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  • Writer's pictureDavid James Connolly

Historic ruling hands massive tract of Cape York land back to traditional owners

Celebrations erupted outside the Supreme Court in Cairns after the decision was handed down. (ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

In a landmark case, 2,188 square kilometres of land have been handed back to Kuuku Ya'u and Uutaanlanu people.

The determination was announced in a packed Supreme Court in Cairns, seven years after the claim was registered.

The land covers an area on the eastern side of Cape York, in the Lockhart River coastal region and will be managed by the Kaapay Kuuyun Aboriginal Corporation and the Uutaalnganu Aboriginal Corporation.

It is the first two successful determinations in the Cape York United #1 claim, which has been filed on behalf of Cape York traditional owners and is one of the largest areas registered for a claim in Australia.

The full claim covers more than half of Cape York with a total of more than 79,000 square kilometres.

In the determination, Justice Debra Mortimer said "today can only happen because of the hard work and determination of a lot of people".

The land encompasses areas along the coast near Lockhart River. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

"What a long time you have waited for this," she said.

"I am sorry it has taken so long.

"How many elders are not here to see this day, although they were the ones with knowledge of country, of law and custom, who passed it on to the next generations."

The courtroom in Cairns was packed with people who had travelled down from country on Cape York. (ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

'Here to stay'

Justice Mortimer also acknowledged that not everyone was happy with the judgement but she hoped each community would be able to put their disagreements behind them and look to the future.

"European law and European government has brought great suffering and oppression to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and we are still a long way off setting that right," she said.

"But getting this determination of native title for each of your groups is a necessary step, so that you can use European law for good purposes, and for outcomes that can improve the lives of your communities.

"Each of these determinations is valuable, because it says to the world that despite the terrible history of colonisation, your law and your culture is here to stay."

It's been seven years since the application was launched. (ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

After that statement there were tears and utterances of "hallelujah" from the many representatives in the courtroom.

Uutaalnganu Native Title Group traditional owner Beatrice Hobson, 80, said she was very happy but it had been a long fight to regain her father's traditional lands.

"I'm worried about my people because we've been fighting too long, waiting to get the land back," she said.

"That soil is the colour of our skin and I'm very happy to get the land back for my people and myself."

Many spoke of the need to remember elders who came before and of the responsibilities of the next generation. (ABC Far North: Carli Willis)

'Why does it take seven years?'

Cape York Land Council chairman Richie Ah Mat said he found the time it took for recognition to come extremely frustrating.

"Why does it take seven years to get to a native title determination where people still have to … prove that they're connected to country?" he said.

"Why has it taken so long for government to accept this was was blackfulla land?

"We didn't have to prove it to anybody — but since the British came we've got to prove every step of the way.

"It is appalling."

Mr Ah Mat says there is now an opportunity for traditional owners to develop new businesses and innovations on country. (ABC Far North: Carli Willis)

Mr Ah Mat said waiting for claims to be examined had a devastating impact on traditional owners.

"It creates depression amongst people," he said.

"How can people develop their land when they're restricted with all these pieces of legislation?

"Blackfullas can't even develop their land, create an economic development, small business for the community — nothing."

He said the land recognition would create huge opportunities.

"That's the main point of the determination — exclusivity," Mr Ah Mat said.

"These people can do whatever they want to do now on their land.

"Nobody can tell them what to do."

For more: ABC

Best regards,

David James Connolly

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