Reluctant Recognition of Rainforest Heritage


On the 11th July 1987, Australians voted the ALP and Bob Hawke into federal government. Labor’s campaign promise, to stop logging within Queensland’s Wet Tropical rainforests via World Heritage nomination, was well supported and true to its word, inscription was ratified a mere sixteen months later.

World Heritage listing for the area’s Cultural Heritage was not sought in Australia’s nomination. The listing of the Wet Tropics was for natural heritage only. The tenor of the nomination rather celebrated the extraordinary natural values as if they had been found, like a hidden treasure, for the remarkable good fortune of humankind. Their urgent protection, through the highest order of protection available to Australia, was justified by their discovery.

But for the people whose lives and livelihoods were a part of the nominated landscape, there was also dishonour and disenfranchisement. Under the nobility of World Heritage, domestic maneuverings usurped economic benefits and amenity towards emerging interests with lesser familiarity.

The indigenous peoples of the Wet Tropics, in particular, were offered tokenistic recognition of traditional ownership, but were structurally excluded from management authority. The fact that the very values identified for World Heritage listing remained a living testament to indigenous land management practices, was not only overlooked by Australia, it was also severed from continuity.

After more than twenty years of effort to convince Australia to re-nominate the Wet Tropics for Cultural Heritage values, indigenous interests have recently won the support of federal environment minister, the Hon. Peter Garrett MP, for inclusion on the National Heritage List; whilst not quite World Heritage, it is a step in that very direction.

Taken from the Wet Tropics Management Authority website: story places (natural features such as mountains, rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes, trees) are parts of the Wet Tropics landscape that are important to Rainforest Aboriginal people as they symbolise features that were created during the ancestral creation period (sometimes called the “Dreaming” or the “Dreamtime”). These places have powerful meaning and properties. They may be considered dangerous to approach or take resources from, except in prescribed ways or by the right person. These places must be respected, not damaged and must be managed carefully by the expert guidance of the relevant Traditional Owners.

11 Responses to Reluctant Recognition of Rainforest Heritage

  1. spangled drongo July 6, 2008 at 5:30 pm #

    Aboriginal “management ” of forests wet or dry consisted of burning when and where possible to improve the forests for dwelling and hunting.
    Our super wet rainforests were impossible to burn and so survived in spite of, not because of the aboriginals.
    Generally forests were converted by burning into dryer more open places where a spear or boomerang could be successfully deployed and naked humans could live in some relief from ticks, leeches and various parasites.
    White settlement, when it arrived had precisely the same idea for only slightly different reasons.
    In spite of 50,000 years in this country aboriginals are not immune to rainforest parasites yet indigenous animals are.
    Can they really be called indigenous Australians
    any more than whites?
    I certainly support protective legislation for these wilderness areas and aboriginals could be capable managers under modern guidelines.

  2. slim July 6, 2008 at 7:06 pm #

    “In spite of 50,000 years in this country aboriginals are not immune to rainforest parasites yet indigenous animals are.
    Can they really be called indigenous Australians
    any more than whites?”


    50,000 vs 200 years? On that basis I guess foxes and rabbits must be native animals by now.

  3. spangled drongo July 6, 2008 at 9:57 pm #

    50k doesn’t even begin to get you into the evolution club.
    Aboriginals, like whites, evolved in Africa.

  4. Travis July 7, 2008 at 7:24 am #

    >In spite of 50,000 years in this country aboriginals are not immune to rainforest parasites yet indigenous animals are.
    Can they really be called indigenous Australians
    any more than whites?

    Australian funnel wed spider venom is lethal to invertebrates and homo sapiens, but not other endemic fauna. Humans are not on the funnel web’s menu. Trying to suggest that humans that have been on this continent for some 50,000 years are not ‘indigenous Australians’ using this criteria alone is not very accurate.

    >50k doesn’t even begin to get you into the evolution club.
    Aboriginals, like whites, evolved in Africa.

    So are we all Africans? Seems you are shifting goal posts

  5. Neil Hewett July 7, 2008 at 7:53 am #

    spangled drongo,

    Whilst it might be true to say that all that any person, aboriginal or not, can manage, is themselves, it is also recognised that aboriginal people, collectively, managed themselves within the natural limits of sustainability, longer than any other culture in human history.

    The twenty or so language groups of the wet-tropical rainforests of North Queensland are no exception. Underpinning their extraordinary perseverance was a sophisticated natural resource management that went way beyond fire-stick burning; its pillars of propriety are knowledge and respect.

    From their observations and interrelationships, I see my own children accumulating knowledge beyond that which their parents and grandparents are able to lovingly imbue. In only three generations, familial, territorial knowledge grows.

    Just imagine the accumulation and refinement of knowledge in the 50,000 years that you attributed to an Aboriginal presence. If every hundred years supports four generations, that would be two-thousand generations of accrued wisdom.

    If you were lost in the rainforest wilderness, spangled drongo, could you survive? Where I live, eighty percent of the rainforest fruits are poisonous, without the knowledged-based processing that allowed the generations of Kuku Yalanji to not only survive, but to triumph over the fundamentals of survival, so much so that they could engage in the timeless pursuit of human drama, intrigue and philosophical exploration.

  6. Helen Mahar July 7, 2008 at 12:22 pm #

    I support Neil’s position on this issue, but from a slightly different prespective. To a large extent the aboriginal songs and storylines codified, with decoration, generations of knowledge on what was in their territory, and how and when to best use it. The group’s survival manual, of information that had stood the test of time.

    In areas listed for world heritage, where there remains a significant cultural tradition of songs and storylines, these should be part of the heritage values recognised, and recorded.

    Though some storylines are, on the surface, frivolous or funny, they still contain useful information about the places mentioned.

  7. spangled drongo July 7, 2008 at 4:49 pm #

    We all had to go through what the aboriginals did for 50,000 years, however we ended up about 10,000 years ahead due to many factors.
    Having lived with real aboriginals in the wilderness and played serious games like trying to out-starve, out-perish, out-gorge one another, I was always impressed with how fundamentally similar we were.

  8. Neil Hewett July 8, 2008 at 6:22 am #

    Beware, spangled drongo, your latest response is wavering confrontationally close to the truth, despite the bravado of the opening impudence.

    We are not only ‘fundamentally similar’, we are biologically the same species; we can reproduce fertile off-spring.

    I shall not soon forget the reassuring smile, deep in the largely unfamiliar wilds of the East Kimberley, that revealed my young indigenous companion not more than five metres distant and yet otherwise blended into the natural landscape with evolutionary perfection. How I envied his synthesis with the natural environment and how phenotypically conspicuous I felt.

    What could be more Australian than indigenousness, and yet how dreadfully they suffer for it?

  9. spangled drongo July 8, 2008 at 11:28 am #

    Evolution should still run its natural course.
    Aboriginals will be much more successful through assimilation than “putting them in a tree museum”.
    And I speak as a curator of a “tree museum”.

  10. Libby July 8, 2008 at 5:55 pm #

    It depends on what “assimilation” entails, and under whose terms. I don’t see white Australians assimilating much to Indigenous Australian life.

  11. spangled drongo July 8, 2008 at 9:33 pm #

    I must admit I was assuming we’d all assimilate into the 21st century.
    Otherwise who’d supply the grog and pay the bills?

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