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Land management pioneer who merged two worlds

Cape York NRM was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Davide Claudie, a Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju traditional owner and custodian of the northern Kaanju homelands, Northern Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers.  

“We have lost a remarkable person too young,” founding CEO of Cape York NRM Bob Frazer said. 

“He was part of our organisation from the beginning, lending his extraordinary knowledge to the Steering Committee that shaped Cape York NRM and later, taking on the positions of Director, and Chair of our Board.”

Bob has written a moving tribute to David that can only touch on his many achievements, and his pioneering work to integrate the worlds of Indigenous and Western governance, science and land management.

Vale David Claudie

I first met David Claudie at Chuula Indigenous Protected Area late in 2010, several months after commencing in the role of inaugural CEO for Cape York NRM. I wanted to catch up with David as he had played an important role in the establishment of this new organisation. I found that David loved to yarn, and we often did that well into the early morning hours on my visits to his home.

For background, two public meetings were held in 2008-2009 to consider another attempt at the formation of a natural resource management body for the Cape York Region. There had been two previous unsuccessful attempts, and the Region was the only area of Australia that was not benefitting from such a coordinating body. 

More than 140 people from diverse cultures and locations across Cape York attended the meetings with overwhelming support from participants. The second meeting established a community-owned Steering Committee of Cape York people to progress the formation of a regional NRM Body for Cape York.

David Claudie was appointed as a Committee Member by the attendees at that meeting. 

The steering committee members travelled more than 4,200km by road and also visited some communities by charter flights. They carried out a comprehensive consultation with the diverse peoples of Cape York. There was strong support for the establishment of the Regional Body, and clear community guidance on issues such as its governance and operational structures, the composition of the Board of Directors and the process for their election.

David fulfilled many roles in the time I knew him: a Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju traditional owner;  custodian of the northern Kaanju homelands, Northern Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers and;  CEO and Chairperson of Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation, where he guided, supported and facilitated development of his homelands, the sustainability of its cultural and natural heritage values, and its economic development. It was his leadership that drove the declaration of the Kaanju Ngaachi Wenlock and Pascoe Rivers Indigenous Protected Area in 2008 where he lived. 

David’s genuine passion for caring for his country was evidenced through his cultural heritage surveys and mapping — Kuuku I’yu Northern Kaanju and his development and implementation of the Kaanju Homelands IPA Management Plan.

However, David’s interests were much broader than his Homelands. He was a member of the Commission for Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP - IUCN), a member of the Cape York Peninsula Regional Advisory Committee (CYPRAC), and Chairperson for Mangkuma, and the Wenlock River Catchment Interim Committee.

David also co-authored more than 20 academic publications on a broad range of topics including a work with Brendan Mackey (IUCN) on the integration of Traditional Scientific Knowledge for Biocultural Conservation. This work was leading edge in that it pioneered a progressive approach to conservation (caring for Country) which respected and articulated the intrinsic relationship between nature and humanity and championed the building of conservation programs founded on a balance between cultural values and community priorities. 

The concept aligns closely with the principles underlying the approach of the more recently developed Nature Based Solutions (NbS). Along those lines, he also co-authored a number of articles in Australian Archaeology, notably: ‘Don’t walk behind me, don’t walk in front of me, walk beside me’: A response to Murray, which aligned with his passion for integrating the worlds of Indigenous and western governance, science and land management. Also of note was his sponsorship and support for cultural, biodiversity and archaeological research carried out on his homelands by many non-Indigenous Masters and PhD candidates.

Over the past decade or so David also worked closely with pharmacological researchers and scientists from Australia and Europe on the commercialisation of anti-inflammatory compounds contained in traditional ‘medicines’ used by the people of the Kaaju Ngaachi, for which he was one of the knowledge holders, along with other Elders such as George Morton Senior. In the years before his passing, David was involved in research into the therapeutic properties of other plants from the Wenlock area which had been used for centuries by his people as traditional remedies.

David was elected to the Cape York Board as a Director in 2012 and was subsequently appointed by the Board of Directors as Chair in early 2014 and served in that role until the AGM in late 2015.  

It was my privilege to know and respect David as a caring husband to Judith and father to his children, a friend, mentor and a fair and at times firm taskmaster when I worked with him in his time as Director and Chair. I am just one of the people across Australia and the world on whom he made a long-lasting impression as he shared his passion, knowledge and vision for a better future for his family, people and humanity in general. 

He leaves an outstanding legacy. 

In closing, David’s loss to his family, people and fellow Australians at just 56 years of age is a graphic reminder of the disparity in the health and life expectancy of Indigenous and other Australians. 

David Claudie

24/04/1967 - 24/10/2023