George Manantan wears a pained expression. He has injured himself hunting pigs barefoot in the bush and is now on crutches. Worse, says the Aboriginal landowner, 'A croc probably got one of me dogs.' He shrugs stoically: 'If she rocks up later, I guess we'll know she wasn't eaten.' The crocodiles that inhabit the Wenlock River, which flows through Mapoon Aboriginal Shire, in Queensland, Australia, are 'mega-sized', says Manantan. But dog-eating reptiles are by no means the 300-strong community's biggest problem. The locals in this two-street outpost, some 3,200 kilometres from Sydney, have found themselves caught in a rancorous land dispute between Cape Alumina - a mining company part-owned by Shandong-based Chiping Xinfa Huayu, one of China's largest alumina producers - and environmental lobbyists headed by Terri Irwin, owner of Australia Zoo and widow of conservationist Steve 'The Crocodile Hunter' Irwin. 'It's our food out there walking on the land they are gonna [dig up],' says Manantan of the bauxite mine Cape Alumina has been planning to operate in the area for almost six years. 'Wild cattle, pigs, geese; we know it's going to make a big impact on them.' His view reflects an instinctive anti-mining sentiment that pervades these parts, informed by a 40,000-year bond with the land on which his people have been dependent, not just for food but shelter and medicine. This, though, is not your run-of-the-mill dispute between big business and an oppressed compact of indigenous minorities and tree-hugging liberals. For starters, Cape Alumina has fostered a local reputation for transparency, community consultation and partnership. Anyone travelling this far north to seek views about the company's plans would encounter remarkably widespread support for a tradition- ally ill-tolerated industry. That tolerance was born of necessity. Mapoon, like much of rural Australia, offers precious few opportunities for the social and economic development of Aboriginal communities. While the mine promises 1,700 jobs and a A$1.2 billion (HK$9 billion) injection into the regional econo- my, a visit to the settlement's solitary convenience store provides some sense of local reality: a man carrying a baby asks for credit to buy infant formula and cigarettes. The cashier refuses. Peter Guivarra, Mapoon's mayor, explains his people's quandary - the ideological struggle to support the mine over the environment. From 2004, Guivarra says, Cape Alumina has applied to explore parts of the shire for bauxite, the aluminium ore that lends the earth here its rich, burnt-orange hue. Licences were duly granted over territory that includes less than 10 per cent of Bertiehaugh, a cattle station established in 1887 by Frank Jardine, one of the earliest European settlers on Cape York and a distant cousin of the Hong Kong Jardines (see Being Frank). Jardine is a legendary figure in Queensland, lauded or despised depending on who is recounting his exploits. Indigenous culture is at best ambivalent about him. One apocryphal tale tells how, while relaxing on his porch one Sunday afternoon, he shot an Aboriginal merely for the sport. The Mapoon people attach considerable symbolic and cultural importance to Bertiehaugh; traditional land they called their own until it was appropriated by this controversial settler at a time when Australia was considered terra nullius, or 'land belonging to no one', a denial of Aboriginal history. In 2006, Guivarra says, the community was considering the purchase of several cattle stations on its traditional lands, including Bertiehaugh, to develop as indigenous-run businesses. There was astonishment then, when locals read in the newspaper that Terri Irwin's private investment vehicle, Silverback Properties, had acquired the lease on the 1,300 square kilometre ranch. Compounding the upset, it soon transpired that the A$6 million lease was paid for by Liberal prime minister John Howard and entirely out of public funds, making the land a gift to Irwin. The lease, which failed to extinguish Cape Alumina's pre-existing rights to explore and potentially mine a fraction of the ranch, was seen as an effort by Howard to garner favour among green voters before his party's ultimately disastrous performance in the 2007 election. 'There was not even consultation of the native owners,' Guivarra says. 'That's our place. That's Teapithiggi land and the government needs to understand, whether you're black, white or brindle, if somebody buys your land and gives it to somebody else, then you're going to feel [devastated].' The Teapithiggi clan is one of six that live in Mapoon. Like most indigenous groups, it has endeavoured to reclaim its traditional lands under laws developed to redress the sequestration of territory that occurred in Australia between the arrival of Europeans in 1788 and, most people thought, the landmark court case Mabo vs Queensland (1992), which first recognised the concept of native title. 'Don't be fooled,' says Aboriginal civil-rights activist and lawyer Noel Pearson. 'We have entered an era [in which] the extreme elements of the environment movement are doing everything they can to promote their interests, even through the continued appropriation and control of native lands. 'By exercising economic control over these areas, designating them nature reserves and protected zones to prevent mining, they're imposing the costs of green policy on the people who can least afford to bear them, namely indigenous groups who were marginalised and poverty stricken in the old economy and who won't have any position in the new one.' Indeed, on acquiring Bertiehaugh, Irwin proceeded to rename the disputed cattle station The Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve. She then launched a worldwide petition to 'Save Steve's Place' and halt Cape Alumina's project in its tracks even before the company's three-year, A$5 million environmental impact study had been completed, let alone scrutinised by government. 'Steve was a great ambassador for Australia,' says Guivarra. 'I'm not going to say anything against Steve himself ... but it's very insulting. That land's got real names, traditional names. There are story places and lagoons that have cultural significance. It's not Steve's lagoon, Steve's stream or Steve's river.' Guivarra argues that it is disingenuous to pitch Bertiehaugh as a unique wildlife habitat, as Irwin continues to do in her PR campaign against Cape Alumina. While the region is home to many rare species including spear-toothed shark, these fauna and flora inhabit thousands of square miles on Cape York, not merely the area now referred to as 'Steve's Place'. Irwin's Australia Zoo failed to comment for this article despite numerous phone calls and e-mails. However, Guivarra remains convinced that Irwin's primary consideration is the environment and understands her concerns about the damage caused by strip mining. Cape Alumina promises a world-class rehabilitation effort, he says. But in the neighbouring town, Weipa, 40 years of bauxite mining have taken their toll. 'It doesn't look good. The ground is totally different because they've taken two to three metres out,' Guivarra says. 'The trees never come back the way they were.' Glenn Walker, spokesman for the Wilderness Society, says: 'The same promises of social and economic development that Cape Alumina is making today were made in Weipa 50 years ago,' he says. 'But the standard of living for the Aboriginal community is not really much better despite [that mine's] long-term presence.' If the name change Irwin effected on their land was not damaging enough, locals watched in bewilderment as the property was refenced and the gates padlocked. Access was thereby blocked to communal territories on the other side of Bertiehaugh. Sitting under a gum tree enjoying a picnic before heading into the bush to dig for yams, 60-year-old Grace John has seen it all before; a white, urban elite imposing its social, political and now environmental agenda on her community. As a girl in 1963, she watched as armed police forcibly removed Mapoon's residents from their lands under the Robert Menzies government's policy to reduce the cost of welfare provision. In scenes reminiscent of the worst days in South Africa's race struggle, Aboriginal communities were relocated to reserves across the Cape. 'I seen the flames come up, burning down people's things they had to leave behind. Even the dogs were swimming out to the boats when [the authorities] picked up the first load,' the soft-spoken grandmother says. 'We still have hurt in our hearts.' Pearson says recent administrations, swayed by the lobbying power of the green movement, have imposed legislation and policies that are startlingly reminiscent to this apartheid of yore. Chief among his immediate targets is the Wild Rivers Act, a law he believes 'urinates on indigenous rights' by crippling Aboriginal economic opportunities on their lands. Three months ago, Stephen Robertson, Queensland's minister for natural resources, used this state-promulgated legislation to issue a high-level protection order on the Wenlock River, which flows in the vicinity of Bertiehaugh and the proposed Cape Alumina mine. The order prohibits any activity that disturbs the land in an area extending up to one kilometre from the banks of the river and its tributaries, and 500 metres around its springs and dry gullies. 'We're operating well away from the river in an area of low biodiversity,' says Paul Messenger, chief executive of Cape Alumina, 'but they've really sterilised the project with the 500-metre buffer every side of the dry gullies - there are hundreds of them all over the site. 'Our Chinese shareholders, Chiping Xinfa, are in for the long ride and they've written to the minister to express their concerns about what they see as a major rise in terms of sovereign risk in the state. But we are reviewing the viability of the entire project.' Walker points out that the goal of the act was to prevent Queensland's pristine rivers going the same way as the polluted tributaries of the Murray-Darling Basin. 'Fixing those in the 1990s cost millions [of dollars],' he says. 'The Wild Rivers [Act] offers pre-emptive protection ... and the legislation has been reviewed three times to minimise any detrimental [economic] impact on indigenous communities. In fact, it was welcomed by traditional owners on the Gulf of Carpentaria precisely because of the impact of mining.' However, opponents including Pearson's friend and opposition leader Tony Abbott argue the act is so expansive that it not only cripples economic development, it even outlaws the laying of new vegetable gardens by Aboriginal communities in fertile riparian soils. Wild Rivers has the capacity to break Australia's new coalition government before it has even begun to exercise power. Among the first debates scheduled, when parliament reconvened in Canberra last week, was a private member's bill that Abbott introduced to repeal the act. With the balance of power so finely poised in the country, he only needs to win one coalition vote and the government could begin to crumble. Even the Anglican Church, hardly renowned for its firebrand politics, is on board. 'My sense is that the matter of contemporary colonialism would resonate with readers in Hong Kong,' says Peter Pearce, director of social justice advocacy in the Brisbane diocese. 'When you limit without consent the available benefits to be derived from land [belonging] to a First People, you are an active colonialist. 'Their voices should first be heard. They have prior and superior moral standing ... even when [this] is for an apparently noble purpose like the protection of the environment.' Pearce goes on to point out the irony of imposing protection policies on primarily traditional lands, which have retained their great beauty not just because of the absence of development but precisely because of the care exercised by traditional owners. Indeed, perhaps one of the biggest insults inferred by Bertiehaugh's padlocked gates is that Australia Zoo is the sole repository of the ecological and business acumen required to manage either these lands or a half-decent conservation project. This notion is dispelled by Camp Chivaree, a turtle sanctuary pitched at the mouth of the Janie Creek, half an hour's drive from Mapoon, along the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria. A travel brochure might aggrandise the simple canvas tents, the open-air kitchen and 30 kilometres of desolate beach by describing the place as a 'getaway wilderness eco-resort' and charging a corresponding premium. But for those who visit Chivaree, owned by the Mapoon community, it is the very simplicity that makes the place so beguiling. As we cast fish- ing lines into the Janie in an effort to catch supper before nightfall, manager Dick Foster describes how in the early years the turtle hatchling survival rate was decimated by abandoned Indonesian fishing nets and feral pigs. 'In the past five years though, for species in- cluding the highly endangered Olive Ridley and Hawksbill, the success rate has risen to 85 per cent,' he says. It is difficult not to be enthused by Foster's sense of purpose. Walking back to camp as the sun sets, carrying several enormous barramundi and keeping his eyes peeled for saltwater crocodiles, he describes the next goals: to set up a scholarship for Mapoon students and open a small research station. 'That's the dream,' he says. In contrast, Irwin has produced several films in which her daughter, Bindi, seems to have been coached on how to parody the exaggerated gestures and cadences of her father while discussing the wildlife found on Bertiehaugh. The films are a cause for concern in Mapoon, where plans for the cattle station-cum-reserve were still unknown three years after the land was gifted to Irwin. Profits from Bindi's television programme, music, fitness DVD, fashion label and recent star turn in the straight-to-DVD film Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove might go into conservation work, but Guivarra is emphatic. 'We don't want our country turned into some kind of [eco] Disneyland,' he says. The modest environmental success of a micro-venture like Camp Chivaree contrasts with the razzmatazz and commercialism of Australia Zoo, which, observers point out, exists to make profits as part of Irwin's eco-entertainment empire. When Mapoon locals encounter Terri, she has usually flown into the area accompanied by her children, Bindi and Robert, and a camera crew. It does seem that the role of the indigenous community in the future management of the property is finally being addressed. A video posted on the zoo's website shows Irwin talking about 'social entrepreneurship' and partnerships with a university to research natural medicines. Teapithiggi landowner Cecil Arthur, standing next to Irwin, describes how, thanks to the zoo, he is looking forward to getting back to his land. Irwin looks on benevolently. Pearson is saddened to hear this exchange. 'It's like in the old days when the colonial regime used native police to break up civil-rights protests,' he says. 'Those men were given horses and uniforms and were used to exploit and suppress their own people.' In the video, Irwin also mentions her latest venture, Australia Zoo Las Vegas, a proposed A$300 million project. It 'will provide employment opportunities for [Teapithiggi] people to demonstrate dance and the arts; to bring the true essence of the original people of Australia to visitors' to the city in the American desert. Back on Manantan's porch, Sydney seems a world away, let alone Las Vegas. We discuss the damage feral pigs do to the land and the best way to stab them so they die quickly. The thought of this barefoot hunter swapping his life in the bush to take up dancing in Las Vegas seems both incongruous and uncomfortably patronising. But unless the Wild Rivers Act is overturned in the near future, the economic lifeline offered by Cape Alumina may be denied this under-resourced community. Unperturbed, Manantan extends an invitation to join him on a hunt once his foot is better. 'We'll see crocodiles,' he says. Sensing my concern, he adds: 'Don't worry. Personally, I don't eat nothing that eats humans. And you should know, they're not the only danger out there.'