Qld traditional owners challenge Wild Rivers declarations

Wild Rivers Part 1: a bitter battle | Wild Rivers Part 2: consent is key by Andrew Bartlett

Charlotte Glennie ABC Radio - AM June 9, 2010

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The Program Transcript

Wild Rivers

TONY EASTLEY: The traditional owners of the land on Cape York Peninsular have placed another hurdle in the path of the Queensland Government's Wild Rivers legislation.

They've lodged a writ in the High Court challenging the validity of three declarations affecting the Lockhart, Stewart and Archer Rivers.

Indigenous leader Gerhardt Pearson says the court action could prove as significant as the landmark Wik case of the 1990s, which recognised native title rights on pastoral leases.

But the Queensland Natural Resources Minister says the Wild Rivers Act is fair and protects native title rights.

Charlotte Glennie reports from Brisbane.

CHARLOTTE GLENNIE: The Cape York traditional owners are going to the High Court of Australia saying three wild river declarations are in violation of the Native Title Act and the Racial Discrimination Act.

At least one of the traditional owners has a long history when it comes to taking the Government to court.

Martha Koowarta is the widow of the Indigenous land rights activist John Koowarta - who took then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to Australia's highest court in the 1980s.

She's also leading this challenge on behalf of the Wik people who were granted native title over their land by the High Court in 1997.

The executive director of the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation Gerhardt Pearson says this latest case could prove just as important.

GERHARDT PEARSON: This legal action will be as significant and if not more significant than the Wik High Court decision. It has the ability, we believe, if found in our favour to not just operate to make the declarations invalid but to reinsert the rights of native title holders.

CHARLOTTE GLENNIE: The declarations being challenged restrict development along the Lockhart, Stewart and Archer Rivers. Gerhardt Pearson says they deny traditional owners the chance to make economic decisions about their land.

GERHARDT PEARSON: This action is about preventing the erosion of property rights, of Aboriginal people's property rights, by governments.

CHARLOTTE GLENNIE: The traditional owners allege the Queensland Government did not use proper process when making the declarations over the three rivers.

The Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson wasn't available to be interviewed but in a statement says he looks forward to Mr Pearson actually providing any details as to how he plans to argue the case.

STEPHEN ROBERTSON (voiceover): Our position is that native title rights are explicitly protected under the Wild Rivers Act. A wild river declaration cannot directly or indirectly limit a person's right to exercise native title. And we've made it very clear that economic development can continue, as long as it does not adversely impact on the river basin.

CHARLOTTE GLENNIE: Last week the Queensland Government named the Wenlock River as its tenth wild river declaration. Miners say this threatens a $1.2 billion bauxite mine proposed for the Cape York Peninsular and as many as 1,700 potential jobs.

TONY EASTLEY: Charlotte Glennie with that report.