After 80 years absence, Wuthathi people plan for the return and management of ancestral homelands on Cape York Peninsula



The Wuthathi people from the Shelburne Bay area on the north-east coast of Cape York Peninsula have been displaced from their ancestral homelands since the late 1930s. Despite not having a permanent presence, Wuthathi have continued to access their ancestral country and connection remains unbroken. Through both Native Title and the Queensland Government’s land tenure reform process, much of the Wuthathi homelands will be returned as either Aboriginal freehold land or as Aboriginal-owned national park. Wuthathi have Native Title over their sea estate that includes the exclusive use of a number of islands. The completion of Native Title and tenure reform will allow Indigenous management to return to the landscape from which it has been absent for nearly 100 years. In preparation for their return to country, the Wuthathi developed an integrated culture and conservation programme over 8 years ago that addressed cultural and natural conservation imperatives. Wuthathi are now moving into the implementation phase where Native Title has been determined. This study presents outcomes of a workshop, held in October 2010, that identified a range of barriers preventing sound ecological and cultural land management. For example, while funding for multiple land and sea cultural and natural resource management projects is secured, operational funding, management infrastructure and resources are lacking. With Wuthathi people dispersed across many hundreds of kilometres and no permanent infrastructure on country, planning and executing current management projects are severely limited.

Wuthathi Country

The Wuthathi, collectively around 400 people, were removed from their homelands in north-east Cape York Peninsula in the 1930s and were relocated to Injinoo and Lockhart River. Since this time, there has not been a permanent Wuthathi presence on their ancestral country. The former Shelburne pastoral lease (Fig. 1), occupying the majority of Wuthathi country, including some of the most culturally and environmentally significant areas, was acquired by the Queensland Government in 2000. The purpose of the State’s acquisition was to facilitate divestment of the property to Wuthathi ownership. The Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act 2007 (Qld) provides the State with the legislative mechanisms to return the former Shelburne holding to Wuthathi ownership. A key component of this land tenure reform process is the creation of Aboriginal-owned national parks, negotiated with consent from Traditional Owners and where the State enters into a joint management agreement. Key areas of Aboriginal freehold are also established in which Traditional Owners have sole management responsibility.

Figure 1.

 Cape York Peninsula showing the former Shelburne pastoral holding, now as a temporary Environmental Purposes Reserve, major roads and localities. Supplied by Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management.

The Shelburne Bay area has long been regarded as one of Cape York Peninsula’s most significant natural landscapes for its combination of geological, biological and hydrological values (Mackey et al. 2001). What makes Shelburne unique is its underlying sandstone geology, extensive parabolic sand dunes with perched freshwater lakes and terrestrial habitats ranging from wetland, heathland, rainforest and savannah (Stanton 1976; Mackey et al. 2001). The landscape has a high degree of integrity and represents the last remaining landscape of its type in Australia in an undisturbed condition (Abrahams et al. 1995). The Shelburne area is currently being investigated for World Heritage values as part of a cultural landscape nomination for appropriate areas of Cape York Peninsula.

As the threats of inappropriate developments including sand mining and the proposed space port at Shelburne and nearby Temple Bay were thwarted by Traditional Owners with support from the conservation sector, Wuthathi people have reasserted the right to speak for country and ultimately be responsible for its management.

Wuthathi currently have tenure and Native Title over ten islands within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) and have an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) over the Raine Island National Park (Scientific). Wuthathi sea country includes some of the most significant Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and Dugong (Dugong dugon) habitat in Australia and Raine Island, for which Wuthathi are identified as the Traditional Owners in the ILUA and share cultural practices with Torres Strait Islander peoples, is the world’s largest known Green turtle breeding site (Limpus et al. 2003). Wuthathi sea country within the GBRMP includes general use, habitat protection, marine national park and preservation zoning. Sea country management remains a priority, and Wuthathi’s long-term objective of marine management is to re-establish cultural protocols around hunting of marine resources combined with marine park patrols and enforcement on fishing restrictions to ensure conservation and cultural assets, such as Dugong and Green turtle, are sustainably managed.

The land and sea environments of the Shelburne Bay area remain central to Wuthathi identity as their spiritual and cultural home. There have not yet been comprehensive studies or systematic documentation of the cultural values of Wuthathi country. However, ancestral knowledge of and individual and family responsibility to country remain strong and are the key driver in Wuthathi aspirations to return to country.

Wuthathi culture is unique to the Shelburne Bay area and can only exist in that country. The only viable management option for the Shelburne Bay area is one that is owned and led by Wuthathi people, which draws on customary cultural and ecological knowledge and Western science. When this area was a pastoral holding there was no structured form of cultural and natural resource management.

Protocols, Projects and Workshops


Central to all Wuthathi projects is an overarching cultural governance protocol. Capturing these protocols, a conceptual framework of Wuthathi land and sea management aspirations was developed in 2004 as an Integrated Culture and Conservation Program (ICCP) drawing on the vision of senior Wuthathi leaders (Nursery-Bray & Wuthathi Land Trust 2004, Nursery-Bray et al. 2009). The ICCP framework identified three core programmes: community development, culture and policy, and conservation management, with a set of operational objectives in each programme (Nursery-Bray & Wuthathi Land Trust 2004).


Wuthathi are currently engaged in a range of projects that include: implementation of a Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreement (TUMRA) in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA); implementation of an ILUA on Raine Island with a variety of stakeholders; a customary ecological knowledge recording project supported by the Commonwealth’s Caring for our Country Community Action Grant scheme; and cultural recording and restoration projects in partnership with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) with the support of The Christensen Fund and The Myer Foundation.

Concurrently, Wuthathi continue to engage in Native Title proceedings in the Federal courts, negotiations for ownership of the former Shelburne pastoral lease with the Queensland Government, World Heritage consultations for Cape York Peninsula, Wild River consultations and a ‘Daintree to Cape’ public walking trail feasibility study.

Future priority projects to be delivered for and by Wuthathi people include, establishing permanent on-country cultural and biodiversity management rangers and the delivery of social and cultural programmes focusing on the current ‘closing the gap’ initiatives arising from the Council of Australian Governments commitments. This would include initiatives to reconnect people with country and remove them from urbanised community settings. To do this, basic infrastructure is required to support land and sea country management, temporary accommodation and research. Improving the health and well-being of Wuthathi people is central to looking after country.


The ‘Cultural Regeneration’ project initiated in 2010 aims to restore Wuthathi governance and articulate cultural values in a contemporary context. The first workshop for this project was held in October 2010 and brought Wuthathi people together from across the region at a meeting location known as Top Camp at Shelburne Bay (Fig. 2).

Figure 2.

 Ray Wallis facilitates discussion at the October 2010 workshop at Top Camp. (Photograph by Andrew Picone).

With 60 attendees, the workshop was one of the largest on-country Wuthathi meetings in decades (Fig. 3). A second on-country workshop will be held in the 2011 dry season and target Wuthathi groups who were unable to attend the October 2010 workshop. Further, it was the first time many young children and youth had visited their ancestral homelands. Because of the uniqueness of the occasion, the workshop was deliberately run in a loose structure. The purpose was not to impose any third-party agenda over the weekend allowing for attendees to query the status of processes such as native title, assert views on access to country and re-commence initial discussions around aspirations for country. Two extended group discussions were held on both mornings over the weekend. Maps and resources, including past management documents and information about setting up remote area infrastructure, from a range of sources were provided by ACF.

Figure 3.

 Workshop attendees; one of the largest on-country Wuthathi meetings in decades, October 2010. (Photograph by Andrew Picone).

Challenges to Wuthathi land and sea management

The majority of Wuthathi people are dispersed hundreds of kilometres across the North Queensland and Cape York region from Cairns, Lockhart River, Weipa and Injinoo, with an average distance of 420 km from each location to the most accessible area of Wuthathi country (Fig. 1). As a result, convening meetings to plan for future use and management of Wuthathi country is a logistically challenging and resource-intense exercise. Such meetings must also fit in between employment and schooling responsibilities and be flexible around cultural obligations.

In addition, the priorities of the Wuthathi community, who live in communities with a number of social stressors, are not necessarily the same as the priorities of the external funding bodies. While commitment to cultural practices may remain strong, interest in and commitment to biodiversity conservation through land management may not be a priority for all.

A second impediment is the lack of operational funding. While a range of funding sources have arisen recently, all funding is currently tied to project delivery as opposed to operational and governance needs such as paid positions for management and coordination. This limits Wuthathi’s ability to establish steering committees and working groups with the appropriate senior Traditional Owners and the leverage to scope for resourcing a range of cultural and environmental management imperatives. Basic infrastructure at Shelbourne is urgently needed to provide for safe travel and access, and enable Wuthathi to conduct TUMRA enforcement and more broad land and sea management initiatives.


While Western land management often concerns itself with clear tangible results in the form of measurable data from chosen indicators, it is the intangible results of people reconnecting to country that will provide the necessary conditions for Indigenous management of the Shelburne Bay area. Without Wuthathi ownership and leadership in management, the marine and terrestrial environments of the Shelburne Bay area will languish in a management void. Resolution of land tenure and ownership is fundamental before strategic and long-term management of cultural and natural values can take place.

With 60 attendees, the workshop held at Top Camp in October 2010 was one of the largest on-country Wuthathi meetings in decades. Furthermore, it was the first time many young children and youth had visited their ancestral homelands. Aspirations to have permanent rangers on-country were reiterated. However, further planning through workshops is required before Wuthathi can agree on management approaches and priorities.

To be in a position of leadership in managing country, there is a significant need for the establishment of a Wuthathi land and sea management entity that can not only coordinate projects and deliver outcomes related to cultural and natural resource management across Wuthathi country but also provide secure and long-term employment to Wuthathi people.


We acknowledge the Wuthathi people across North Queensland, The Christensen Fund, The Myer Foundation, Australian Conservation Foundation, the Queensland Government, Department of Environment and Resource Management, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the Rangers at Heathlands Ranger Base, Cape York Land Council, Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Australian Government and the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.