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Australia’s Cape York Peninsula: Path to World Heritage Nomination

Australia’s Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland is recognised as one of the few remaining wild places on earth. Covering an area of almost 140,000km2, it is the single largest area of eastern Australia remaining relatively untouched by the influence of modern industrialisation. Inhabited for at least 40,000 years, the region supports a diverse array of natural and cultural resources, including half of the country’s bird species and a third of its mammals, as well as possessing wide-ranging habitats including the world’s largest intact tropical savannah grasslands, one fifth of Australia’s ancient rainforests, parabolic dune fields and unmodified rivers, as well as archaeological residues of Indigenous and European culture.

As early as 1982, the potential world heritage value of the Cape York Peninsula Region (CYPR) was recognised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the advisory body established by the UNESCO World Heritage bureau to recommend sites for possible inscription onto the World Heritage List. In 1996, the Cape York Heads of Agreement likewise formally recognised the region’s potential heritage value, however it was not until 2006 that the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a report seeking to begin the process of building a case for World Heritage listing. Subsequently, the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act (2007) sought to establish procedures for formally recognising areas of international conservation value, while in 2008, two advisory committees – the Cape York Peninsula Regional Advisory Committee and the Cape York Peninsula Region Scientific and Cultural Advisory Committee – were established to assist with the identification of areas suitable for inclusions in a potential nomination. Such a nomination has the support of both the State and Federal governments, the latter committing $23 million in 2012 to finance the process of consultation with Indigenous landowners to obtain their consent, regarded as imperative in the process of identifying areas for inclusion in the nomination. It is the stated goal of the Australian Federal Government to complete the nomination process by February 2013.

The World Heritage List was created in 1972 by the World Heritage Convention, ratified by the United Nations. The purpose of the list is to recognise places of outstanding universal value; in order to be inscribed a place must have “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity” (Horsfall and Morrison 2010). A site may qualify for inclusion by meeting one or more of ten criteria as set out by the Convention, five relating to natural heritage and five to cultural heritage.  In 1992, a special category of ‘cultural landscapes’ was introduced in order to recognise the association between humankind and the natural environment. In a specially commissioned study seeking to establish how a nomination might best target the criteria laid out in the convention, Smythe and Valentine (2008) provide a detailed exposition on which of the criteria the nomination of the region might most successfully fulfil.

Once a site is inscribed onto the World Heritage List, it becomes the responsibility of the nominating country to protect and manage that site, and to promote its heritage values. In the case of the Cape York Peninsula, there exist a number of potential threats to the heritage of the region, including those posed by the mining industry, industrial development and infrastructure projects, pastoralism, agriculture and tourism. Inscription into the World Heritage List would require that the region and its heritage be protected against such threats, requiring the development of significant and extensive management frameworks. While areas held by all forms of land tenure may be included in the nomination, no area will be included without prior community engagement and consultation. Inscription onto the list would undoubtedly restrict the activities of mining and infrastructure development as well as impacting upon pastoral and agricultural activities. It is likely that cattle grazing will be impacted to some extent through the erection of fencing to protect heritage areas.

Inscription onto the World Heritage List promises numerous benefits to the region. Not only would the universally significant heritage value of the area be protected, but it would be promoted internationally, encouraging increased tourism and creating economic, employment and land management opportunities, and conserving the unique heritage of the region for future generations.


Horsfall, N. and M. Morrison 2010. Cape York Peninsula Cultural Story: Non-Indigenous and Shared History. Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management.  Retrieved 26th August 2012 from

Mackey, B.G., H. Nix and P. Hitchcock 2001. The Natural Heritage Significance of Cape York Peninsula. ANUTECH Pty Ltd: Queensland Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 26th August 2012 from

Smyth, D. and P. Valentine 2008. Pathways to Securing Cultural and Natural Heritage of International Conservation Significance on Cape York Peninsula. Queensland Environment Protection Agency. Retrieved 26th August 2012 from

Stanton, P. 2011. The Landscapes of Cape York Peninsula and their Heritage Values. Department of Environment and Resource Management. Retrieved 26th August 2012 from

Sutton, P. 2011. Cape York Peninsula Indigenous Cultural Story: Preliminary Outline.  Retrieved 26th August 2012 from

Valentine, P.S. 2006. Compiling a Case for World Heritage on Cape York Peninsula. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 26th August 2012 from