The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people took formal ownership of 160,213 hectares of Country stretching from Mossman to Cooktown this week, including the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park.

The area encompassing the Daintree, Ngalba-bulal, Kalkajaka and the Hope Islands National Parks, is of enormous cultural and environmental significance.

The Daintree Rainforest, estimated to be 180 million years old, was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988.

While native title had already been established over much of the land in 2007, Traditional Owners worked for years to gain real influence in the management of their land and cultural heritage.

Lynette Johnson, Jalunji woman and chairperson of the Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation, the native title body of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, told the National Indigenous Times the return of the land was “awe inspiring”.

“A lot of hard work has been finally recognised with the land being returned back to the Traditional Owners after all these years,” she said.

“It was jubilant, but we know the hard work has not stopped, this is the end of one chapter and the next chapter is about to begin.

“In this chapter we finally got our land back. They worked for a long time to negotiate, our people, it was really an awe inspiring day. The people who did this hard work, they are our Elders, male and female, they did the journey.”

Johnson acknowledged the work of everyone involved in the momentous achievement.

“My heart and spirit go out to them, and to those who started this journey a long time ago. It’s an awesome feeling. I have not had my cry yet, but after things settle down I will maybe be able to have a cry,” she said.

“I love this, it is one of the most beautiful things to see happen… It has never stopped, they did the hard work, Jabalbina supported them, made sure their accommodation was done, their food was done.”

Map from Queensland Government. Photo Supplied.

Johnson said the “next chapter” would see native title body working with government departments, National Parks, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services, Wet Tropics Management Authority.

“We look forward to working with them on a close basis, it’s a new journey, where all the documents and blueprints and work comes together,” she said.

“Now we start talking about making it real, the funding, the training – we will work together on Country, on homes to be built, a cultural hub will be built.”

With the land handed back, Johnson said it offers people the chance to return to Country.

“People can go back to Country, they can start going home,” she said.

“It is one of the most awesome feelings in the world, to know they can go back … and their children and grandchildren, and people of the Stolen Generations, this is the journey to come home.”

Stakeholders that will be a part of the future joint management include Jablabina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation, Eastern Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services (joint management partner) and Wet Tropics Management Authority (World Heritage Authority).

The long journey began in 2016.

In 2017 a negotiation committee was formed and was ready to negotiate with the state government.

Johnson said the Traditional Owners Negotiation Committee (TONC) “have worked hard over many long meetings to negotiate the best outcome for EKY Bama”.

“The TONC went into these negotiations with the understanding of what our people want and need. They done an enormous job and I want to congratulate them on their efforts. Eastern Kuku Yalanji People have been fighting for their land for a very long time,” she said.

“The transfer of National Parks CYPAL has been possible due to the hard work our Elders have done before us when we went through our native title process.”

The return of Country will have a legacy for Eastern Kuku Yalanji people and future generations explained Johnson.

“[The handover] means lands that were taken away from Eastern Kuku Yalanji people are rightfully returned to Traditional Owners,” she said.

“It means Yalanji people will have a stronger voice in how their Country is to be managed ensuring that our cultural heritage and stories are better protected and preserved for our next generations.

“It means Yalanji people will have more authority and play a significant role in the planning, implementation and delivery phases of park management in areas including visitor management, fire, pest and weed management, and monitoring and research management and ensure that effective Bama Engagement takes place.”

By Giovanni Torre