Almost half of the world-famous Kakadu National Park has been returned to traditional owners in an historic ceremony on Thursday.

The massive 10,000 square kilometre land handback, which has taken more than 30 years, means almost all of the park is now under Indigenous ownership.

“Aboriginal people share a special connection with all of our lands,” Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said in a moving ceremony on Thursday.

“We have lived on and looked after and continuously travelled through it for over 65,000 years.”

Mr Wyatt joined hundreds of traditional owners at Cooinda near the banks of the Yellow Water Billabong, where traditional owners from more than a dozen Indigenous nations made speeches.

Djork man Jeffrey Lee said land ownership would allow Aboriginal people to start tourism and land management businesses.

“it’s not just symbolic. It’s the future for our families here in Kakadu into the future,” he said. 

“Our grandchildren will be able to work on our country, their land. It’s major. It will open doors.”

Under the deal, traditional owners will immediately lease the land back to the director of National Parks and jointly manage the vast park in partnership with the government.

Northern Land Council Chairman Samuel Bush-Blanasi said it would lead to a better relationship between the two.

He was referring to an ongoing court battle over Gunlom – a cascading waterfall that appeared in the movie Crocodile Dundee – which remains closed, amid allegations Parks Australia illegally disturbed a sacred site.

“That’s the most important thing, a good relationship,” he said.

The land returned is the traditional country of the Limilngan/Minitja, Murumburr, Garndidjbal, Yurlkmanj, Wurngomgu, Bolmo, Wurrkbarbar, Matjba, Uwinymil, Bunidj, Djindibi, Mirrar Gundjeihmi and Dadjbaku peoples.