The Australian: Contested territory: tussle to control Kakadu, Uluru as tourism jewels fade

Publish Date:
14th December 2013

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Peter Christophersen, a Bunitj man, and Sandra McGregor, daughter of a Murrumburr traditional owner, at Nourlangie Rock. 'We need to fix joint management.' Picture: Amos Aikman Source: TheAustralian

IN the hot red centre and the humid Top End, the Northern Territory is seeking to wrest control of two of the biggest jewels in Australia's conservation and tourism crown, the Kakadu and Uluru-Kuta Tjuta national parks.

The Territory government has opened talks with Canberra about managing the World Heritage-listed tourism and wildlife hot spots, which are administered by the commonwealth.

It has also approached some Aboriginal and other stakeholder groups, arguing both parks, long considered among the nation's premier natural attractions, must be overhauled to boost dwindling visitor numbers and bring ageing infrastructure up to scratch.

Tired accommodation, outdated attractions and climbing crime rates are said to be keeping visitors away. The Territory government wants to turn things around while opening more areas up to tourism and more privately funded development.

Some Aborigines are opposed to the idea, warning the Territory's track record of protecting its interests is poor.

The debate could lead to Aboriginal ministers being pitched against Aboriginal traditional owners, with Warlpiri woman Bess Price now the Territory's Minister for Parks and Wildlife. "Discussions have commenced with the federal government about how to begin the process of assuming responsibility for both parks," Ms Price said.

"This is critical, because we are concerned about the plummeting visitor numbers to the parks, and the importance to the NT economy and indigenous employment."

Chief Minister Adam Giles said that while visitor numbers to Kakadu and Uluru were declining those to the Territory's Litchfield National Park were on the rise. Mr Giles suggested changing the way Kakadu and Uluru were marketed and managed to create more local jobs. "I think you get better outcomes by having local people in local management roles," he said.

Kakadu residents Peter Christophersen, a Bunitj man, and Sandra McGregor, daughter of a Murrumburr traditional owner, said the solution was to work through the issues surrounding joint management, rather than to begin afresh with another government. "The park was negotiated with the commonwealth: that's where the social contract is and that's where it needs to stay," Mr Christophersen said. "We need to fix joint management."

Senior Mirrar traditional owner Yvonne Margarula said many Kakadu residents were sceptical about the Territory government's intentions, citing its history of fighting land claims and opposition to the park's World Heritage status.

"Everything they have done ... has been to limit our rights," Ms Margarula said. "They always want to commodify land, to turn it into a business, and Aboriginal people come last in that. They are always wanting to buy everything that belongs to us."

Kakadu was established alongside and in connection with the present land rights regime; changing management of the park would be symbolic for the land rights movement. Opposition to development has only grown in the wake of a recent uranium spill at a mine within the park's bounds.

At Uluru-Kuta, locals have had a fraught relationship with tourism, angered by visitors climbing the rock and at times offending Aboriginal sacred practices. Mutitjulu Aboriginal Corporation chairman Vincent Forrester echoed Ms Margarula's lack of faith. "The Territory government has always been hostile towards indigenous people," Mr Forrester said. "That's my initial reaction."

Atrocious living conditions and reports of sexual abuse at Mutitjulu, a community in the shadow of Uluru, sparked the Howard government's Northern Territory Emergency Response. Many Mutitjulu residents still live in abject poverty, in spite of the tourism industry that has grown up nearby.

Justin O'Brien, chief executive of the Kakadu-based Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, questioned the Territory's financial and technical ability to manage the 20,000sq km park effectively.

NT Tourism Minister Matt Conlan said the health of the World Heritage listed parks was "absolutely critical" to the tourism industry.

Earlier this year, a subsidiary of the Indigenous Land Corporation that owns the Ayres Rock Resort near Uluru reported losses of more than $100 million, including a $62m writedown of the property's value. The resort was purchased by the ILC for more than $300m in 2010 and has since been the subject of a boardroom battle.

A spokesman for federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the commonwealth had "no plans" to shift responsibility for the parks, but did not deny preliminary discussions had taken place.