NON-indigenous owners of two long-established businesses vital to life in Cape York have joined Aboriginal groups in vocal opposition to the Queensland Government’s declaration of wild rivers in their region.
The Bligh Government has been accused of ignoring submissions from people affected by the declaration, and proceeding only to appease environmental groups to secure election support.
The owners of the popular Archer River Roadhouse near Aurukun on western Cape York said their business, in which they had invested more than $2million, was threatened by the wild rivers legislation, particularly regarding future expansion.
Roadhouse co-owner Hugh Atherton said complying with the new legislation added prohibitive costs which would make improvements such as an amenities block for campers or an earth dam out of the question.
“My biggest beef is that the Queensland Government encouraged us to put in a submission and we spent $8000 doing it professionally through a solicitor, and setting out how including our business in the boundaries of wild rivers legislation was totally unworkable,” he said.
“We even went to Brisbane and had a meeting with the then natural resources minister, Craig Wallace. We put in the submission and they did not even acknowledge receipt of it, let alone address the issues we raised.
“We cater for 12,000 travellers a month during the dry season up here and we have no idea what our future is under this Government.”
Similar concern was expressed by John McDowall, principal of Musgrave Roadhouse, whose wife’s family has been operating businesses at Musgrave since 1886.
Mr McDowall said he supported the original concept of protecting the rivers of Cape York from mining and unnecessary development, but the announcement by the Queensland Government that feeder streams to the rivers, the catchments and river basins would now be included was totally unsupportable.
“The next lot of declarations that have been flagged mean that three-quarters of the Cape will be covered by the legislation which protects them from some dreamed-up phantom threat.
“The Government has disgracefully used indigenous people by going to communities on the Cape, talking to selected people, and saying that is consultation,” Mr McDowall said.
“World Heritage listing is the next thing, we are told, and places like Iron Range and McIlwraith Range should be listed, but not without consultation with the people who live here and particularly the traditional owners.
“This is just appeasing the Greens — people who don’t live up here and many of whom will never even travel here.”
Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson said he saw the interference in the Cape by the Government as a three-phase move — wild rivers, World Heritage listing, and then the prohibition of fishing and hunting for everybody.
“Tell me one World Heritage area where fishing and hunting are allowed,” Mr Pearson said. “Much of this region is pristine, but it is that way because of the care that Aboriginal people have taken with the land over centuries. There are no bulldozers with chains clearing land here, no sawmills.
“The imposition of wild rivers legislation with the paucity of consultation, and in direct opposition to the expressed wishes of traditional owners, makes it an appalling racist law.”
Mr Pearson’s brother, Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation executive director Gerhardt Pearson, yesterday wrote to federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett seeking intervention in the wild rivers declaration.
Gerhardt Pearson said there was agreement that some of the region should be World Heritage-listed, but it could not be achieved without the consent of traditional owners.
“We have strongly expressed our concerns about the potential impact of wild rivers declarations on economic development opportunities for indigenous people on Cape York,” he wrote.
“Some critical issues in relation to the legislation include the very onerous and unnecessary process for development approvals in wild river areas and the lack of science in determining which rivers in fact qualify as wild rivers.
“We are strongly of the view that the recent declaration of wild river areas on Cape York has been contrary to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People which was endorsed by the commonwealth on April 3, 2009,” Mr Pearson wrote.
“We believe that there are aspects of the implementation of the legislation which contravene the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.”
The Mayor of the Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council, Joseph Elu, said the imposition of wild rivers legislation would be “an obstacle to progression” of indigenous people on Cape York.
“It is so important that any business and economic development is not stifled by the continual red tape of legislation,” he said.
“Traditional owners know how to protect and manage their country. Why is the Government disempowering us? The Government would be better to focus on the sad rivers of the southeast and leave traditional owners of Cape York to look after ours.”
Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson yesterday defended the Government’s handling of the issue, saying his department had consulted for “a long time”.
He said the legislation spelt out that existing businesses would not be affected. “It specifically allows for indigenous people to develop businesses if they so desire.”
But he said that in future, all submissions on issues such as wild rivers would be published.