The connection between people and country is a fundamental aspect of Indigenous cultural heritage. Understanding that there is no conceptual divide between nature and culture is a precursor to any informed appreciation of the requirements for Indigenous heritage conservation. Adequate knowledge of both the physical manifestation of Indigenous heritage in individual sites and wider landscapes, and its intangible manifestation in traditional knowledge and cultural practices and ongoing use of heritage places by Indigenous people is also critical. The outlook for Indigenous heritage is therefore highly dependent on the processes that are available to document physical sites, to record and transmit traditional knowledge and to provide access to them for Indigenous communities. Loss of knowledge, including loss of language, erodes and degrades Indigenous cultural heritage, leading to an undesirable combination of social impacts on Indigenous communities and loss of heritage values.
Indigenous heritage is at serious risk from ongoing incremental destruction. This arises in part from a lack of formally protected sites, but also from our linear statutory assessment and development consent systems, and a pattern of conscious destruction arising from informed development consent. If the current practice continues of announcing proposed developments and only then undertaking survey and assessment as part of environmental impact evaluation, Indigenous heritage will continue to be perceived as a problem and will also continue to suffer a gradual process of erosion and destruction without a clear understanding of the extent to which the total resource is being destroyed. Indigenous communities have been vociferous in their expression of concern about this issue generally, and in their opposition to specific development projects.
In other contexts, our nation has a well-developed approach for involving Indigenous people in the management of their heritage. The Ask first guidelines56 represent best practice for Indigenous heritage, and widespread adoption of these guidelines would represent a major step forward in Indigenous heritage management.