indigenous people employed in conservation and management of country is critical to maintaining the natural and cultural values of Cape York and job creation in indigenous communities in remote areas. These jobs are not welfare. Indigenous knowledge and skills are crucial to the long term management and protection of this precious environment. 

    Building a considerable workforce of indigenous rangers must be a priority to maintain traditional ecological burning practices and habitat for wildlife, protect cultural sites and maximise carbon stocks in this vast savannah woodland, as a major plank of Australia’s climate change response.  

    It’s an ambitious plan but it’s not beyond us – a conservation economy to last not just for the next 50 years of the mining boom but for the twenty-first century and beyond.

    4. High level but flexible protection
    World Heritage listing provides an umbrella of management which protects the natural values of a place across a wide range of land tenures. World Heritage does not mean locking up an area, throwing away the key and throwing people off country. 

    It is a flexible regime that recognizes that some places need rigorous protection in National Parks while other lands are used for economic purposes such as ecologically sustainable cattle grazing. World Heritage recognizes that Cape York has been used and managed by indigenous people for thousands of years and supports indigenous land management and use. 

    Pastoralists also deserve a secure and brighter future, and World Heritage can help make this happen.  Many pastoralists are also concerned about excessive mining expansion onto grazing country, and the need for better management of fire and feral animals. 

    Pastoralists need economic opportunities to come from World Heritage. To enable pastoralists to take advantage of a World Heritage outcome, governments need to consider providing incentives such as: 

    1. Resources for the management of World Heritage values on their leases, as well as training and for conservation land management.
    2. Compensation for loss of property rights.
    3. Changing lease conditions to allow for the construction of buildings and ecotourism infrastructure.
    4. Simplify legislation over pastoral leases to allow development pathways for multi-land use activities, such as tourism, hunting, fishing etc.
    5. Conservation and ranger jobs for locals including leaseholders.
    6. Official recognition of the role pastoralists have played in the conservation of country.

    World Heritage protection ensures that all these different types of land uses are conducted in ways that protect the World Heritage values – that is they are compatible with protection of natural and cultural values. World Heritage listing would provide sensible planning across the region including core areas of high level protection as well as zones for other activities. 

    5. Recognition
    Cape York is an internationally significant jewel right here on our doorstep. It is important for Australia to recognize and celebrate it.  World Heritage protection would provide recognition both nationally and internationally and would be a source of pride for all Australians. 

    The recognition that World Heritage provides would generate international interest in the Cape generating economic activity such as eco and cultural tourism as well as global concern to ensure it is protected for all time.

    Cape York
    About Cape York
    • Why it's special
    • Indigenous Conservation
    • World Heritage
    • What the experts say
    • Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act 2007
    • The Wilderness Society's campaign successes
    • The Wilderness Society's vision for Cape York Peninsula