Indigenous land battle won after 35 years
THE wife of late indigenous land rights activist John Koowarta has finally won a decades-long battle to fulfil her husband's dying wish with 75,000ha of freehold land handed back to the Aboriginal clans of Coen.
Premier Campbell Newman has also apologised for the injustices caused to indigenous people when Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared the land a national Park in 1977 after failing to block the Wik Mungkan people’s bid to purchase it to farm cattle.
The State Government used the handover ceremony at Coen yesterday to signal its intention to make more freehold land available to indigenous groups, with Mr Newman labelling it an "essential building block for a pathway forward".
Mr Koowarta’s wife, Martha, has campaigned for Archer Bend to be given back to her people since her husband died in 1991.
She said she hoped more freehold land would be given to traditional owners in the future.
"My husband, before he died he told me: ‘If there was ever something wrong with me you have to stick up for our children and grandchildren, you have to be strong’; so I did," Mrs Koowarta said after the ceremony.
"I had to keep the promise to my husband; that is the Aboriginal custom.
"I loved my husband for a long time… I still tell (my grandchildren) a story about my husband at night so they won’t forget."
In 1982, the High Court of Australia upheld Mr Koowarta’s right to own the land in a verdict that showed the Racial Discrimination Act was valid under the constitution, but Mr Bjelke-Petersen’s decision to prevent ownership of the land by gazetting it as national park still stood.
But in 2010, the Bligh Labor government moved to revoke the section of national park and return it to Coen’s three major clan groups – the Wik Mungkan, Southern Kaanju and Ayapathu people.
The official handover ceremony could not take place before the election, and while Mr Newman did not acknowledge the Bligh government’s role yesterday, he did apologise for the hurt the indigenous people of the region had endured.
"Today I want to confront the issue. That is, 35 years ago, a great injustice was perpetrated," he said.
"And today, we’re here to put that right. We’re here to make sure that it’s right forever and to give back to people what was rightfully theirs.
"I’m sure if all Queenslanders knew the story of what happened in 1977, and afterwards, they would feel as sorry as I do myself.
"Today, my apologies to those who have suffered over the past 35 years."
Mr Koowarta’s brother, Douglas Ahlers, paid tribute to the land rights campaigner during the ceremony and joined Mrs Koowarta in calling for more freehold land to be made available to the indigenous people of Cape York.
Member for Cook David Kempton said less than 1 per cent of land on Cape York was freehold, and flagged moves to make more available.
"There will be no more business as usual, there is a lot of change afoot," he said.
Wik Mungkan elder Victor Lawrence said it was time for his people to look to the future.
"For a long time we have been fighting for this land, today we can look forward now," he said in an emotional speech.
"Today, I am happy … we made a hole through this brick wall today."
More than 380,000ha of the Mungkan Kandju National Park was also given to the traditional owners to run jointly with the State Government.
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Victory: Martha Koowarta, the wife of land rights campaigner John Koowarta, celebrates yesterday's land handover with her grandson John Koowarta, who was named in honour of her late husband. Picture: STEWART McLEAN