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sydney alternative media - non-profit community independent trustworthy
Thursday, 28 January 2010
Responding to the tired 'terra nullius in Cape York' slur in crikey today
Mood:  sad
Topic: indigenous


This ran in the crikey comments today, and we responded narrowly on one aspect below regarding the alleged terra nullius slur: 


Wild Rivers not so “wild”:

Richie Ahmat, chairman of Cape York Land Council, writes: Re. “Abbott braving the rapids over Wild Rivers legislation” (14 January, item 10). The extraordinarily distorted rant about the Wild Rivers declarations on Cape York by the Wilderness Society’s Tim Seelig cannot pass without comment. It’s not worth addressing every libellous and malicious charge against Noel Pearson, but the following statement needs a response.

Seelig claims (wrongly) that Tony Abbott and Noel Pearson “cooked up” Mr Abbott’s Private Member’s bill announcement. He goes on: “Abbott and Pearson are suggesting we can only address indigenous disadvantage by allowing unlimited and unrestrained destructive development in our natural environments, trashing our pristine rivers and landscapes in the process”.

Mr Pearson and all Cape York indigenous communities are on record stating they want a river protection system that boasts no in-stream mining, excessive water pumping or new dams. The only difference between conservationists and our communities is we don’t want to be airbrushed from the landscape.

Even the term “wild” tries to sell an abhorrent “terra nullius” message that our communities haven’t existed or lived in harmony with our lands and waterways for tens of thousands of years. Seelig’s “pristine rivers” are in that condition because of the environmental stewardship of indigenous people for many generations.

To suggest we’re about to change those historical environmental habits, and that whitefellas need to now charge in and save our pristine waterways from the very people who have cherished and tended them for thousands of years, is racial paternalism of the worst kind.



We responded there as follows based on some political research: 

Regarding ‘Wild Rivers not so Wild’ I’ve just been searching my files for the feature opinion piece by Noel Pearson for the Cape York Land Council circa 1996, in the Sydney Morning Herald. No luck, but the message was strong and memorable referring to “Indigenous Wilderness” with all parties putting humanity in the landscape in alliance with The Wilderness Society who helped save Starcke holdings earlier that decade from US investors for traditional owners. No doubt that was then, and this is now but it’s big history.

This was in the context of a reconciliation document between peak green groups and Cattleman’s Union for a joint World Heritage nomination in light of the Wik legal decision. To avoid protracted litigation. In light of an approaching election and a shaky ALP government. Mr Pearson should hold to his word and call off Mr Ahmat in relation to this rhetorical slur about “Even the term “wild” tries to sell an abhorrent “terra nullius” message that our communities haven’t existed ..”.

No one in the green movement proper in modern times argues critical ecological areas are not original Aboriginal Land. It’s how it is managed today and the future that counts.

So Mr Ahmat for the CYLC is opening up a tired f(r)iction regarding cultural slights about humanity out of the landscape. What I did find in the dusty files pre Howard was the “Historic Land Agreement Cape York Peninsula” media release by these parties TWS, Pearson for CYLC, Cattleman’s Union and ACF dated 5 February 1996, with backgrounder chronology, and “Heads of agreement” as a first step under “Section 21 of the Commonwealth Native Title Act”.

Pearson in his own separate media release for the CYLC “welcomed the top priority that the two national conservation organisations, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and The Wilderness Society (TWS) have put on the Cape York regional land use agreement as a federal election issue.” No suggestion of terra nullius complaints there from Mr Pearson working with TWS.

Attached to the media kit is a statement by PM Paul Keating 5 Feb 1996 stating “Today’s announcement of an historic landuse agreement on Cape York represents a watershed in the reconciliation process and a major boost for environmental protection of one of our most pristine regions. / It lays the foundation of consensus for the creation of one of the world’s truly great protected areas ….”

Then John Howard was elected. I also relocated two big fat files of news clippings 1996-7 promising bucket loads of extinguishment of native title under Wik by the new regime - in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act. Who doubts Howard and Deputy PM Tim “bucketloads of extinguishment” Fischer poisoned the creek in Cape York right up until 2010?

What is apparent is that item 19 in the 1996 Agreement has failed, and here I smell Coalition cynicism, broken $40M election promise to fund same:

The nomination for World Heritage listing of any land on Cape York Peninsula shall proceed only where there is a management arrangement which is negotiated with all landholders who may be affected directly by such listing.”


This leaflet above from a file otherwise stuffed with news clippings from 1996 and 1997 to extinguish and limit the High Court decision in the Wik Case, tells the story of how the Howard regime did as much as possible to unravel reconciliation. Hand in glove with that aggressive redneck agenda has been the desire to vandalise the environment, not least in Tasmania's forests. Other Howard Govt agendas include converting the North to a new agricultural development zone as the Murray Darling Basin literally crashes.

In this context several Qld green groups supported state legislation to prevent a Howard Govt attack on unregulated rivers in the Cape York, with a World Heritage listing a forlorn hope at national and international level. Now Howard is gone it's may well be time to pick up the pieces of the former Cape York Land Use Agreement. Regretably Rick Farley as gifted mediator has since died but perhaps there is another in the wings?

This will not be easy:

Cape York group to fight World Heritage bid  Posted Fri May 22, 2009 9:37am AEST



Posted by editor at 5:45 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 28 January 2010 6:26 PM EADT

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