Daintree Rainforest handed back to its Traditional Owners, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people

Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, QLD. Courtesy of Unsplash, 2021.

On September 29th this year, 160,213 hectares of land, stretching from Mossman to Cooktown and including the Daintree, Ngalba Bulal, Black Mountain and Hope Islands National Parks, were transferred to the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation on behalf of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji People. The Queensland Government delivered the deeds of grant for these lands under the Aboriginal Land Act 1991 and Land Act 1994 (Queensland Government, 2021). 

In this historic handback, an Indigenous Land Use Agreement was signed between the native title parties and the Queensland Government. This involved the arrangement of an Indigenous Management Agreement (IMA) between the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation, Eastern Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners, Wet Tropics Management Authority and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services. All of these stakeholders have agreed to be a part of the future joint management of national parks that fall under the Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land (CYPAL) class (Queensland Government, 2021). 

Map of Eastern Kuku Yalanji Land Dealing Agreed Tenure Partitioning. Courtesy of Queensland Government, 2021.

The National Park Handback Ceremony

This milestone ceremony, north of Wujal Wujal in Far North Queensland, began with a Smoking Ceremony and a Welcome to Country, followed by speeches from Eastern Kuku Yalanji Elders, traditional dance performances, and finally a signing and formal handover of deeds (ABC News, 2021). 

Lynette Johnson, chairperson of the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation, spoke during the ceremony, representing the native title body of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. The Jalunji woman told the National Indigenous Times (2021) that this repatriation of Country will not only give the Traditional Owners their voice and authority back, but also provide the future generations with a legacy:

“It means Yalanji people will have a stronger voice in how their Country is to be managed ensuring that our cultural heritage and stories are better protected and preserved for our next generations.

“It means Yalanji people will have more authority and play a significant role in the planning, implementation and delivery phases of park management in areas including visitor management, fire, pest and weed management, and monitoring and research management and ensure that effective Bama Engagement takes place.”

Daintree National Park handback ceremony with proud Eastern Kuku Yalanji Elders, community leaders, members from Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation and Minister Scanlon. Photo credit Kerry Trapnell. Courtesy of Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation Facebook, 2021. 

Johnson (2021) further expressed that the “next chapter” would see the native title body working with the aforementioned stakeholders involved in the IMA agreement:

“We look forward to working with them on a close basis, it’s a new journey, where all the documents and blueprints and work comes together,” she said.

“Now we start talking about making it real, the funding, the training – we will work together on Country, on homes to be built, a cultural hub will be built.”

Lyn Johnson, Traditional Owner and Chair of the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation spoke at the handover ceremony.  Photo credit Kerry Trapnell. Courtesy of Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation Facebook, 2021.

The Elders spoke of the long fight and campaign to have their Bubu (country) returned to their care and how proud their ancestors would be, and of their hopes that more young Yalanji Bama (people) would return to live on Bubu (ABC News, 2021). Jalunji and Nyungkul elder Maree Shipton (2021) said in the ceremony:

"We'd like to see all our young people step up now and [be] doing work on country, learning about cultural sites, where they come from." 

State Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon (2021), who was also present at the handover ceremony, said that the IMA was a "really important milestone in Queensland's history" that "really rights the wrongs of the past.” 

"There's a number of agreements put in place … to make sure that we'll continue to work in good faith with traditional owners to make sure we are working in genuine partnership,” Minister Scanlon vowed.

"We know there's more work to do and today is just a step forward in that path to reconciliation."

The Campaign

Cassowary native bird to Daintree Rainforest. Courtesy of Tourism Queensland, 2021.

Although the Daintree Rainforest has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, we must remember that the Eastern Kuku Yalanji People have been here for hundreds of thousands of years - after all, the rainforest is estimated to be 180 million years old. So, you can see why the Traditional Owners of the Daintree Rainforest have been campaigning for years to gain an influence in the management of their traditional lands and cultural heritage (NIT, 2021).

In 2007, the campaign was successful in gaining Native Title over much of the national park. Later in the year, on November the 2nd, the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act 2007 was proclaimed, resulting in a new move towards the joint management of national parks on Cape York Peninsula (Queensland Government, 2021).  

In 2017, the Traditional Owner Negotiating Committee (TONC) and five elders groups formed in order to negotiate with the state government. This negotiation was done on behalf of the three clan groups: Yalanji, Jalunji and Nyungkul (NIT, 2021). In the handover ceremony, Johnson (2021) said that TONC “have worked hard over many long meetings to negotiate the best outcome for EKY Bama [Eastern Kuku Yalanji People].

“The TONC went into these negotiations with the understanding of what our people want and need. They done an enormous job and I want to congratulate them on their efforts. Eastern Kuku Yalanji People have been fighting for their land for a very long time,” she said.

“The transfer of National Parks CYPAL has been possible due to the hard work our Elders have done before us when we went through our native title process.”

For more stories about traditional place name repatriation, check out our previous article Fraser Island renamed to Traditional Place Name K'gari. If you would like to learn more about the significance of traditional place names, check out Nangun wruk - First Languages Australia's National Place Names Project