A sad state of affairs
Just today, we heard that the Fortescue Metals Group, the world’s fourth largest iron ore mining company, has apologised for clearing a key Aboriginal site in Western Australia without following proper procedures. Work to expand the mine went ahead in the absence of community elders who were meant to salvage artefacts and perform cultural rites.
This is hardly an isolated incident. Other recent examples include:
- Earlier this week, BHP admitted a rock fall in the Pilbara – not part of an active mining operation – had damaged a sacred site.
- Last May Rio Tinto blew up an ancient Aboriginal cave system at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. Rock shelters dating back 46,000 years and showing continuous human occupation through the last Ice Age were wiped out.
- In Tasmania, the state government has asserted control over access to the sacred Wargata Mina, even though the Aboriginal community is supposed to own and manage it. The cave contains a series of hand stencils dating back over 15,000 years
- Burrup Peninsula in north-western Australia is under increasing threat from a gas project, even though the site contains more than one million rock carvings (petroglyphs).
These are not isolated incidents, but the latest in a tragic series of destructive acts that have caused great distress to traditional land owners and an irretrievable loss for future generations.
While it is an offence to impact an area that has national heritage listing, many ancient Aboriginal sites have no such listing. This means that federal legislation has no application, leaving sacred sites at the mercy of state and territory jurisdictions, where laws are often weak or poorly enforced.
The Graeme Samuel’s recent review of federal environment law said the government should bring in greater protections for Indigenous heritage “immediately” as the only effective antidote to endless tokenism and empty symbolism.
Regrettably, the Morrison government seems intent on excluding the necessary protections for Indigenous heritage from its proposed environmental reforms. We are offered instead a promise of unspecified reforms at some unspecified future date.
In the meantime, the current bid to devolve Commonwealth powers to give state governments control over environmental approvals of developments will make a bad situation worse.
What is needed
The first step must be to acknowledge that Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. Society as a whole must come to appreciate the global significance of this heritage and recognise it as integral to the heritage of all Australians.
To this end we should consider the adoption of a national charter that affirms the value and deeper significance of Indigenous sacred sites, and beyond that the cultural and spiritual connection that the First Peoples have with the land, which for them is the source of law.
Once such a charter is proclaimed and widely understood, the path towards a statutory framework that delivers nationally consistent protection for Aboriginal sacred sties will be that much easier to achieve.
This will be a system of protection that not only provides for consultation with traditional owners but gives them a decisive voice on how their land should be managed. The Indigenous peoples of this land, not others, should be responsible for determining the cultural significance of an object or area, even if this means that the cultural heritage needs to have priority over economic interests.
Little of this will come to pass if it is left to the corporate sector, or even to federal and state parliaments or the parties that hold sway in them. The initiative will emerge only from a wide-ranging and vigorous national conversation.
Such conversation will need the active and culturally sensitive engagement of our schools and universities, our mainstream and social media, the professions, the environmental and other social movements, and our religious institutions which claim a special relationship to the sacred. It is time to shift this conversation to a higher gear.
The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not of Conversation at the Crossroads.