Kin and Country – The Cape York Indigenous Conservation Agenda (Part II)

The progress of the Cape York Conservation Agenda is carving a deepening rift between indigenous interests and those of metropolitan-based ‘green’ groups. Whilst the former lobbies for social engagement within real economies, the latter crusades for an often over-simplified notion of environmental protection. Over-arching this ideological tussle, government verily executes authority for the political rewards of popular support.

Considered a significant conservation achievement by the Wilderness Society, Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act was declared in 2005 for the stated purpose of preserving the natural values of rivers that have all, or almost all, of their natural values intact (in Cape York could have sufficed).

The more recently introduced Cape York Peninsula Heritage Bill 2007, purports to provide for the identification and cooperative and ecologically sustainable management of significant natural and cultural values of Cape York Peninsula. It also restores rights to the exercise or enjoyment of native title, under the amended provisions of the Wild Rivers Act and establishes a new class of protected area under the Nature Conservation Act 1992; namely national parks (Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal land).

The Queensland Government has offered an indigenous economic and employment package, including confirmation of 100 indigenous ranger positions and support for indigenous arts, culture and tourism enterprises. Of course, the nature of this support will greatly influence the outcome of the package.

Current arrangements on Cape York merely provide the public with an illusion of conservation for significant natural and cultural values. Reserves have been declared and land management agencies provided with statutory authority and budgetary allocations, but much of Cape York’s natural and cultural heritage is excluded from subsidized economies and tourism markets tend to go where the getting is more profitable.

The Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree National Park is a relevant example: Half-a-million visitors per year cross the Daintree River ferry, but commercial activity entitlements are almost exclusively held by operators from the abundantly developed accommodation hubs of Port Douglas and Cairns, whilst independent travelers are completely subsidized to enjoy access entitlements without any payment whatsoever.

The full gamut of government influence, including permit allocation and moratoria, subsidization on a tenure-exclusive basis and ecologically protective development impediments on non-government tenures, ensures that very little economic benefit goes to the community within the attraction. This paradox is fundamentally important to Australia.

If isolated communities are required to conserve their natural and cultural heritage values, without reverting the landscape to the kind of conflicting development that underpins the economies of regional accommodation centres, they must be provided with prosperous conservation economies.

Such a requirement would be achieved with far greater success, with the removal of contradictory influences. Indeed, if Australia was to invert its influences, so that commercial activity entitlements were exclusively issued to local operators and full-cost-recovery was required on public reserves only, whilst off-reserve conservation land-uses were subsidized to the full extent to provide visitors with the illusion of free-entry, change in tourism economies would swiftly swing in favour of the communities at the centre of conservation significance.

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