Cape looks to its future

Opinion Article

1997 February, 15

At the Wik summit a few weeks ago, John Bock, the pastoralist whose Kendall River holding is part of the Wik people's native title claim, was asked to address the after-dinner audience.

Bock laid them in the aisles with his bush wit and irrepressible humanity. But his most memorable line echoed in the minds of black and white guests long after the laughter died: ``We from Cape York have one thing that money can't buy and that's poverty.''

No truer words could describe the position of the black and white Australians who call the peninsula home. Whatever the national impression gained in the wake of Wik, that somehow great riches are at stake in the contest between the Wik people and Bock and his fellow cattlemen, the truth is that both sides do not have much except a mutual love for the land they each call their home.

For the Aboriginal families who saw their traditional homelands covered by pastoral leases over the past 90 years, they have never forgotten the land of their fathers and fathers before them. Many remained on the cattle properties as stockworkers in what was then a booming and optimistic industry.

Despite the depredations they frequently suffered as subservient and silent partners in a frontier industry that yielded them no reward for their hard work no part of their homelands were set aside for them they were at home. They could visit Kuuwa and Wunta and Riirrmerr and the countless named places imbued with Aboriginal memory over many thousands of years.

Even though colonial law presumed they had no legal right to their homelands, and cultural survival in the long term became a dim prospect when equal wages led to families being shifted to missions and settlements, the tribes of the peninsula have never forgotten. Through continuing seasonal stockwork and access to the pastoral leases for hunting and camping, on the informal basis of charity on the part of the pastoralist, Aboriginal families kept their connections to their homelands.

Back on the settlements they have lived in poverty. Grave social problems have beset the now sedentary people alcoholism, violence, child abuse and neglect, suicide, poor health, diseases. You name it. The congregation of many tribes on the one reserve has indisputably led to many problems.

The outstation movement, where a family or a small group of families return either on a full or part-time basis to set up residence on their traditional homelands, has expressed the need for families to escape the anomie and stress of community life. Begun in Aurukun in the early 1970s, today all the Cape York tribes have joined the outstation movement.

As for the white families, many of them have been on the peninsula for generations. Some have bought properties in recent years. There are few properties owned by rural corporations. Most are owned by battler families trying to make a living in a cattle industry that has been in decline for the past three decades.

Few are doing more than breaking even. They endure the same infrastructure deficiencies roads, communication, health, education and government service delivery as Aboriginal communities.

Cape York has never been a powerhouse for beef production and today it is but a shadow of its former self. Because of its internationally renowned attributes, the issues of environmental conservation and indigenous land rights have been at the forefront of the peninsula's land-use policy conundrum for 20 years.

In 1990, the Commonwealth and Queensland governments started the Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy process. CYPLUS established a process for dialogue between the black and white people of the peninsula about the future of the region. An expanding group of people from both sides has started to develop a platform for reconciliation based on goodwill, mutual respect, security of land tenure, conservation and regional development.

There is a growing awareness on both sides that the cattle and tourism industries will not develop on the peninsula unless black and white work together. Furthermore, both sides have a responsibility to the nation and the world to care for its unique environment.

The Cape York Land Council and the Cattlemen's Union have taken the first step towards putting together a regional agreement on land title and use on the peninsula. Its implementation will require more work and detail. Similar agreements on tourism, mining and fishing could provide consensual solutions to tenure and development issues that have long resisted resolution.

Such agreements will need the support and involvement of governments. The parties to the Cape York Heads of Agreement never sought to usurp or deny the role of governments. They merely developed common sense on the ground level so that governments could respond appropriately and give legal effect to community consensus. No consensus is unanimous and the agreement doesn't bind individual landholders, pastoral or native.

Regional agreements ultimately concern regional development. Queensland Minister Howard Hobbs and United Graziers Association President Larry Acton harsh opponents of Wik and native title can probably afford to say that they do not want to make agreements with Aborigines. Relative to the black and white people of Cape York, they and their families have opportunity and security.

The economic future of black and white battler families on the peninsula depends very much on reconciliation and their commitment to a joint purpose. Regional agreements equal regional development. It behoves those who come from regions of relative prosperity to respect the people of Cape York in their desire to build something for their futures.

Cape looks to its future