As Andrew Solomon looks up at the rainforest canopy in the lands of Kuku Yalanji near Cape Tribulation, his eyes start to tear up.
“When I came back for the first time, I felt someone was following me. I could feel a presence. I was not wearing any shoes and all of a sudden I felt a flash of electricity rise through me from the ground. It was the country that spoke to me, it welcomed me in return.
Solomon is a traditional owner of the Kuku Yalanji land in the Daintree Rainforest in far north Queensland. The World Heritage Site, Cape York, on Australia’s northern peninsula, is considered one of the oldest rainforests in the world.
In the 1980s, parts of the Daintree were subdivided, with over 1,000 lots allocated for private sale and development. Thirty-five years later, without basic infrastructure such as power or water, life in this remote part of far north Queensland can be as hard as it is beautiful on its occupants.
On May 1 of this year, Solomon hosted a special welcome to the country ceremony on what has long been known as ‘Lot 46’, a 28 hectare freehold block of land north of the Daintree River which was purchased by Rainforest Rescue in 2010.
Founded in 1998, the mission of the non-profit organization is to redeem blocks of land in the Daintree and, in partnership with local indigenous peoples, regenerate them into a natural rainforest habitat. After Solomon’s smoking ceremony, lot 46 was renamed “Kurranji Bubu”, Land of cassowary in the Kuku Yalanji language.
“Our Mother Earth is also a spirit and we are learning to connect with it. She wants to take care of us, but we also have to take care of her.
Rainforest Rescue Executive Director Branden Barber says working with Indigenous Traditional Owners is critical to their success.
“We keep asking questions [of traditional owners] about the types of ecosystems that have existed in different parts of the rainforest and that have adapted our planting priorities. It all comes down to respect.
“This is not our land. I’m not a big person for private property, never have been. It’s actually a funny thing to be considered one of the biggest landowners in Daintree.
“We’re never going to do anything with this land… and there is a natural bridge with the traditional owners because of our intentions. We both come from a common place of gratitude and the local indigenous people know that we are not going to exploit the land. “
The revegetation of rainforest ecosystems has enormous environmental benefits, especially with regard to the unique location of the Daintree and its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef.
“One of our contributions is to restore land, restore soil and remove carbon from the atmosphere,” says Barber.
To date, Rainforest Rescue has purchased 35 properties in the Daintree, some of which have been cleaned up, cleared and revegetated; others were already intact rainforest habitats.
“Stay tuned,” Barber said with a smile. “It’s almost 36 years old.”
Non-indigenous landowners who share the desire to revegetate their land into rainforest ecosystems are also involved. Annie Schoenberger’s property, Night Wings, is in the eastern lands of Kuku Yalanji, south of the Daintree River.
“I bought this land in 2014 and started reforestation in 2015. It was a plan from the start to reforest and since then we have planted 70,000 trees.
Schoenberger worked with Rainforest Rescue to restore his property to its original rainforest habitat, and each year they held tree planting days at his farm. Last year’s event was canceled due to Covid-19 but this year at the end of April more than 100 people showed up to help plant trees.
Traditional owner Julaywarra Bennett Walker worked with Schoenberger to revegetate her property.
“When I heard that Annie was going to replant here, because it’s in our country, I thought it was a good opportunity to do something.”
“I grew up here cutting cane when I was 16 or 17. But being young, I didn’t know what it was doing to the environment.
Walker remembers the landscape before the sugar cane farms dominated.
“When we lived in the mission at the time, it was all bush and brush. Going from Daintree to Mossman was only a small trail, but because we were in the mission we weren’t allowed out of there, we were limited.
“All our animals were disappearing, were repelled. But since we started doing that, now we can see cassowaries, frogs and things like that coming back to this area. And that, for me, is something to see for my grandchildren. They would have missed this part of our story if it hadn’t been for this.
It’s not just the return of natural flora and fauna that concerns Walker. When asked if it is possible that the cultivation of sugarcane and the rainforest coexist, he pauses for a moment to think.
“I guess it could, but as I get older my people, my people, have been affected by diabetes. Sugar is a real problem in my community. My wife and I are diabetic and we don’t touch sugar anymore.
Walker points to the mountains of the national park that border the property. “This is what it was and how it should be.”