Queensland hands back Daintree rainforest back to Aboriginal owners

Australia’s Daintree – the world’s oldest tropical rainforest – has been returned to its Aboriginal custodians in a historic deal.

The Unesco World Heritage site is over 180 million years old and has been home to generations of Aboriginal people.

The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people will now manage the national park with Queensland’s state government.

The Daintree borders the Great Barrier Reef and is one of Australia’s top tourism drawcards.

It is famed for its ancient ecosystem and rugged, natural beauty which includes forest vistas, wild rivers, waterfalls, gorges and white sandy beaches.

The deal also includes other Queensland national parks including Cedar Bay (Ngalba Bulal), Black Mountain (Kalkajaka) and Hope Islands – a combined area of over 160,000 hectares.

In handing formal ownership back to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people on Wednesday, the Queensland government recognised “one of the world’s oldest living cultures”.

“This agreement recognises their right to own and manage their Country, to protect their culture, and to share it with visitors as they become leaders in the tourism industry,” said Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon in a statement.

It followed four years of discussions, local media reported.

The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people wished to eventually solely manage the forests and other wet tropics regions, said negotiator Chrissy Grant.

“Bama [people] across the wet tropics have consistently lived within the rainforest. That in itself is something that is pretty unique to the world heritage listing,” she told Guardian Australia.

The agreement takes in both the Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation sides of the forest.

The Daintree region attained World Heritage listing in 1988, following a campaign in Canberra to push back against logging and agricultural clearing endorsed by the then state government.

Unesco recognises it as an “extremely important” site of rich and unique biodiversity, with over 3,000 plant species, 107 mammals, 368 bird and 113 reptile species.

The area is also the largest tract of land in Australia that has continuously persisted as a rainforest.

The Daintree contains the relicts of the great Gondwanan forests that covered Australia and parts of Antarctica before the continents split up 50 to 100 million years ago.

As such, the rainforest “presents an unparalleled record of the ecological and evolutionary processes that shaped the flora and fauna of Australia”, says Unesco.

“Its living flora, with the highest concentration of primitive, archaic and relict taxa known, is the closest modern-day counterpart for Gondwanan forests,” says the UN body.