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Cape Yorkers Pin Hopes on Heritage Listing PDF Print E-mail

© Neena Bhandari, Inter Press Service

SYDNEY, Jul 2 (IPS) - With the Cape York peninsula, one of the wildest tropical environments on the planet, coming under pressure from mining, commercial fishing and the tourism industries, conservation groups are pinning hopes on this pristine locale gaining a World Heritage listing and thereby permanent protection.

It was in 1972 that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted the World Heritage Convention as a way to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of the world's most outstanding cultural and natural heritage sites. With 183 member countries, it is one of the most widely supported of U.N. conventions.

Cape York, called Australia’s last frontier, is 14 million hectares of savanna woodland and rainforest, with wild rivers that feed vast wetlands and mangroves. It is home to 339 bird, 210 mammal, 127 reptile and 75 fish species, besides 379 rare, threatened and endangered plant species, many endemic to the region.

But over the past 50 years, large-scale open-cut mining, over-grazing, clearing of forests for pasture, unmanaged fire regimes and the introduction of exotic flora and fauna have been taking their toll on the peninsula's ecosystem.

About 12 million tons of bauxite, the raw material for the production of aluminium, are mined each year on the west of the peninsula, which uses millions of litres of water and involves the clearing of large tracts of forest.

"This has considerable implications for climate change. Plans for a massive new bauxite mine near the west coast wetlands and a gas pipeline through central Cape York make protection even more urgent", says the Wilderness Society's Northern Australia programme manager Lyndon Schneiders.

The Wilderness Society, a community-based environmental advocacy organisation, has been at the frontline of campaigns to protect Cape York. Cattle grazing is by far the most extensive use to which the land is put, with approximately 50 percent available for cattle production.

Schneiders says, "Lack of fences lets cattle trample sensitive habitats and roam into national parks. (Approximately ten percent of the peninsula is protected within National Parks). Feral pigs and cane toads are killing native animals, while invasive weeds slowly choke native plants."

In 1982, to mark 10 years of the operation of the World Heritage Convention, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) produced a list of the 219 natural sites worldwide that should be included on the World Heritage list. Out of the 13 sites in Australia, Cape York peninsula is one of the three sites with Channel Country and south west of the state of Western Australia that have not been added to the World Heritage list.

Cape York Peninsula was also identified as one of the 37 major wilderness areas left on the planet, and along with Antarctica and Arnhem Land, one of the three most wild and remote places on the earth, by Conservation International in 2003.

Uncontrolled development in recent years is also threatening many species of flora and fauna endemic to the region. Recent research has shown that at least 16 bird species, nearly all of them grass-seed eaters, have declined greatly in range.

"Some, such as the stunning Gouldian Finch and Golden-shouldered Parrot are now highly endangered. In addition, there is a continuing trend of regional extinctions of small mammals such as quolls, bettongs, tree-rats and bandicoots across the North," says Prof. Peter Valentine, author of ‘Compiling a Case for World Heritage on Cape York Peninsula’, a major Queensland state government initiative to identify and protect World Heritage values of Cape York.

The region has a number of features of conservation significance. As Valentine says, "The most pristine section of the Great Barrier Reef fringes the peninsula's east coast; 250 sq km of pure white dune fields. The extraordinary variety of landscapes, soils and climatic conditions support a mosaic of habitats with a seamless transition between dense mangroves, wetlands, rainforests and savanna woodlands".

The evolution of Cape York began over 200 million years ago, when Australia formed part of the great southern super-continent of Gondwana. Living illustrations of this era, such as the mighty Hoop Pine, an ancient rainforest species whose lineage stretches back to the time of the dinosaurs, are still found in ancient aboriginal rock art on the peninsula.

A 2001 study by three leading scientists Brendan Mackey, Henry Nix and Peter Hitchcock had concluded: "Integrity of natural systems and processes over such a vast area across entire watersheds, that give the peninsula its unique character and global environmental significance" and that a "substantial proportion has the potential to qualify as World Heritage".

Today, Cape York peninsula has approximately 20,000 residents. Schneiders says, "The indigenous aboriginal communities retain a storehouse of knowledge that is critical to the long-term management and protection of the environment. After a history of abuse over the past 200 years, there is a pressing priority to develop a conservation economy in employment, training and an improved quality of life evolve hand in hand with the protection and nurturing of this precious environment."

Under the Wild Rivers Act, the first of its kind in the country, six rivers have been protected and the opportunity of additional employment and training of aboriginal wild river rangers has been opened up. These 100 new positions which have been created for local aboriginal communities is a great example of 1conservation economy' in action.

The recent Queensland government initiative will protect World Heritage values and strengthen communities in the area. State Premier Peter Beattie's Cape York legislation reflects agreements reached by the Government with representatives of the Indigenous communities, environmental groups -- The Wilderness Society and Australian Conservation Foundation, and Agforce, which represents members involved in the industries of cattle, grain, sheep and wool in Queensland.

Australian Conservation Foundation executive director Don Henry said, "This Bill represents a major attempt by the government to accommodate conservation, pastoral and indigenous interests to work collectively for the future good of the Cape and its people."

"Working together we can address outstanding issues and forge a sustainable economic future for indigenous communities and protection of natural and cultural values on the Cape," he added.

Other important initiatives in the legislation include: formal recognition of Native Title in the Wild Rivers Act; an Indigenous economic and employment package, including confirmation of Indigenous ranger positions and support for indigenous arts, culture and tourism enterprises. (END/2007)

(Inter Press Service) 

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