Rock art protected from mining threat
Cape York’s “Quinkan Country’’ — home to some of the oldest Aboriginal rock art — has been put on the National Heritage list to boost protections from mining and development.
Cape York’s “Quinkan Country’’ — which holds some of Australia’s oldest and most distinctive Aboriginal rock art — has been put on the National Heritage List to boost protections over the vast sandstone galleries from the threat of mining and development.
After almost a decade-long push by traditional owners, the 260,000ha landscape of hundreds of sites of paintings and engravings — some dating back 34,000 years — will finally have federal legislative backing for their preservation with the listing.
It comes as Cape York is on the cusp of a new wave of development and tourism, with the upgrade of roads in the region and a surge in mining exploration.
The formal process to include the Quinkan rock art on the heritage list began after revelations by The Weekend Australian in 2013 that mining magnate Gina Rinehart had sought permission to explore for minerals in the area, 50km west of Cooktown.
Mrs Rinehart’s company, Jacaranda Minerals, withdrew the application a week later but public outcry drew attention to the poor protections over the sites under state Aboriginal heritage laws.
The heritage listing will trigger an automatic assessment under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and possible refusal to any development application that is deemed as a threat to the sites. The listing does not cover existing mines in the region or normal activities of local landholders and graziers.
Traditional owner John Ross said there were numerous more exploration permits and at least one mine application on Quinkan Country that he believed could pose a threat to the rock art.
Chair of the Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation of Laura, Mr Ross said the art was among the best preserved and distinctive in the world. “The paintings show our totems, our spirits and they need protecting,’’ he said. “There is plenty of water here, plenty of food, so many tribes came here over thousands of years and you can see their stories on the walls.’’
Mr Ross’s son Gene, a Laura ranger, took The Weekend Australian to a site that even his father had never seen and was discovered in 2013.
Scores of new sites are found every year by the group of six rangers, who ride quad bikes through the sandstone escarpments looking for paintings and engravings.
“But we need more funding to upgrade the trails to the (five developed) tourist areas of paintings and to keep the process of finding and recording other sites,’’ he said.
Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price, who approved the heritage listing, said it was a necessary step to ensure its protection. “Quinkan Country is a very significant part of our history — it stands out among other regions because of the richness, size and density of its rock art, and the extraordinary array of Aboriginal paintings and engravings,” she said.
The art now joins a 117-strong list of environmental and cultural places of significance on the list, including Sydney Opera House and Kakadu National Park.
One of the world’s leading rock art experts, Paul Tacon of Griffith University, said the Quinkan rock art was hugely significant and its listing was long overdue.
“It is among the most significant because of its diversity, the sheer numbers of the paintings and the fact it was made over many thousands of years,’’ he said.
Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman Andrew Picone said while the listing was welcome, he had concerns. “As a national heritage-listed site, the EPBCA will apply to Quinkan country, but we’re concerned this act is not strong enough to genuinely protect Australia’s natural and cultural heritage,’’ he said.
Traditional owner John Ross takes a rest after seeing for the first time a remote Quinkan rock art gallery near Laura on Cape York