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Celebrating Thirty Years of World Heritage

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There is little doubt that the pathway to World Heritage for K’gari (Fraser Island) has been contentious. The colonial fight for K’gari started in 1770, when HMS Endeavour, carrying Lt James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks, scientist and sponsor for the trip, recorded the island.

K’gari 2022 – celebrating thirty years of World Heritage (Photo: Sue Sargent)

Cook noted (on 19 May 1770), “The land hereabouts, which is of moderate height, appears more barren than any we have seen on this coast, and the soil more sandy, there being several places where nothing else is to be seen. In other places, the woods look to be low and shrubby, nor did we see many signs of inhabitants.” How little he knew.

Matthew Flinders provided a clearer perspective of K’gari in 1802 (from the Investigator), hinting that the site supported large numbers of Butchulla people. “Nothing can be imagined more barren than this peninsula, but the smoke which arose in many parts corroborated and bespoke that fresh water was not scarce in this Sandy Country. Our course at night was directed by the fires on shore.”    

By 1842, Andrew Petrie had explored the island returning to Brisbane with reports about the abundance and quality of timber it had to offer. The battle for K’gari’s resources commenced.

Between 24 December 1851 and 3 January 1852, an expedition led by Commandant Frederick Walker was carried out to ‘break up’ Aboriginal clans seeking sanctuary on the island. The Commandant and his crew of Lt Marshall, Sgt Major Dolan, 24 troopers, and the captain and crew of the schooner Margaret and Mary (all armed and sworn in as special constables) were responsible for the K’gari massacre. Tragically, an estimated 100 Aboriginal people were ‘driven into the sea and kept there as long as daylight and life lasted.’

Logging commenced in 1863, causing further conflict, often with tragic results on both sides. But it wasn’t just the island’s timber that attracted interest. Geological wealth lay in its rich rutile, ilmenite, zircon and monazite deposits. As a result, sand mining leases were first granted in 1949.

Gradually, a new movement gained momentum for K’gari – conservation. In 1893, the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science identified the island as one of four outstanding areas of Australia most suitable for national parks. In 1963, the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland Inc. (WPSQ) was founded, with a Maryborough Branch formed in July 1967, drawing more interest to the island and its conflicting land uses. The Australian Conservation Foundation suggested that the island be listed for its world heritage value as early as 1974. In 1971, the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation (FIDO) was formed – taking up a legal challenge over sand mining, which finally ceased on 31 December 1976.

Dr John Hookey opens the Fraser Island Environmental Inquiry in 1975 (Photo: John Sinclair)

The State Government came under increasing pressure to halt logging on K’gari. In 1990, a Commission of Inquiry, led by Tony Fitzgerald, was established to provide recommendations on Fraser Island’s future use, conservation, and management. Finally, in 1991, after 130 years of operation, the forestry industry ceased. 

In December 1992, K’gari, the World’s largest sand island, was inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee as Australia’s tenth property on the World Heritage list in recognition of its outstanding natural universal value. K’gari is an outstanding example of ongoing biological, hydrological and geomorphological processes. The rainforest vegetation growing on coastal dune systems at the scale found on the island is unique. The world’s largest unconfined aquifer supports numerous freshwater lakes, streams and wetlands. In addition, K’gari contains around half the world’s perched freshwater dune lakes.

Although listed for three natural criteria (vii), (viii), and (ix), it is hoped that the island will be recognised for its cultural values in the future. K’gari is a breathtaking cultural landscape with a continuous connection to the Butchulla people, who still practice their culture on the island today. The island’s extensive forests and heathlands have been a product of Butchulla management for many millennia.

Butchulla dancers perform at the renaming of the K’gari World Heritage site (Photo: Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation)

In 2014, the Butchulla people were granted Native Title for K’gari, with a second native title claim granted for the island, waters of the Great Sandy Strait (Korrawinga), and parts of the mainland in 2019. In 2021, the Butchulla name ‘K’gari’ was adopted by the World Heritage Committee for the World Heritage site. A formal proposal to rename the island K’gari under the Place Names Act 1994 is currently under consideration by the Queensland Minister for Resources, Scott Stewart. 

K’gari’s story is long. Some dunes on the island are more than 700,000 years old, one of the planet’s oldest and most complete sequences of coastal dunes. Butchulla people, part of the oldest living civilisation in the world, have been sustained by K’gari’s freshwater lakes, land, and sea country for at least 6,500 years.

As we celebrate 30 years of World Heritage, pause to remember K’gari’s complete history and acknowledge those that have fought and died for the island. Whether it is advocating for co-management, conservation, increasing biosecurity, or mitigating the impacts of climate change, together – we must all play our part, continuing the fight for K’gari. 

Contributed by Sue Sargent, FINIA – the Natural Integrity Alliance for K’gari, with special thanks to the late Dr John Sinclair AO for his publication, ‘Discovering Fraser Island and Cooloola’ (1997).

On 16 November 1972, the World Heritage Convention was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO. World Heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity, with natural, cultural, and mixed properties inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. FINIA congratulates UNESCO as they celebrate fifty years of World Heritage.

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