Times have changed in Cape York, Queensland. Traditional land owners have taken a step to support industrialisation over conservation of river systems. This week, the Federal Court announced it will rule some of the Wild Rivers laws invalid.

Wenlock River in Cape York is one of the river systems protected under Wild Rivers laws.

Cape York traditional owners have pursued their case against Wild Rivers environmental laws to the Federal Court. The laws to protect river systems were introduced during the Labor government in 2009. There was oppositions in the past, but with the new Liberal government, they are more resolved than ever before.

Martha Koowarta, the widow of land rights campaigner John Koowarta, is leading the case to overturn the declaration of three rivers: the Archer, Lockhart and Stewart Rivers – which traditional owners argue were improperly made.

Repealing the Wild Rivers declarations was one of the promises made by the National Liberal Party (LNP) which intended to replace the conservation laws with Cape York Regional Plan (CYRP).

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies (AMEC), a member of the CYRP Committee met in Cairns on September 18 after Prime Minister Tony Abbott was sworn into office to discuss the draft of the CYRP.

AMEC Regional Manager, Bernie Hogan announced in a statement, “This is another step towards achieving coexistence for industry, local communities and Government.”

He said the decision of the Campbell Newman Government to scrap the four Wild Rivers declarations as part of the CYRP recognises the opportunities of the area for appropriate mining and mineral exploration activities, as well as agriculture and tourism.

He added the revocation gives investors confidence in the region to do business and up for economic development that will secure the future of all Queenslanders.

“We look forward to seeing this sensible approach to development rolled out in other parts of the state as well, particularly where Wild Rivers declarations have stifled exploration in the Northwest of the state” Hogan conluded.

A poster against conservation in Queenland. (Photo: Supplied)

Deputy Premier and the Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning Jeff Seeney also met the CYDP Committee which brought together the Cape York Mayors, key industry and community stakeholders and other State Ministers the day after Abbott was sworn in.

Seeney said the Newman Government is “setting a course to open the region to economic diversity and opportunities, while balancing the protection of the Cape’s unique environment.”

However, he made it a point that Newman wants to identify infrastructure opportunities that will support economic growth in the region and not introduce additional unnecessary regulation.

The Wilderness Society, meanwhile, is re-affirming its support for the conservation of Wild Rivers systems in Cape York.

Director Lyndon Schneiders said the Wild Rivers laws protect the rivers from large-scale development threats, such as in-stream mining, damming, and intensive irrigation It also guarantees indigenous people traditional hunting, fishing, land management and conservation, through protection of native title rights and support for rangers.

While the Society acknowledged and expressed its enormous respect for Koowarta and her family and respect their long struggle for sovereignty over many years, the Society also strongly supports the protection of Cape York’s wild rivers and call for the maintenance of Wild Rivers protection.

Schneiders said the matters being considered by the Federal Court include the consultation process that preceded the making of three Wild River declarations by the Queensland Government in 2009.

“In respect to the consultation process, we note that the Cape York Balkanu Development Corporation was contracted by the Queensland Government….We have always urged compliance with the Native Title Act and supported effective engagement and negotiation processes between government and Traditional Owners,” he said.

Map of the Archer, Lockhart and Stewart in Cape York. (Image:National Water Commission)

Schneiders reiterates that Wild Rivers declarations represent an effective and flexible approach to conservation which protects the health of the rivers for future generations and allow sustainable development, as well as cultural and recreational use.

The Wild Rivers laws keep mining and other destructive activities away from the most important parts of river catchments – precisely the kind of destructive developments that are now proposed, Schneiders said.

Schneiders  concludes that Wild Rivers declarations represent an effective and flexible approach to conservation which protects the health of the rivers for future generations and allow sustainable development, as well as cultural and recreational use.