The handback follows previous recognition of the Eastern Kuku Yulani Peoples' native title over much of the land in Walker on behalf of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji v State of Queensland  FCA 1907 (9 December 2007).
Following their native title recognition, the Eastern Kuku Yalanji People sought more involvement, specifically in relation to autonomy over land management and control of their cultural heritage (Willis, Wyles and Richardson, 2021).
In 2017, the Traditional Owner Group Negotiation Committee (TONC) and five Elders groups were formed to negotiate with the Queensland State Government on behalf of the Yalanji, Jalunji and Nyungkul clans (YARN, 2021).
Chairperson of the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation, Lynette Johnson, noted that the TONC went into negotiations with the understanding of what the Eastern Kuku Yalanji People wanted and needed. Johnson also congratulated the TONC on their efforts, whilst noting the handback was only possible due to the hard work of Elders during the native title recognition process (YARN, 2021).
World Heritage status
The Daintree is within the UNESCO 1988 listed World Heritage site, the 'Wet Tropics of Queensland', which stretches along the northeast coast of Australia for 450km (UNESCO, accessed 16 Feb 2022).
UNESCO recognises the Wet Tropics of Queensland as being of ‘outstanding universal value’. Biodiversity and evidence of evolutionary processes are criteria that make this area worthy of World Heritage status.
The UNESCO website notes: ‘[e]ncompassing some 894,420 hectares of mostly tropical rainforest, this stunningly beautiful area is extremely important for its rich and unique biodiversity. It also presents an unparalleled record of the ecological and evolutionary processes that shaped the flora and fauna of Australia, containing the relics of the great Gondwanan forest that covered Australia and part of Antarctica 50 to 100 million years ago’ (UNESCO, accessed 16 Feb 2022).
The Federal and Queensland governments have since enacted various statutory protection mechanisms. These include the:
- Wet Tropics World Heritage Protection and Management Act 1993 (Qld)
- Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Conservation Act 1994 (Cth)
- Wet Tropics Management Plan 1998
- Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth)
The path to World Heritage status
The UNESCO declaration followed multiple campaigns by conservationist groups across Australia.
The early-mid 1980s saw numerous conservationist groups campaigning against continued logging and clearing in the Queensland Wet Tropics, with the idea of a larger protected area encompassing all the state's wet tropics emerging in 1981 (Burg).
The ‘Daintree Blockade’ saw protestors physically oppose the construction of a road through the Cape Tribulation National Park in 1983 (Nielsen, 1997). While the road was ultimately constructed, this spurred conservationists to campaign for all Queensland rainforests to be listed as protected World Heritage sites (Nielson, 1997), and created heightened interest in the conservation of the Daintree Rainforest both locally and nationally (Burg).
While Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen's government continued to push back against efforts to have the area listed as World Heritage, conservationists received the support of the Federal Government. In 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that his government would nominate the Queensland Wet Tropics for heritage listing (Burg).
With the Hawke Government's support, the rainforests of Queensland were successfully listed on 9 December 1988, despite continued opposition from the Queensland Government (Nielson, 1997), which had formed an alliance with Federal Opposition Leader John Howard among others (Burg).
The Bjelke-Peterson State Government sent a delegate to a World Heritage meeting in Brazil in an attempt to stop the listing, and later litigated against the Hawke Government twice (Nielsen, 1997). However, since 1989, the Queensland State Government has supported the declaration of World Heritage (Nielsen, 1997).
Local Indigenous communities reported being largely unheard and unacknowledged in the journey to heritage listing (Mounter and Staley, 2018). Alison Halliday, of the Malanbarra clan of the Yidinji tribe, recalled the community's concern that the listing 'had no regard for Aboriginal people and the cultural values we have attached to the ... area' (Mounter and Staley, 2018). Local Aboriginal groups came together to burn a copy of the World Heritage agreement in protest (Mounter and Staley, 2018).