Cape York on path to world heritage listing

By Victoria Laurie 18 October 2012
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This wild region of rainforest and savanna in far north Queensland is up for heritage listing, but hurdles remain.

THE GREEN PYTHON, a spectacular sight curled around lush tropical foliage, is known only from two places – Papua New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula. It is living evidence of the biological inheritance shared between Cape York, in far north Queensland, and its neighbour over the water.

This unique legacy, linking the geological and evolutionary histories of two continents, is just one reason why Cape York is worthy of World Heritage listing, says Associate Professor Peter Valentine at James Cook University Townsville, author of a 2006 report on the peninsula’s eligibility. 

He says there are many virtues that qualify Cape York for the “outstanding universal value” required if UNESCO is to add a place to the World Heritage list. He says the region, spanning almost 15 million hectares, is a largely unspoiled wilderness of savanna, remnant rainforest and untamed river systems.

Unique landforms and biodiversity of Cape York

It contains unique landforms, such as the silica sand dunes of Shelburne Bay and Cape Flattery and ancient rocks that “capture a complex history over many hundreds of millions of years involving sedimentary origins, metamorphosis including granitic intrusion and extensive volcanic activity,” says Peter.

It has rare orchids, freshwater fish, butterflies and other invertebrates in places like the Wenlock and Jardine Rivers; inshore marine environments, estuaries and mangrove forests, with only a few active mining sites; and coastal ports like Weipa.

“The absence of transformed environments and dense settlement in any of the east coast catchments is outstanding at a global scale,” Peter adds.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said in August that he hopes to lodge a nomination in February 2013 – the annual deadline for UNESCO consideration. But Peter, who is also a member of the Cape York Peninsula Region Scientific and Cultural Advisory Committee, says he is worried that the nomination may fail due to conflicting messages by the Queensland state government. 

Conflicting messages on heritage listing

Queensland Environment minister Vicky Darling, in an invitation earlier this year to Queenslanders to provide their views on Cape York, said “one of the ways we could improve the management and protection of the region is to nominate suitable areas of outstanding heritage value for National and World Heritage listing.”

But Queensland’s Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney recently indicated there is greater scope for mining in the region, and several new mining leases have been issued.

“The state government says it supports nomination of parts of Cape York, but is opening areas for mining which would be adverse to listing,” says Professor Valentine. “There needs to be clarification – you can’t expect to have Cape York as a world heritage area if it’s pockmarked with mines.”

“One of the key aspects of its significance globally is the scale of it. If a proposal was to go forward in which only ten per cent of Cape York were nominated, it would immediately lose its appeal and relevance.”

Cape York indigenous community approval

Both federal and state governments have agreed that prior indigenous approval is essential to proceed with a nomination. World Heritage listing was foreshadowed in the Cape York Peninsula Heads of Agreement in 1996, signed between indigenous, pastoralist and environmental group representatives and ratified by the Queensland Government in 2001.

But last year, the Cape York Land Council halted talks about the terms of heritage listing in protest against the Queensland Labor government’s Cape York Wild Rivers legislation, which they deemed an overly restrictive attempt to conserve rivers. The incoming Newman government has promised to replace the laws with a new statutory regional plan, paving the way for talks to resume over World Heritage listing.

The Wilderness Society’s northern campaigner, Gavan McFadzean, says hostility to Wild Rivers legislation highlights the importance of consulting with Aboriginal communities. “But in this instance, perhaps a first for World Heritage, consent will be required before a nomination goes in.”

Yarrabah community dancers perform at Laura in the Cape York Peninsula. The site is surrounded by some of the world’s oldest rock art. (Credit: Mark Kolbe/Getty)

February heritage listing deadline “ambitious”

Gavan argues that the February deadline is “extremely ambitious”, and that federal and state governments may instead need to adopt a staged process of nominating successive parts of Cape York.  “But a Stage One nomination needs to tell the story for the other stages – you can’t just nominate a small area and keep bolting more bits onto it,” he told Australian Geographic. “The story of Cape York is about the interconnectedness of intact ecosystems.”

“Cape York is a mosaic of landscapes of extraordinary natural beauty and interconnected ecosystems,” he says. “It’s sparsely populated by both people and cattle, so its biodiversity remains staggering… It has half of Australia’s bird species, one third of its mammal species and a quarter of frog and reptile species.”

Meanwhile, the Wilderness Society has called for emergency listing of parts of the Cape that are subject to mining claims, and a moratorium on all mining projects until the completion of the World Heritage assessment.