There have been many battles fought for Fraser Island (K’gari). John Sinclair AO and the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation (FIDO) fought for the island’s conservation in the 1970’s, initially focussing on sand mining which began in 1949. Sandmining ceased in 1976 after the case was taken to Australia’s High Court. FIDO then broadened its scope to cover other land-use issues on K’gari including logging and sustainable visitation.
But FIDO wasn’t the first to fight for K’gari’s precious natural resources. Pre-European occupation of the region, the Butchulla people were already well established on the island, mainly living along the west shore and centre. For 40,000 years, Aboriginal people lived sustainably in harmony with K’gari – fishing her waters and mangroves.
In the Butchulla creation stories, Princess K’gari was a beautiful white spirit brought by the messenger Yindinjie to make the seashores, mountain ranges, lakes and rivers. K’gari enjoyed her work and begged Yindinjie to let her stay. He eventually relented, changing her into a beautiful island and making the creeks and laughing waters that would become her voice, and the birds, animals and people to keep her company.
When the Europeans arrived, the battles for K’gari continued. Andrew Petrie explored Fraser Island in 1842 and returned to Brisbane with glowing reports about the abundance and quality of timber that Fraser had to offer.
Logging commenced in 1863, causing many conflicts with the Butchulla people, often with tragic results on both sides. John Piggot was clubbed to death in 1864, which halted logging on the island until 1868; and following the relocation of the White Cliffs Aboriginal Mission to Bogimbah in 1897, over 70 Aboriginal people perished from malnutrition, dysentery, syphilis, influenza and tuberculosis before the Mission was closed in 1904.
Meston’s report to Parliament in 1905 summarized the tragedy: “Fifty years ago there were from 2,000 to 3,000 aborigines on Fraser Island, an exceptionally fine race of people. Today there are about 20 left on the Island!”
During the 1980s, the State Government came under increasing pressure to halt logging on Fraser Island. In 1990, a Commission of Inquiry, led by Tony Fitzgerald, was established to provide recommendations on the future use, conservation and management of Fraser Island. In 1991, after 130 years of operation, the forestry industry ceased.
In 1992, Fraser Island (K’gari) the World’s largest sand island, was inscribed as Australia’s tenth property on the World Heritage list in recognition of its outstanding natural universal values. It features complex dune systems that are still evolving and an array of rare and unique features including half the world’s perched lakes and tall rainforests growing on sand.
In 2014, the Butchulla people were granted Native Title for K’gari (Fraser Island). This year, we celebrate 25 years of World Heritage, but the fight continues for K’gari, her people and her future.
Article contributed by Sue Sargent, Australian World Heritage Advisory Committee and Fraser Island World Heritage Community Advisory Committee