Pressures on Indigenous heritage


Pressures on Indigenous heritage

There is a recognised gap between Indigenous Australians and the wider Australian community across many areas of economic and social activity, including cultural heritage. Indigenous communities still need to fight for access to their heritage places, and permission to pursue traditional practices and prevent incremental damage.

Indigenous heritage faces two main pressures, both of which result from European settlement. One is a direct pressure on the Aboriginal community: disruption to Aboriginal knowledge and culture. The other is a pressure on Aboriginal heritage areas and country: the disturbance or destruction of sites due to urban or industrial development, including resource extraction.

3.5.1 Loss of knowledge

Indigenous heritage has not been comprehensively surveyed and assessed across any Australian jurisdiction. The assessments that have occurred tend to be development driven and localised, or occasionally part of academic or community research projects. Knowledge of the nature and extent of Indigenous heritage resources is therefore incomplete, and decisions made on the basis of this incomplete, picture place pressure on an unknown but finite resource. Pressures related to knowledge also arise where the intangible values of Indigenous heritage places are directly degraded because the knowledge relating to associated belief and traditional practices has been lost. Loss of traditional knowledge poses a major and continuing threat to Australia's Indigenous cultural heritage (Box 9.12).

Box 9.12 National Indigenous Knowledge Project

Acknowledgement of the need for a national Indigenous knowledge centre arose from the Australia 2020 Summit held in 2008. An Indigenous knowledge centre (IKC) is envisaged as a place where Indigenous cultural knowledge is kept safe to pass on to future generations and showcase to the community—both a repository for community knowledge and a place for two-way cultural learning.

The Prime Minister announced the first steps towards an IKC by initiating the National IKC Project. This project will engage with Indigenous communities and organisations, the wider Australian community and cultural institutions to develop ideas to strengthen and support Indigenous culture and knowledge. Informed by the national consultation program and research findings into the world's best-practice initiatives, the project will report its findings to government for consideration, including a range of possible roles and models for a national IKC.

Source: National Indigenous Knowledge Centre50

3.5.2 Loss of traditional cultural practice and social connections

Traditional land and sea management practices are crucial to the wellbeing of Indigenous people and maintaining the values of their country. Traditional ecological knowledge is also increasingly recognised for its potential contribution to contemporary natural resource management.32 Where people are disconnected from country or prevented from pursuing traditional practice, or where the knowledge of place, spirit or traditional practice is not passed on, the Indigenous values of the place diminish. Traditional practice can range from special ceremonies for a few individuals, to wider land management:

Aboriginal people burn to hunt, to promote new grass which attracts game, to make the Country easier to travel through, to clear Country of spiritual pollution after death, to create fire breaks for later in the dry season and a variety of other reasons which overall 'bring the Country alive again'. Yibarbuk 51

One consideration, sometimes overlooked in relation to Indigenous land and sea management, is that traditional Indigenous practices may not be relevant to new post-colonial pressures such as invasive species, because they were not developed in response to these types of threats. Effective traditional management must therefore adapt and evolve by using and incorporating new knowledge and techniques if it is to cope with these new pressures:

Caring for Country is when Indigenous people use their rights and carry out their responsibilities to manage their Country and the environment through their Traditional Knowledge systems, cultural values, working together with Western science, integrating expertise and technological knowledge. Grant 52 p. 1

3.5.3 Incremental destruction

... heritage, once destroyed or sullied, can rarely be recovered. As well, it is important for avoiding the tyranny of little decisions, whereby incremental developments—perhaps done under the aegis of improving access—end up destroying the attractions for which the place was set up in the first place. Australian Senate Committee, cited in Lennon 53

Destruction of Indigenous sites occurs through:

  • lack of listing or recognition
  • conscious, informed decisions by development consent authorities
  • prioritisation of economic considerations over heritage protection
  • little to no assessment or public reporting of the cumulative impact of development—that is, how much of the Indigenous heritage estate has already been destroyed through past activities in the region
  • insufficient consultation with Indigenous communities.

The high level of approved destruction remains a major threat to Indigenous heritage. Although nearly all jurisdictions have introduced stronger requirements to assess Indigenous heritage and consult with Indigenous people about development, there is little evidence that this has led to improved protection for Indigenous heritage sites.

The past five years have been remarkable for the number of high-profile conflicts between Indigenous people, government decision-makers and industries (including mining, forestry and urban development) about developments that destroy significant and sacred sites (Box 9.13). A number of recent legal challenges by Indigenous people have highlighted the lack of legal avenues or formal rights for Indigenous people seeking to enforce protection of their heritage.12

Box 9.13 Brighton bypass

There has been ongoing action by the Aboriginal community in Tasmania regarding the construction of the Brighton bypass over the Jordan Levee. The project is a $176-million investment upgrading the Midland Highway to the north of Hobart. However, a highly significant archaeological site has been identified in the path of the roadworks. Archaeological investigation suggests that it is possibly the oldest known Aboriginal site in Tasmania, and among the oldest in Australia.54 Although the original design of the highway was modified to mitigate some of the impacts of the highway construction, irreparable damage will be done to the site.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal community, through the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and Aboriginal heritage officers, has imposed a ban on all survey work for Aboriginal heritage in Tasmania, thereby blocking informed development consent. The TAC has said that the moratorium 'will remain in place until such time as decent legislation protecting Aboriginal heritage is put in place and the new protection has Aboriginal community support'.55


Proposed Brighton bypass construction site over the Jordan Levee (photo by Rochelle Johnston, Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities)

The economic imperatives of development and infrastructure delivery can place enormous pressure on sensitive Indigenous heritage sites. Regional planning is often done by commercial industries seeking to undertake activities that will affect Indigenous heritage. Although in-principle support for cultural landscape planning exists, it has not been resourced or actively implemented by policy makers. If sites are not listed and identified before developments are proposed, consideration of their cultural value is relegated to reactive impact assessment. Despite an increase in recording and listing of Indigenous heritage sites, it is desirable that this process is more proactive.

The procedures published in Ask first56 are the best-practice guidelines for addressing Indigenous heritage issues. They assert that sensitive consultation and negotiation with Indigenous stakeholders is the best means of addressing Indigenous heritage issues. Failure to engage in this process can deny traditional owners their right to informed consent. Acknowledgement of the pressures on Indigenous heritage sites and their custodians is important in areas of fast-paced development and industrialisation. Failure to understand the heritage issues of sensitive cultural landscapes can lead to their incremental destruction (Box 9.14). The Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia (see Box 9.17) is one example among many, of the needs of the resources industry placing enormous pressure on the local Indigenous community and the cultural landscape.

Box 9.14 Incremental destruction of Indigenous places

The rapid rate of development activity in Western Australia has threatened many sites of significance to Aboriginal people. The cumulative impacts on Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia are of immense concern, especially where mining and infrastructure development in remote areas like the Pilbara takes precedence over the preservation of Aboriginal heritage. The Woodstock Abydos experience is perhaps one of the most striking examples of development incrementally disturbing an area of recognised outstanding heritage significance.

Woodstock Abydos is a protected area under Western Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. More than 500 Aboriginal sites within the Woodstock Abydos Protected Area are listed with the Department of Indigenous Affairs. Only 57% of the reserve area has been surveyed, so there are potentially many more sites not yet recorded. These sites include mythological and ceremonial sites, engraved rock art, painted rock art, stone artefacts, stone quarry sites, stone arrangements, grinding patches, rock shelters, water sources, modified trees, built structures, camps and many others.

Woodstock Abydos Reserve was initially vested with the Western Australian Museum for the preservation of Aboriginal cultural materials and historic buildings from the impacts of mining and infrastructure development. The Western Australian Governor at the time made particular reference to a 'rock art and occupation site complex of outstanding significance'. The reserve was declared a protected area in 1979 and added to the Register of the National Estate in 1980.

In the 1960s, the mining company BHP applied for and was granted an excision from the reserve for a rail infrastructure corridor. In 2006, Fortescue Metals Group was granted an excision for a 200-metre rail infrastructure corridor, and a third company, Hancock Prospecting, applied for and was granted an excision from the reserve for a rail infrastructure corridor in 2010. There are now three separate railroads operating through this protected area.

These developments have a range of cumulative impacts on heritage sites in the area. There are many sites very close to rail tracks and maintenance roads, so dust accumulation on rock art poses an ongoing, serious threat. Sites suffer from neglect, poor fencing and lack of protective measures. There is no program of monitoring of the sites or individual images, and there have been reports that additional rail corridors are planned in the years ahead.

Woodstock Abydos shows that even the highest form of protection available for Aboriginal heritage sites under Western Australian law may not be a guarantee of protection, and that individual approvals can have a serious cumulative adverse effect.


The Woodstock Abydos landscape illustrating typical boulder outcrops that are covered with engravings (photo by Liam M Brady, University of Western Australia)

Mackay R (2011). Heritage: Pressures on Indigenous heritage. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b658bbe13a0