Queensland Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and taking note of answers

My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. I remind the minister that in 2005 a regional agreement was adopted in Far North Queensland between the Wet Tropics Management Authority, the rainforest Aboriginal people from the region and the federal Department of Environment and Water Resources along with various Queensland government agencies. The agreement included a commitment by the government to investigate the case for renomination of the Wet Tropics area onto the World Heritage List for its Aboriginal cultural values. Can the minister outline what progress the federal government has made in meeting this commitment? Will the federal government move to renominate the Wet Tropics area to the World Heritage List in recognition of its highly significant indigenous cultural values?

Senator ABETZ—I thank Senator Bartlett for his question. Under the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area Regional Agreement, all parties agreed that before considering any renomination of the Wet Tropics to the World Heritage List for its Aboriginal values the Wet Tropics would be nominated to the National Heritage List for its natural and cultural values. This step is necessary because in April 2004 the Commonwealth, states and territories agreed that the Australian government will only draw future nominations and renominations for World Heritage listing from places already on the National Heritage List.

The Wet Tropics was nominated to the National Heritage List for its Indigenous heritage values in 2007, and this nomination is being considered by the Australian Heritage Council. At its meeting in June 2007, the Environment Protection and Heritage Council agreed to pursue a World Heritage tentative list to identify Australian places to be considered for nomination to the World Heritage Committee over the next 10 years. State and territory governments will submit places for the World Heritage tentative list to the Australian government by June 2008.

Senator BARTLETT—Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for the answer. Given that the federal government recognises the highly significant Aboriginal cultural values in the wet tropics World Heritage area, as evidenced by the minister’s answer, does the federal government recognise that it has a role in providing resources for the Aboriginal traditional owners of the region to enable them to properly protect and maintain the cultural and environmental values of this incredibly important area? What assistance does the federal government provide to the Indigenous peoples of the area—those who signed up to the regional agreement that he referred to—and is the federal government satisfied with the level of support that the Indigenous people have been given in order to properly manage and assist with the maintenance and protection of those important cultural and environmental values that he has indicated a recognition of?

Senator ABETZ—In the one minute I have I will give my best shot to answer all the matters raised by the honourable senator. The Commonwealth has provided $300,000 over two years as seed funding to help the Aboriginal Rainforest Council establish itself. It has also provided $1,034,610 to support Aboriginal traditional owners map their cultural values in the wet tropics World Heritage area.

The Australian government provides support for the involvement of Aboriginal traditional owner groups in the management of World Heritage landscapes through several mechanisms. The World Heritage properties managed by the Australian government, including Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Kakadu National Park, have a very high level of involvement of traditional owner groups through internationally recognised best practice joint management arrangements. The Australian government also provides resources to World Heritage properties to support Indigenous involvement through advisory committees. (Time expired)

Answers to Questions
Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (3.28 p.m.)—A lot of our discussion this afternoon has reflected questions about climate change which were asked during question time today—and that is appropriate. It is the most pressing, overarching environmental and, indeed, economic and social issue that the country and the planet faces. However, it is important also that, alongside or as part of having that debate about the appropriateness, adequacy and nature of our overall response to climate change, we look at concrete examples and specific ways of addressing the issue of climate change to mitigate and avoid it and look at issues that can demonstrate the linkage of climate change to other environmental and social issues.

The question that I asked today of Senator Abetz, in his capacity representing the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, pointed to one example—the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in the far north of Queensland, my home state. The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area is relatively well known, particularly for the Daintree rainforest. It is known for its magnificent natural beauty and it has the appropriate slogan ‘Where the rainforest meets the reef’, because it adjoins the equally beautiful and equally environmentally significant Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Aspects of quite wide environmental significance are not often properly recognised and understood. The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area—and it is not just the Daintree, I might emphasise; it goes further to the north of the Daintree up close to Cooktown and right down south past Cairns, almost to Townsville—is incredibly diverse and incredibly important in an ecological sense, particularly because of its immense biodiversity.

For all the focus we have in this chamber and elsewhere on some other areas and some other environmental issues that involve landscapes that are visually appealing, the simple fact is that in terms of biodiversity the wet tropics region in Far North Queensland—like other, larger, parts of Far North Queensland such as the cape—has an incredible concentration of biodiversity and is recognised globally as a biodiversity hot spot.

This is important not just because of the significance for the future maintenance of ecological diversity but as a buffer against the impacts of climate change. This is a relatively small area, which is significantly threatened because of human activity, particularly residential and commercial development, agricultural activities and tourism pressures. Small areas with immense biodiversity that also have climate change coming over the top are under significant threat. They need proper support for management.

The federal government do not provide significant amounts of money for the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. I believe that they need to give extra resources to it, because, from an ecological point of view, we have an indescribably significant World Heritage area. The question I raised today goes not just to the pure biodiversity issue of the wet tropics area but to the even less well-recognised cultural diversity of the area.

I am pleased that the federal government is finally moving towards giving consideration to renominating the wet tropics area for its Aboriginal cultural values, but that process really needs to be undertaken as quickly as possible. And, whilst Senator Abetz did outline some resourcing the federal government is providing to the Aboriginal traditional owners of that area, it is not sufficient. We often do not comprehend the integral link between the biodiversity, the ecological diversity, of a region like the wet tropics and its cultural diversity. They are intertwined, because it was the cultural and management practices of Aboriginal traditional owners going back millennia that actually maintained, protected and preserved that biodiversity that we now recognise as so significant.

If we do not provide assistance to the traditional owners with their traditional management knowledge for this region then we are putting at risk not just the cultural values that are finally slowly being recognised as of World Heritage significance but also the ecological values, the biodiversity values, that they are part and parcel with. That is not only a tragedy in terms of loss of knowledge and loss of ecological values with the Indigenous peoples; it is also reducing and putting at risk a major buffer against the serious threat that climate change presents.

Question agreed to.

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