New guides give business direction on cultural heritage

Article by Rudi Maxwell for The Canberra Times.

The destruction of the 46,000-year-old rock shelter at Juukan Gorge on the lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples in the Pilbara by Rio Tinto in 2020 horrified the world – but it wasn’t an isolated occurrence.

To try and ensure such destruction doesn’t happen again, the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance launched the the Dhawura Ngilan business and investor guides in Canberra on Tuesday.

Dhawura Ngilan means ‘Remembering Country’ in the Ngunnawal language of the Canberra region.

The guides comprehensively detail the steps businesses should take to uphold the principles of free, prior and informed consent and address the due diligence investors should undertake to manage the legal, financial and reputational risks associated with First Nations cultural heritage.

Alliance co-chair Kado Muir said businesses following the guides would take important steps towards protecting First Nations cultural heritage.

“Today’s launch of the Dhawura Ngilan business and investor guides heralds a new period in Australia’s business relations, with commitment from the private sector to reach beyond legislative standards and implement leading practice for cultural heritage as defined by First Nations peoples,” he said.

The guides were drafted by legal firm Terri Janke & Company, in consultation with First Nations, business and investment groups.

Merle Ashburton, chairman of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, representing traditional owners of Juukan Gorge, said it was encouraging to see some companies promising to go beyond legislative compliance.

“The private sector must not wait for laws to catch-up to community expectations regarding the right of traditional owners to free, prior and informed consent,” he said.

Current laws empower ministers and government officials as the decision-makers, requiring little to no consultation with First Nations communities, which is contrary to international standards, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the initiative provides a much-needed roadmap for improving approaches to managing First Nations heritage.

“One of the things I love about this initiative is that is deeply practical,” she said.

“Heritage protection is everyone’s business, government can lead, but what we have seen is that business and the general population care – and they will act.

“Dhawura Ngilan identifies litigation risks, reputational risks, and operation risks that business can minimise or avoid with good quality, upfront consultation.”

BHP is providing $1.2 million in funding to support the initiative’s work plan.

Lendlease, HESTA, KPMG Australia, and Perpetual are also supporting the work of the initiative.

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