Pressures on Indigenous heritage


There is a recognised gap between Indigenous Australians and the wider Australian community across many areas of economic and social measures and activity, including cultural heritage (COAG 2008). Although there have been very significant improvements during recent years in empowering and enabling Indigenous people to care for their Country, many Indigenous communities still need to fight for access to their heritage places and permission to pursue traditional practices, and to prevent incremental damage.

Disruption to traditional knowledge and culture places direct pressure on Indigenous communities and heritage. If Indigenous people with traditional knowledge have not been involved in heritage place assessment and nomination processes, heritage values related to tradition may not be correctly identified and managed. There are also continuing pressures on Indigenous Country that cause damage or destruction of sites through development, including urban intensification, agricultural development and resource extraction.

Loss of traditional knowledge

Indigenous heritage has not been comprehensively surveyed and assessed across any Australian jurisdiction. Many of the assessments that have occurred were 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 based on this incomplete picture place pressure on an unknown but finite resource.

Intangible values of Indigenous heritage places are directly degraded because the knowledge relating to associated belief and traditional practices may have been lost or diminished, or access may not have been facilitated to allow transmission of this knowledge. This loss of knowledge undermines and affects Indigenous intellectual property rights and can indirectly affect cultural tourism opportunities.

On the positive side, native title and land rights have facilitated protection of Indigenous heritage, and traditional knowledge has been maintained in very large areas of Australia. There are also many examples of continuing connection with Country, and traditional owner groups reviving cultural knowledge and rediscovering previously unknown culturally significant places, leading to resurgence, reconnection and transmission of traditional knowledge.

Loss of traditional cultural practice and social connections

Traditional practice may range from special ceremonies for a few individuals to wider land management across large natural and cultural landscapes. Traditional land and sea management practices are crucial to the wellbeing of Indigenous people, and to maintaining the values of their Country and transmitting them to future generations. Traditional ecological knowledge is also increasingly recognised for its potential contribution to contemporary natural resource management.

If people are denied access to, or otherwise disconnected from, Country, or prevented from pursuing traditional practice, or if the knowledge of place, spirit or traditional practice is not passed on, the Indigenous values of the place diminish (AHC 2002). Such loss can also adversely affect the health and socio-economic condition of Indigenous communities.

In recent years, there have also been strong continuing connections and significant reconnections between Indigenous communities in places. From a heritage perspective, such connections do not necessarily need to be continuous to be significant. In some cases, re-acquisition of knowledge through the rediscovery of significant places and practices—which has arisen from opportunities to participate in cultural heritage management—counters the loss of traditional cultural practice and social connections.

Incremental destruction

The economic imperatives of development and infrastructure delivery can place great pressure on sensitive Indigenous heritage places and overemphasise the individual ‘site’, rather than understanding that Indigenous heritage exists at a landscape scale, covering both tangible and intangible manifestations. Although in-principle support for landscape planning and assessment exists, it has not been widely 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 a reactive impact assessment.

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 incremental, and sometimes inadvertent, destruction.

Although some sites are destroyed because they have not been identified or assessed, many are destroyed following conscious, informed decisions by development-consent authorities. Despite the protection that is offered to some large landscape areas that include Indigenous heritage within reserved or heritage-listed lands (such as Kakadu, the West Kimberley and western Tasmania, and some state and territory national parks), physical destruction of Indigenous sites continues to occur across Australia.

Increasingly, the process employed by state agencies includes consultation with, and, in some cases, agreement from, traditional owners and other Indigenous stakeholders. Some statutory provisions include aims to prioritise protection and minimise harm to Aboriginal heritage places and landscapes (e.g. the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 [Vic]). Despite this, approved lawful destruction, even where it includes decision-making by traditional owners, remains a major threat to Indigenous heritage. The total quantum of such impact is not clear, because there is no national assessment or public reporting of the cumulative impact of development on Indigenous heritage. Conversely, there are also examples of collaboratively prepared cultural heritage management plans leading to improved protection for Indigenous heritage places (see Box HER38).

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 continue. Some recent legal cases have highlighted the challenges faced by Indigenous people seeking to enforce protection of their heritage (see Box HER12).

Indigenous language

Indigenous language is an intangible aspect of heritage, but provides an important surrogate indicator of the maintenance of traditional knowledge. It affects the ability to identify and appropriately manage heritage places, and has been used as an indicator in previous SoE reporting (Pearson et al. 1998). The Second National Indigenous Languages Survey provides a useful indicative snapshot of the current condition of Indigenous languages in Australia. The survey notes that, although some traditional languages remain very strong and are even gaining more speakers, others continue to show signs of decline. The survey concludes that, despite an overwhelming desire to strengthen traditional languages, all traditional Indigenous languages remain at risk of decline (Marmion et al. 2014).

Mackay R (2016). Heritage: Pressures on Indigenous heritage. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b658bbe13a0