As we reflect on the achievements of the past 12 months I look further back, to the beginning of the Cape York Land Council and how the vision of our elders for CYLC 26 years ago continues to guide us today.

Richie Ah Mat, Chairperson
Richie Ah Mat

When planting the flag in the sand at Lockhart River close to three decades ago, our elders may not have dared dream that the organisation they were founding all those years ago would still be kicking the dust today.

I hope they would be proud of what their Land Council has achieved. Those who have followed in our Elders’ footsteps continue to strive to bring their vision of economic independence and emancipation from the chains of misery wrought by dispossession through the reclamation of our ancestral lands for all Cape York Bama.

This year, we welcomed a new Board for the next four-year term and I was humbled to be elected for another term as CYLC Chair. I want to acknowledge the contribution outgoing Board members made to guiding the business of CYLC over the last four years and I look forward to working with the new and re-elected members over the next four years. We carry the torch that was lit by our Elders and it is this Board’s intention that that flame will continue to burn brightly and illuminate our vision.

To again be given the opportunity to help better the lives of Cape York’s Indigenous people is a great honour indeed. I will continue to work hard during this next term to guide the CYLC team to build on the gains we have made in securing native title and assisting native title holders to forge independent economic lives.

The CYLC team worked diligently during the year to advance the Cape York United Number 1 Claim, known as “One Claim”, which covers all unclaimed Cape York land and waterways and represents one of the biggest single native title claims in Australia’s history.

The claim, registered in February 2015, will see Cape York Bama have native title rights and interests recognised over more than 14.6 million hectares of land and waterways, in addition to the extensive areas where CYLC has already had native title determined. Consultations with Traditional Owners about One Claim continued through the year and we are excited and optimistic that the new financial year could bring finalisation of the claim very close.

However we all know that without being able to develop economic opportunities on country, our collective quest for better lives for our families and for future generations will remain out of reach.

On behalf of CYLC and the Indigenous people of Cape York, I made this sentiment forcefully known to politicians, other Land Councils, policy architects and other vested interests in two keynote addresses this year – at the National Native Title conference and the Developing Northern Australia conference, both held in Darwin.

I noted that it was vitally important for Traditional Owners to be front and centre of any development agenda for northern Australia – indeed, I stated that development cannot and will not occur unless Traditional Owners are partners in the development agenda and consent to what happens on our lands.

Consultation by governments and business is not enough. Much of the development will occur on native title or Aboriginal freehold land and Traditional Owners need to be active participants in the decisions and deals that are done and the development that occurs, on our lands.

The north of Australia is potentially a pot of gold for governments and investors. Numerous studies have shown that the north’s abundant rainfall, vast plains, food production capabilities and resources offer a wealth of possibilities.

The federal government has recognised this and last year released a white paper on developing northern Australia. The white paper states: “Developing the north will need to be done in full partnership with indigenous Australians, with a focus on creating opportunities through education, job creation and economic development.”

We say to the government that a partnership cannot exist if one party does not consent to what the other party plans to do. Cape York Bama have unfortunately found over many decades that government promises of partnerships with Indigenous peoples have been empty rhetoric.

We have had deals and laws imposed on us after ‘consultations’ that amounted to little more than governments telling us what they intended to do. This approach would never fly in non-Indigenous communities and as the next phase of Australia’s development looms in the north, governments should heed our very stern warning that they overlook us at their peril.

About one-third of Australia’s total indigenous population lives in the north. Our societies and culture are more intact than down south and far less of our native title has been extinguished. For example, about 98 percent of Cape York still has native title and our statutory land rights apply to much larger areas of land in the north than the south.

On behalf of native-title holders and future native title-holders on Cape York, I told the policy-makers and politicians at the two Darwin conferences that there were fundamental underpinning principles governments and developers of the north needed to adhere to.

They are:

  • Respect for indigenous peoples’ values and culture;
  • Commitment to our free, prior and informed consent to development;
  • Genuine commitment to providing benefits to indigenous people from development;
  • Respect for the north’s environmental values and commitment to care for country in the process of development; and
  • Commitment that development will provide significant and sustained benefit to the north, rather than most of the benefit going to people and places outside northern Australia.

Dealing with native title must be seen as just another part of doing business. It can no longer be treated as an impediment, as the government’s white paper implies in some parts - or worse, a law to be neatly side-stepped.

This is at the heart of the next phase of the Cape York Land Council’s work on behalf of native-title holders.

thank the Board and the dedicated CYLC staff who do so much to advance the cause of Cape York Bama and I look forward very much to the continuation of this great work.

Richie Ah Mat, Chairperson
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