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A historic rainforest and other lands have been returned to Indigenous Australians

Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, Daintree National Park, Queensland, Australia.
Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, Daintree National Park, Queensland, Australia.

Some of Australia's world famous national parks have been returned to the hands of Indigenous owners after a deal was negotiated with the government.

The deal signed last month between members of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji community and the government means four national parks were returned to the traditional owners of the land. That area includes the Daintree National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that's estimated to be around 130 million years old.

The historic return of more than 160,000 hectares (395, 368 acres) in Cape York, in northern Australia, to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people took four years of negotiations with the Queensland government.

Under the agreement, Daintree, considered the world's oldest tropical rainforest, as well as Ngalba Bulal, Kalkajaka, and Hope Islands parks will be jointly managed for a time by the Queensland government and the Kuku Yalanji. It gives the tribe management over their land and culture.

Meaghan Scanlon, the Queensland Minister for the Environment and the Great Barrier Reef, said Australia has "an uncomfortable and ugly shared past." The land return is considered a key step towards reconciliation between the Australian government and its Aboriginal people.

"The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people's culture is one of the world's oldest living cultures and 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," Scanlon said.

Eventually, these parks will be solely managed by the tribe.

Eastern Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owners Negotiating Committee Member Chrissy Grant said the tribe hopes the return of this land will set up pathways for young members with opportunities in caring for their national parks.

Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation said in a Facebook post that members worked for four years in negotiations with the Queensland government to come to this historic deal.

"Our goal is to establish a Foundation to provide confident and competent people with pathways and opportunities for mentoring, training, apprenticeships, work experience and employment for our Eastern Kuku Yalanji Bama to fill positions from a wide range of skilled trades, land and sea management, hospitality, tourism, and research so that we are in control of our own destinies, " Grant said in a statement.

Kuku Yalanji's ties to the parks go back centuries

"This is where we belong on country, on bubu — on land," Yalanji traditional owner and Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation director Mary-Anne Port told Australia's ABC news. "All our ancestors called us back to home."

The Kuku Yalanji people have a history dating back 50,000 years in this area of Australia. Aboriginal Australians have the longest continuous living culture in the world.

Aboriginal land was eventually taken over by British colonists who claimed the it belonged to no one when they arrived. Years later, colonists would move surviving members of the Aboriginal community from their homes, segregate them, and frequently remove their children from their homes.

The Australian Aboriginal community is still suffering from the negative, long-term effects of colonialism.

It's reflected in the increased risk factors for poor housing and overcrowding, financial difficulties, low education and unemployment in Australia, according to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report in 2018.

Aboriginal Australians also make up a disproportionate number of incarcerated people across the country.

From 2000 to 2019, the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased 72%, according to a government report published last year. The daily average detention rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth remains about 22 times the rate for non-Indigenous youth in Australia.

There are also reports of higher incidents of deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians while in police custody.

This recent return of land is the second major action the Queensland government has taken to right past wrongs done to the nation's Aboriginal population.

Last month a tourist hot spot off the coast of Australia, formerly called Fraser Island, was renamed K'gari. The new name is actually its original Indigenous title.

The island, which is located roughly 200 miles north of Brisbane on the eastern coast of Australia, was inhabited by the Butchulla Aboriginal people for thousands of years. The group had been advocating for the island to be renamed for years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.