Protecting a Sacred-Site
Asserted as much as a distinction of the natural environment, as a requirement of the inhabitant human mind, territorialism protects habitat integrity and its treasured repository of amassed memory. Areas of singularly invaluable memory, such as sacred birthing sites, are respected with the highest order of territorial protection and through the exclusion of conflicting uses that would otherwise contaminate the purity of site-specific memory. If, during child-birth, an unfamiliar complication arose, the dedicated repository of exclusive birthing memory would provide expert access to the full anthology of birthing knowledge, from the very first nativity.
Deep within the ancient rainforests of Maja-Jalunji, a site of such significance occupies the confluence of three significant watercourses about a sharp bend in Cooper Creek. Shortly after settlement, a visiting delegation of Kuku Yalanji elders advised that a major portion of this long-sanctified birthing-site, overlaps part of our freehold World Heritage property. Brimming with spirituality and all the qualities that optimise birthing advantage long into life, the site imprints new-born sensitivity with utopian foundations, from which a lifetime of custodial decision-making aspires to the pristine paradise from whence it came.
CULTURAL HERITAGE DUTY OF CARE
As we were already dedicated World Heritage custodians, my family’s life within this rainforest had become as much a case of this rainforest within our lives. Learning of the sacred birthing site, in the midst of our treasured habitat, was only enriching. We were already well aware that the greater we value and protect our natural habitat, the richer the internalised rewards and having previously embraced the undeniable values of custodianship, we gave our unreserved assurance to the delegation of elders, that no-one, including ourselves, would be permitted to access this sacred site from our land.
Coincidentally, this sacred birthing site was also inscribed within the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area; not because of its particular Indigenous cultural heritage values, but because it was an intrinsic part of the channelling that drains the centrepiece of the oldest surviving rainforest in the world. The unprecedented decision to compulsorily inscribe our freehold property into Australia’s nomination for World Heritage-listing, as well as the entirety of Cooper Creek, seems to have captured the exemplary integrity and outstanding natural heritage values of rarity, primitiveness and endemism to enrich the Sovereign prospect of a successful nomination.
Unfortunately, privately-held lands on the southern side of Cooper Creek were excluded from World Heritage nomination, leaving this sacred birthing site vulnerable to rampant public intrusion from an externally adjoining access road. The intense pressure of the half-million-or-so visitors per-year that cross the Daintree ferry, inevitably found this tenure-weakness, penetrating the heart of a timelessly secured treasure. Through a lack of official consequence, however, the sacred birthing site and its invaluable repository of Kuku Yalanji memory, degenerated into an unsanctioned, recreational free-for-all. World-wide broadcasting of the locality, through the amplifying menace of social media, brought further devastation upon the site’s irreplaceable values.
Beyond the evidence of the site’s original pristine condition, Kuku Yalanji traditional owners have made it abundantly clear that this place is highly-significant to them and conserving that significance requires prohibition of culturally inappropriate activities. Within the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, forest product must not be destroyed, but in 2005, the site was also officially registered as an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Site under the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003, which is binding upon all persons, including the State, with maximum penalties for contravention of duty of care obligations currently at $117,800 for an individual and $1,178,000 for a corporation. The registration report recommended protection of natural and cultural values and specifically that the area not become a recreational reserve, with the level and frequency of visitor access re-directed to other places more suitable for recreational activities. On 21 August 2006, the Local Government adopted its Cultural Heritage and Valuable Sites Policy, which included this particular sacred site. The policy’s objectives are to ensure that cultural heritage and valuable sites of the Shire are identified, recorded and recognised as important elements and features of the historical and environmental fabric of the Shire and protected and retained in perpetuity as community assets. On 9 November 2012, the Australian Government announced the inclusion of National Indigenous Heritage values, as part of the existing National Heritage Listing for the Wet Tropics of Queensland. Once a Heritage Place is listed, special requirements come into force under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, to ensure that the values of the place will be protected and conserved for future generations.
Regrettably, the sanctity of this site’s Indigenous cultural heritage remains neither universally respected, nor sufficiently enforced. Amongst the cumulative impacts of a multitude of misplaced enthusiasms, pig-hunters have been seen washing their bloodied hounds and muddied trucks in the sacred waters and the once pristine attributes, which gave evidence of sanctity, were progressively desecrated under the weight and insensitivity of unauthorised and unmanaged public intrusion.
As the custodial landholder with the major duty of care, in terms of land area within the precinct, we have done everything possible to comply with the law and also to abide by our promise to Kuku Yalanji elders, however, unauthorised intrusions and their cumulative impacts have been relentless. Without any apparent regard to either the sanctity of the site or our rights and responsibilities as the majority landholder, a giant Yellow Penda, holding the banks of convergent watercourses into structural integrity for half-a-millennia, was killed. Axe-wounds were illegally struck into the tree-trunk to establish footholds for trespassers to climb into the overhanging crown and raucously plunge into the pristine waters below. The fungal infection that penetrated these arboreal wounds and the thousands of illicit ascents, ultimately led to the collapse of this five-hundred-year-old giant, centuries short of its potential longevity, causing catastrophic slumping of the northern embankment. The official response to this World Heritage vandalism, disappointingly dismissed the tree’s collapse as natural.
Seeking management cooperation over the years, invariably led to government land officials obdurately belabouring the public’s common-law right to enjoy the recreational attributes of Crown watercourses, despite legislated Heritage constraints and in direct contradiction to the expressed instructions of both the traditional Indigenous owners and also the majority landholder within the precinct. In less than three-decades, since Australia committed to site protection under the formality of World Heritage, the integrity of what Kuku Yalanji custodians reverently protected over seventy-millennia, was unrecoverably degraded. That international responsibilities in such an important locality were dishonoured, over such a short expanse of time, should be of great concern to all Australians and humankind as a whole.