Prevention of Juukan Gorge repeat requires stronger heritage laws, Federal report reveals

Article by Emma Ruben for the National Indigenous Times

The recently released State of Environment report revealed the dire ongoing environmental damage advancing upon some of Australia’s oldest heritage landmarks.

The five-yearly report was finalised in December 2021 and tabled by then Federal environment minister Sussan Ley before current Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek delivered the report at the National Press Club on Tuesday, July 19.

This State of the Environment report is the first to include Indigenous co-authors and include a chapter solely dedicated to Indigenous voices and detailing the importance of the environment to Country.

A clear impact on the environment, as detailed in the report, was the destruction of 46,000 year old Juukan Gorge rockshelters in the Pilbara, Western Australia.

The report said that whilst the destruction of Juukan Gorge was a devastating event, “this type of destruction is not rare and has been occurring in other areas of the country.”

During her address at the National Press Club, Plibersek recommitted Labor to standalone laws for cultural heritage protection.

“The Juukan Gorge destruction is one of the most shameful happenings in Australian history,” Ms Plibersek said.

“We are committed to doing stand-alone cultural heritage protection legislation, co-designed with first Nations Australians.

“We are so lucky to be so rich in First Nations cultural heritage, of course we need to have better systems for protecting it that don’t lead to a poor and shameful outcome like Juukan Gorge.”

Ngalia cultural and community leader and co-chair of the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, Kado Muir said the report only made clearer the need for First Nations strategies in caring for Country.

“What is clear from the report is that our natural environment is in decline and Aboriginal cultural heritage remains under significant threat,” Mr Muir said.

“We are witnessing a massive decline in species and many of these are culturally and spiritually significant to First Nations people.

“This report demonstrates the critical importance of the First Nation estate in biodiversity protection and maintenance and reinforces the need for greater investment to support our caring for Country.”

While Indigenous advisory councils are often included within the frameworks for heritage management, the report noted “Indigenous advisory councils are often only ‘consulted’ and not meaningfully incorporated from the start, so they are unable to embed their aspirations in projects through co-design.”

The impact of these findings is a distrust of existing registers within Indigenous communities and hesitation to disclose sites and knowledge of significance.

As a result, the federal government has committed to introducing standalone cultural heritage legislation, co-designed with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance.

One of the Indigenous co-authors of the report, Barry Hunter a descendent from the Djabugay speaking people of Cairns, said co-design needs to mean more than consultation.

“When we start talking about those types of systems about being able to provide a platform for multiple people to have their say, what we’re often seeing is that it still pays lip service to those things around consultation rather than co-design,” he said

“Being able to impose some systems of management where the decision to get to that point is jointly made with traditional owners and relevant authority.

“But quite often the legislative recognition is managed by the state and we need to be consulted on a federal level.”

On behalf of the Labor government, Plibersek pledged to double the number of Indigenous rangers by the end of the decade and to significantly increase funding for Indigenous protected areas.

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