Aboriginal elders around Cape York are showing that they support the conservation of the Cape York environment, desire to be equal partners in agreements over their clan land, and have a very tense relationship with Rio Tinto and the Qld Government.
Speaking with some elders last week at the Weipa Festival, I heard an insight that seemed to go to the heart of the leadership condition on Cape York. It was discussed how, often, agreements with the State Government were made by a single elder without reference to other clan elders. It was discussed that, often, the Qld Government or Rio, might find a pliable elder and ask them to sign an agreement, fully written in favour of the political (I suggest this is not necessarily the same as the best interests of the State of Queensland) or mining agenda, and the elder does so. Often there is no value traded in the agreement. So why does an elder sign an agreement when their clan gets nothing out of it? Because, I was told, they fear going to prison if they don’t. “We are learning that no one gets put into prison for not signing an agreement but remember, these are people who, in their lifetime were rounded up at the Government’s will. Some people, from Mapoon, remember their homes being burnt down by the Government.” I spoke to one women in her thirty’s who said she was raised on Mapoon before it was rebuilt, in shanty housing with no running water or electricity, a community without infrastructure. They lived there so their clan could maintain claim over their land.
The clans of Cape York have shown that, for all of their disarray at times, they have maintained the common desire that all clans everywhere in the world have maintained and fought throughout history, the land of their ancestors, the land of their culture, the place where every breath feels truly yours. The clans feel in the core of their heart and in every breath, the land, its special places, its sacred sites, need protecting. They understand that their role in the modern world requires education and trade. Some have aspirations that their children learn a trade. Quite a number of young people have been trained in Environmental Rangership, but many are unemployed. I did not hear any aspire for their children to be scientists. The clans of Cape York would like to have sustainable development of their land, without marked environmental destruction.
Sustainable development, education, training, and business development are all within the reach of Cape York Communities. The stridency with which Noel Pearson berates environmentalism, and stresses about Cape York Aboriginal Communities, belies that he has been one of those lawyers who have come to elders with a pen and said, sign here, and gone away and left their land to the mining company, trusts in the hands of highly paid hoarders, and themselves to fend with a few pitiful resources. I got the distinct impression from elders I spoke with on Cape York, that they do not consider Noel Pearson their spokesman. Those elders are upset they haven’t had the ability to negotiate better deals for the mining use of their land, but they are not about to throw it away.
The clans of Cape York have a lot of friends in the environmental movement, businesses and industry. Of course, there are many ill-wishers as well. Noel Pearson would like to have Australia think they have no friends. Noel Pearson would like the clans to think that he and he alone is their saviour. The clans already know better. Although I am sure they would like people with the education and passion as Noel Pearson to be collaborators, they are not looking to Noel Pearson’s point of view to solve their problems. They are no longer just signing the agreement put on the table in front of them. They are looking to work with all number of people and groups, to negotiate and own their future.
Cape York is a pivotal region in Australia. In 100 years it will host 50,000 people. Aboriginal people will be in the minority. Yet it will be a showcase of environmental conservation with industrial development. Aboriginal clans will be economically and cultural strong, and yes, some will be scientists.