It was great to see Cape York traditional owners defeat Queensland’s Wild Rivers legislation in the Federal Court last week.
In 2009 the Bligh Labor government declared 3 major Cape York rivers as “wild rivers”. It was politically motivated decision to secure Greens preferences in a close state election. It locked up major areas of Queensland’s far north making it impossible for traditional owners to pursue developments, including things like horticulture and tourism. It made a mockery of the Labor party’s support for land rights. Aboriginal people in Cape York had their land but, unlike every other landowner in Australia, weren’t allowed to prosper from it.
The Wilderness Society was the main agitator for the 2009 declaration. In a statement this week it said “Queensland is blessed with some of the last remaining free-flowing rivers left on the planet and they need to be treasured.”
Too bad Aboriginal people are amongst the poorest people on the planet; a people whose main assets are rights over land and sea. After years of dispossession and being forced off our land, were slowly getting some of those rights back – only to be told by Green groups that the music has stopped.
Aboriginal people are not museum pieces. It’s our land and we can deal with it as we see fit, subject to the same extensive environmental protections that apply to everybody else.
Traditional owners in Cape York treasure their rivers more than anyone. They also treasure their culture and languages. Most want to remain on their country. But the greatest threat to their languages and culture, their way of life and their desire to live on country, is the inability to build a real economy.
The only way for Indigenous people to lift out of poverty is commercial and economic development. Globally about 2/3 of poverty reduction comes from economic growth. According to The Economist “the biggest poverty-reduction measure of all is liberalising markets to let poor people get richer. That means freeing trade between countries … and within them”
But the Wilderness Society doesn’t want Aboriginal people who are living in poverty to get richer. This organisation was also instrumental in killing off the James Price Point gas hub. That project became uneconomical, with protest and resistance at every stage of the pre-approval works. Woodside withdrew, to the great disappointment of the Aboriginal traditional owners who supported the project and were relying on it to spearhead economic development in their communities.
The Wilderness Society claimed a major industrial complex there would be environmentally destructive, compromise the sustainable economic future of the Kimberleys through things like eco-tourism and be the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ triggering many other damaging developments.
These arguments are harmful and fanciful.
I don’t think urban Green sympathisers actually comprehend the size of Australia’s remote regions. I spend a lot of time flying over these areas. They’re vast. The idea you can’t develop in these areas without destroying them is laughable.
The Kimberleys is over 421,000 square kilometres – about twice the size of Victoria and three times the size of England. The land area for the gas hub was 25 square kilometres. Suggesting a gas hub in James Price Point would ruin the Kimberleys is like suggesting a development in Ulladulla would ruin all of Southern NSW and Victoria.
There are some great opportunities for remote communities to generate income through tourism, but tourism alone won’t deliver a sustainable economic future. And if the gas hub proceeded there’d still be over 420,000 square kilometres in the Kimberleys for eco-tourism anyway.
Take for example Arnhem Land. Rio’s alumina refinery is located at picturesque Melville Bay next to crystal blue water. Drive a short distance you’ll find some of the most pristine and beautiful wilderness in Australia. The Yolngu nation is developing tourism initiatives and also has mining licences. Different industries can co-exist with each other and with the environment.
In April I challenged the Greens to name one place in Australia where they’d support a new mine and one place in Australia where they’d support oil or gas exploration and processing. So far I’m yet to hear anything.
I’m not aware of a mining or energy project that’s ever been supported by Green groups. Yet they depend on those industries to get their message across – they operate websites, fly aeroplanes, use smartphones, all built from materials that come from mining and requiring massive amounts of energy to operate.
It’s easy to oppose. It’s a lot harder to build something that delivers jobs, creates economic prosperity and gives remote communities a sustainable future.
Cape York leader Noel Pearson said Queensland Labor should hang its head in shame for putting traditional owners through five years of struggle over Wild Rivers. Green groups should hang their heads in shame for wanting to keep Indigenous Australians in poverty.
Nyunggai Warren Mundine is Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce.