They call Cape York one of the last great wild places on Earth – a huge swathe of land at the north-east tip of Australia, featuring wetlands, tropical rainforests, savannah grasslands and bone-white sand dunes, all in a rare state of health and abundance. It is the kind of place that environmentalists swoon over, and dream of locking up for posterity.
The peninsula is also home to more than 10,000 Aborigines, and for the past decade or so the interests of the two groups neatly coincided. The greens were passionate about social justice and land rights, and Aborigines cared deeply about conserving the land. They formed a Green-Black alliance and campaigned together, notching up some notable victories.
But now the alliance has broken down spectacularly. Cape York Aborigines accuse the Wilderness Society of treating them in a neo-colonialist manner, and engaging in a new form of dispossession. The Wilderness Society claims that indigenous leaders are trying to "bully" them out of the Cape.
It was always a delicate balancing act on Cape York, where cattle farmers nervous about land tenure rub shoulders with Aborigines leading a semi-traditional lifestyle, and where rich deposits of minerals, particularly bauxite, lie beneath the ground. Mining produces 60 per cent of the wealth in the remote, little- visited peninsula.
In the 1990s, those interests came together. As newly politicised Aborigines campaigned for land rights, Wilderness Society activists were at their side. In a landmark win, they persuaded the Queensland state government to buy Starcke Station, a massive chunk of beachfront land that was being marketed to American developers, and give it back to indigenous people.
More recently, local Aboriginal leaders have focused their energies on fighting the poverty and social dysfunction that blight black communities around Australia. To Noel Pearson and his brother, Gerhardt, powerful Aboriginal leaders nationally as well as on the Cape, economic development is the key to escaping welfare dependency and rebuilding self-respect.
To middle-class greenies in Sydney and Melbourne, however, the idea of economic development on the peninsula is anathema. Sure, indigenous people are entitled to lift their standard of living, they say – provided they stick to conservation-friendly activities such as eco-tourism. But mining, logging, raising cattle – all the industries that have brought white Australians wealth – are out of the question.
A few years ago, the Wilderness Society set off on its own. In 2004, just before the state election, the society reportedly struck a deal with the Labour government. In exchange for green votes, the government promised to declare 19 rivers in Queensland "wild rivers", giving them protected status. It was re-elected, and passed the legislation this year.
Thirteen or 14 of those rivers are on Cape York, and local Aboriginal leaders were furious. The legislation not only affected newly won rights to use the waterways for traditional activities such as hunting, it put a brake on future economic development.
Flushed with success, the Wilderness Society is now campaigning for a "Wild Country" Bill to protect the land between the rivers. But that is not all. They want the entire peninsula – all 34 million acres of it – to be World Heritage-listed.
The people who live on Cape York, and have been managing the land for 60,000 years, complain they have been cut out of the debate. But now they are fighting back. A group of young, articulate Aborigines have set up the Indigenous Environment Foundation (IEF), the first group of its kind, in an effort to regain control of the agenda. IEF activists have attended music and culture festivals, trawling for members among the Wilderness Society's own constituency. They have also staged well-publicised pickets of the society's events, including a recent Cape York benefit concert at Sydney Town Hall.
Shaun Edwards Kalk, one of the group's founders, says that dozens of concert-goers turned round and went home after hearing the IEF's grievances. Others donned IEF T-shirts and helped Mr Edwards and his comrades to hand out leaflets.
According to Mr Edwards, a 32-year-old university graduate, no indigenous Cape York people were invited to the Cape York benefit concert. It was a similar story, he says, at the Wilderness Society's annual gala dinner at a five-star Brisbane hotel in May, where members paid $1,000 (£440) per table to raise money for Cape York campaigns.
Mr Edwards says: "They invited Brisbane's indigenous elders to open the dinner. We stopped the old people at the door, and they joined our picket instead. Then the Wilderness Society got police to escort us off. In the foyer they had our Cape York animals in cages – snakes, bandicoots, marsupials, birds – for their members to look at. It was obscene. It was very, very distasteful, and it was humiliating."
Mr Edwards' extended family group, the Kokoberrin people, lives around the Staaten river on Cape York. This year it was declared a "wild river". "We didn't know about it until it was too late," he says. "We didn't have a chance to say anything. The strategy was already developed.
"My great-grandfather, who passed away in May, was really hurt at being sidelined. The river is so important to my family group. These are waters that we've been drinking and looking after for thousands of years. Our whole language and lifestyle revolves around the river. This has made family members feel disempowered all over again."
It sounds like a David and Goliath battle. But both sides claim to be David. Wilderness Society figures accuse the Pearsons of waging a campaign of intimidation. The brothers' aim, they say, is to shut the society out of the Cape and pursue their alleged agenda of rampant development.
The Pearsons are undoubtedly men of power and influence. Noel Pearson, who once called John Howard's right-wing government "racist scum", now – alone among Aboriginal leaders – has the Prime Minister's ear. Mr Howard likes Mr Pearson's robust stance against welfare dependency. Mr Pearson backed Mr Howard's military led intervention to stamp out child abuse in the Northern Territory.
Noel Pearson runs the Cape York Institute, which aims to shape Aboriginal policy and produce a new generation of leaders. His brother, Gerhardt, is executive director of the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, fostering economic development initiatives on the peninsula.
One of their most loyal lieutenants is Michael Winer. Mr Winer worked for the Wilderness Society for many years; in fact, he set up their office in Cairns, the gateway to Cape York, and was instrumental in helping to forge the Green-Black alliance and secure the purchase of Starcke station.
It was while sitting around the campfire and celebrating the Starcke victory with the land's traditional owners that Mr Winer experienced an epiphany. "A number of the elders were drunk, and there were children with scabies sitting on my knee," he says. "I looked around me and thought 'this land is everything to these people, it's their spiritual base, their economic future'. But you need strong people if you're going to have a strong conservation regime on Cape York.
"We need to base conservation on traditional knowledge, which has managed the country very well, and is why the country is in the condition it is. We need to make sure that conservation doesn't become a new form of dispossession."
Of his former colleagues, Mr Winer says: "They're gung-ho cowboys who just want another notch on their belts. They want to get their win and walk on to the next. It's all about egos and victories."
The biggest victory of all would be a World Heritage listing for Cape York, which the society says is as significant as the Serengeti or Amazon. If the peninsula – home to half of Australia's birds and one-third of its mammals, many rare and endangered – was listed, it would be the largest land-based World Heritage area on the planet.
But that will only happen if local people consent, which seems unlikely. Among other things, Aborigines are furious at the idea of the Cape being denoted a wilderness – an uninhabited place. The Wilderness Society has tried to defuse that row by calling it "wild country".
Lyndon Schneiders, the society's Northern Australia campaign manager, denies that the locals are not being consulted. But he claims the Pearsons are intent on large-scale land clearing and major irrigation schemes. "We do accept that Aborigines have a right to economic development. But there's a whole range of economic opportunities up there that won't trash the place and would seem to meet people's aspirations to manage their own country. The economic strategy should be based on appreciation of the natural and cultural environment," he says.
But even eco-tourism will not be possible around the Staaten river, says Shaun Edwards, a protégé of the Pearsons, since no building is permitted within 1km of either side of the river. "We can't build any amenities," he says. "Not even a picnic hut."
Mr Edwards promises the Wilderness Society a fight. "They're not dealing with the old people anymore," he says. "They're dealing with a new generation which is fed up. We're educated, we've got money and people behind us, and we know how to talk the talk."
He adds: "Aborigines were among the first conservationists in the world, and we still maintain that today. We are not here to rip off the land, but to protect it. We belong to the land, and the land needs its people."Reuse content