Rock art pro­tected from min­ing threat

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL McKENNA QUEENS­LAND ED­I­TOR

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.

LYN­DON MECHIELSEN

Tra­di­tional owner John Ross takes a rest af­ter see­ing for the first time a re­mote Quinkan rock art gallery near Laura on Cape York

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