Natural and Cultural Heritage

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 fact sheet
Department of the Environment and Heritage, February 2002

What is happening overall?

Overall, conservation of heritage improved during the past five years.

What is heritage?

Heritage is our inheritance, what we live with today and what we pass to future generations. Heritage defines our sense of place and is made up of tangible and intangible aspects, like buildings, bushland and languages.

People may value heritage places, objects and landscapes in ways that change over time, leading to diversity in heritage issues and management.

When a place tells us about people, their lives and society, it has cultural heritage significance. Cultural heritage reminds us of Australia's Indigenous past and its history since European settlement. Dreaming tracks of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and the goldfields of central Victoria are examples of heritage landscapes.

Australia's natural heritage places are extremely diverse, from coastal regions to snowfields, rainforests and deserts. Many of these areas are home to thousands of species, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Protecting Australia's ecosystems, biological diversity and geological diversity helps us learn about and appreciate our past.

While knowledge of heritage issues has improved, Australia has also suffered a loss of some heritage places, objects and Indigenous languages. Uncertainties remain about future heritage legislation and management arrangements, and how these will affect current conservation and management regimes. Funding for natural heritage is not matched by funding for Indigenous or historic places.

Australia is the home of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who have cared for the lands and waters for at least 60,000 years and who have accommodated major environmental and social changes into their unique ways of life.

Australia also has a rich and varied history of European settlement over the past 210 years. The country has become the home of people from many countries, who bring with them their own traditions and cultural diversity.

What is being done to protect heritage?

More than 2,000 museums around the country have collections relating to aspects of Australia's heritage. These collections contain approximately 4.4 million objects and artefacts in material cultural collections, often held in museums, and approximately 38 million objects in biological collections, often held in zoos, botanic gardens, herbaria and museums.

Three new Australian World Heritage areas were inscribed on the World Heritage List: Heard and McDonald Islands (1997); Macquarie Island (1997); and The Greater Blue Mountains Area (2000). These bring the number of Australia's listed World Heritage places to 14.

The total number of places on the Register of the National Estate (RNE) and on its Interim List increased by 16%. This included a 16% increase in historic heritage places; a 21% increase in natural heritage places; and following Indigenous community approvals, a 7% increase in Indigenous heritage places.

The major Regional Forest Agreements assessment processes identified approximately 3,000 places eligible for RNE listing during the reporting period; however, only those in East Gippsland have been finalised, and approximately 2,800 places are yet to be protected.

Approximately 110,000 Indigenous places were listed in state and territory inventories by 2000. Indigenous heritage places make up the largest component of Australia's heritage, yet are among the most neglected.

Thirteen Indigenous Protected Areas were declared between 1998 and February 2001 and have been added to the National Reserve System.

Where did heritage protection not succeed?

Some significant historic heritage places are being lost as a result of urban redevelopment, urban consolidation in older suburbs, and government buildings left vacant or not maintained.

Damage has been done to heritage buildings through inappropriate development work such as remodelling of shop fronts and interiors.

Fifty-four historic places previously included on the RNE reported as destroyed or removed from the Register.

There has been a significant decline in the number of Indigenous languages and percentage of people speaking these languages - a trend which has accelerated over the past 10 years.