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).