Welcome To Torres Straight Islands
Most Torres Strait Islands are part of the Australian state of Queensland. Situated between mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea, the Torres Strait Islands are the only part of Australia sharing a border with another country.
At the local level, each island community elects its own council which meets monthly to run the domestic affairs of the island. These councils have very wide powers. Councillors are elected for a three year term. The chairperson of each council is a member of the Island Coordinating Council which meets to discuss regional issues.
In 1994, in response to local demands for greater autonomy, the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) was established to allow Torres Strait islanders to manage their own affairs according to their own ailan kastom (island custom) and to develop a stronger economic base for the region. The TSRA is made up of 20 representatives elected by Torres Strait Islanders living in the islands.
The Torres Strait Islands Treaty signed by Australia and Papua New Guinea allows movement (without passports or visas) between Australia and Papua New Guinea for traditional activities in a limited zone of the Torres Strait.
Most of the islands' economy is based around traditional activities such as fishing and private gardens. The pearl culture industry which started in the 1960s collapsed in 1970 after a disease attacked the shells. Tourism is limited by a lack of facilities. Fishing is the main economic activity, particularly fishing for prawns, rock lobsters and Spanish mackerel.
The first inhabitants are believed to have migrated from the Indonesian archipelago 70,000 years ago at a time when New Guinea was still attached to the Australian continent. They were followed by new waves of migration.
According to Archaeological findings, the original people lived in small communities relying on fishing, hunting and the growing of crops for their subsistence. Trade in artifacts made of pearl shell, turtle shell, feathers, canoes and tools was very important in the life of Torres Strait Islanders.
Although it is likely that Chinese, Malay and Indonesian traders had explored the islands before him, the first navigator credited with coming across the islands is the Spaniard Luis Vaez de Torres who sailed through the strait in 1606.
The discovery of pearl shell in the 1860s led to an influx of people from all over the region (Japanese, Malays, Filipinos, Micronesians and Europeans) especially on Thursday Island (Wyben) which became the main settlement. By 1877, 16 firms were established on Thursday Island employing 700 people and more than a hundred pearl luggers. Although the pearl trade stopped after World War II, cultured pearl farms still operate in the Torres Strait. .
Queensland officially annexed the islands in 1879. The Torres Strait islanders became citizens of Queensland in 1967 with full access to health and social services and freedom to travel and work in Australia. Many thousands of Islanders live in Queensland today, where they form a strong community.
In June 1992, the High Court of Australia recognised the native title rights of Eddie Mabo, an inhabitant of Murray Island (Mer), over his traditional land. The High Court overturned the previous concept of terra nullius which stated that in legal terms Australia was empty of inhabitants when it was first settled by Europeans. Since the Mabo decision, several communities (Saibai Islanders and Mualgal people from Moa Island) have secured legal recognition of their native title rights over their islands. Several other cases are also in progress.