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Cape York’s ‘barefoot chairman’ nominated for Queenslander of the Year award

From The Cairns Post, Daniel Bateman, 10 October 2015

Cooktown-based land rights activist and Olkola Aboriginal Corporation chairman Michael Ross has been named as a Queensland Local Hero for his work in promoting management of country by traditional owners.

CAPE York’s famous “barefoot chairman” has joked that he may need to go shopping for a new pair of shoes, after being nominated for an Australian of the Year award.

Cooktown-based land rights activist and Olkola Aboriginal Corporation chairman Michael Ross has been named as a Queensland Local Hero in the annual awards, alongside three other finalists.

Award-winning journalist Peter Greste, human rights activist Debbie Kilroy, diversity champion Catherine McGregor and humanitarian Lucy Strickland have all been put forward as Queensland’s four nominees for the major Australian of the Year Award.

The Queensland winners of each category will be announced on October 30 in Brisbane, and then join recipients from all other states and territories as finalists for the national awards, which will be held in Canberra on January 25 next year.

Mr Ross said it was an immense honour and privilege to be nominated for such a prestigious award.

“I feel great. I’m really proud of it. I don’t know who nominated me, but it’s a real pleasure to be nominated,’’ he said.

“I would have never have dreamt of being nominated for an Australia Day award. It’s just something you don’t think of.”

After a 20-year mission, Mr Ross helped lead traditional owners to the largest native title claim in Australian history late last year, claiming back 850,000ha in central Cape York. Most of the land is jointly managed by the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation and the Queensland Government.

It protects ancient cultural sites including newly discovered rock art, ­extensive wetlands and river systems rich in aquatic life, and vast tracts of open savanna and rainforest pockets.

The traditional owners trialled an eco-tourism venture on their land about two months ago, which Mr Ross said was a huge success.

They are hoping to launch guided tours of the area after the wet season.

“This will mean more jobs for the young people, and starting to train our young people to look after the country there, and to learn about their culture,’’ he said.

“It will create quite a few jobs: we’ll have rangers on the ground there, and office staff and people like that.

“It’s also bringing back families on to country to live.

“Hopefully by 2020, we’ll have about 20 families living on country in different areas, on the properties that have been handed back.”