Cape York Protected – But Not From Miners


Despite yesterday’s $23 million joint Commonwealth and Queensland government funding package aimed at the protection of Cape York’s World Heritage values, Cape York Peninsula remains in the sights of the mining industry. To protect this area, the Commonwealth and Queensland governments must call a moratorium on further mining on Cape York until the conclusion of the World Heritage assessment and negotiation process.

Cape York is an area of global conservation importance. Rainforests, heathlands, sand dunes, wild rivers and endless savannah, merge seamlessly into one another. It’s home to one third of all Australian mammal species and half of our bird species.

Two hundred different butterfly species have been identified in the Iron Range rainforests and more than 1000 different plant species have been recorded in the McIllwraith Range, including 16 per cent of all Australian orchids.

At least 264 plant species and 40 animal species occur only on Cape York. Indeed, this tropical paradise is so remote and ecologically rich that many species remain undocumented.

The Cape is edged by 1800 kilometres of pristine coast, including the healthiest section of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. It’s home to 35 species of mangroves, some growing up to 30 metres high. On a damaged planet it is remarkable that the interconnecting ecosystems of this vast peninsula are healthy from coast to coast.

The $23 million funding announced yesterday is the biggest single investment in Cape York conservation since 1998. It will build on the work of successive Queensland governments of the past 15 years to protect Cape York.

But despite this boost in funding to protect Cape York, this wilderness is still under threat from destructive development, such as coal mining, with the recent disturbing revelations that 16 applications have already been made to explore for coal in the region.

Cape York Peninsula has become the next big target for the coal industry. While the community has been working hard on protecting the World Heritage values of the peninsula, the coal industry is busy plotting to dig up the same area.

The Wongai coal project is so advanced that there are already plans to build Queensland’s biggest port north of Cairns, transport the coal with a conveyer belt ripped through a nature reserve and carry it off to Asia on super tankers which will have to navigate the small gaps in the most pristine part of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.

If an open cut coal mine goes ahead in this area it will inflict massive environmental damage. Entire ecosystems could be wiped out including habitat for threatened wildlife such as the Red Goshawk and Northern Quoll. Sensitive rivers and wetlands will be exposed to toxic mine discharges. The Great Barrier Reef and marine wildlife could also be under serious threat from degraded water quality as a result of mining activities.

Yesterday’s funding announcement, built on the foundations of the Cape York Heads of Agreement signed in February 1996, commits significant funds to ongoing acquisition of land of outstanding natural and cultural significance and a process and timeline for World Heritage assessment and possible listing.

It is a much-needed boost to the voluntary property acquisition program. Over the past 16 years, the Queensland and Australian governments have spent about $40 million purchasing 1.68 million hectares of former cattle leases for conservation and return to traditional ownership, including extraordinary areas such as Shelburne Bay, the McIlwraith Range and the Steve Irwin Reserve.

Already 575,000 hectares are now permanently protected as national park. The challenge is to protect the whole of this great intact wilderness.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.