Natural and Cultural Heritage Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Jane Lennon, Jane Lennon and Associates Pty Ltd, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06752 3

Current condition of heritage places and objects and pressures affecting them (continued)

Condition of Indigenous heritage places

  • World Heritage properties
  • Conclusions and implications about condition of Indigenous heritage places
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    Over 110 000 Indigenous heritage places have been identified in State and Territory inventories (see Table 5), but there is little information about the condition of these places. Recent data on the damage or destruction of Indigenous heritages places is sketchy. However, at least 213 places are known to have been damaged or destroyed in four States or Territories. The following recent data are all that are available:

    • three sacred sites listed on the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority's register in the Northern Territory (1999-2000),
    • one site in the ACT (1999-2000),
    • 118 sites in Western Australia (1999-2000),
    • 91 Consent to Destroy approvals given in New South Wales (1998-99), although this figure includes 32 instances of conservation works on sites,
    • unknown figures for South Australia and Victoria, as all applications for consent to destroy are referred to the relevant local Aboriginal community,
    • unknown figure for Queensland as the number of damaged sites is not recorded by year, but condition of a site is given when it is first recorded, and
    • data was not provided for Tasmania nor for non-sacred sites in the Northern Territory.

    As there is no comparable information for the preceding period, no trend can be identified.

    The recording of losses, like the recording of places themselves, is subject to substantial changes over time, as available funding, register technology and evolving Indigenous community attitudes to the gathering of, and access to, such data alter. As an example, several jurisdictions are altering their recording systems, which will soon result in at least one jurisdiction having, on paper, an increase in site numbers, formerly recorded as groups. This means that even if the data set for 2000 were comprehensive, it may not be able to be meaningfully compared with the data set that exists in five years time, for either overall site numbers or the damages/losses information.

    Another problem is that, outside the context of the formal development process, much destruction and desecration to sites occurs which is unlikely to have been recorded. Therefore such recording systems will inevitably be an underestimate of damage or destruction to Indigenous sites.

    Damage to sites is difficult to compare across jurisdictions because the different States and Territories keep their records in different ways. For example, some States record condition and problems only at the time of first entry on the register. Any statistical change over time would hence reflect only additions to the register, rather than changes of condition within existing registered places. Many of the State organisations are also wary of releasing information on damage or losses, as it may be interpreted as reflecting badly on the effectiveness of legislative and administrative mechanisms and the management of sites.

    Environmental impact studies are mandatory in the case of most major developments in some States. This explains the apparently greater number of sites destroyed in New South Wales, for example, than in other States or Territories. Even apparently clear-cut administrative approvals for destruction of sites under planning legislation can be misleading, as in the case of New South Wales, where a Consent to Destroy may be for a single site or for a cluster of sites; and this can be complicated further because a Consent to Destroy may also be required for places subject to conservation works (i.e., not destroyed, but altered for conservation purposes). Also, records of sites destroyed depends on the adequacy of survey in the face of threat.

    Given that the majority of Australia has received only scant, if any, survey for Indigenous places, any comments on pressures on their condition have to be based on case studies or on general observations of likely threats. The nature of Indigenous cultural associations to the land, through physical remains and spiritual connections, means that Indigenous heritage is subject to the full range of threats that the physical terrain can experience. These threats include soil erosion, disturbance through land clearing, intensive agriculture, urban development, coastal erosion, road construction and mining. Hence any changes in those activities or events demonstrated in the State of the Environment theme reports on Land and on Human Settlements, are likely to reflect a corresponding change in threat to Indigenous places.

    Most of Australia (except its external Territories) has been lived in by Indigenous people over a long time. Indigenous heritage sites exist throughout Australia. With the exception of Indigenous sites of recent origin which relate to the contact period, Indigenous heritage places can be conserved effectively only in situ and as part of the natural environment of which they are an integral component. As a general rule, the best levels of conservation of the sites will be found in the least disturbed areas. There is therefore a close correlation between the nature conservation status of land and the conservation of Indigenous heritage places. One indicator of the level of destruction or damage to Indigenous sites would be the amount of development of previously undeveloped land; and conversely, any increase in the nature reserve system of Australia would provide some insurance for at least a basic level of conservation that is greater than that for land of other tenures.

    Similarly, land handed back to Indigenous people under various land claim regimes, would, if it remained in its natural state, provide the same level of passive protection. 'Natural state', like 'wilderness', is a problematic concept, and Indigenous groups also frequently want to 'develop' their land. The tension between conservation and Indigenous groups in the recent period is noted even if it cannot be quantified.

    Therefore, the increase in the reserve system in Australia and in the number of successful land claims over the reporting period can be seen as one indicator of improvement in the percentage of sites being preserved from destruction by development or land disturbance. For the conservation of Indigenous sites to be fully effective within the reserve system, of course, integrated conservation planning which provides for the protection of Indigenous values as well as other values is essential. In turn this requires active Indigenous involvement and decision-making power, at least in relation to Indigenous sites and landscapes. An examination of the extent to which conservation or management plans on reserves and Indigenous land provide for the protection and appropriate custodianship of Indigenous as well as natural heritage, and the extent to which they are being implemented, might be a useful indicator for the future.

    Many types of Aboriginal sites, including rock art, are very vulnerable to natural destruction, but because site management is a State or Territory land management responsibility it is difficult to obtain a continental overview of conservation activity by site type, so that the condition of the most vulnerable or rarest types is not known. AIATSIS has an extensive database on the distribution of rock art resulting from over 30 years of rock art conservation and recording programs. An indicator about the number of sites actively conserved during the last reporting period, if it could be collated, might address this issue. The Rock Art Protection Program ran for 11 years until 1997 and was generally funded annually at $150 000 throughout the program. However, data relating to the exact number of sites conserved is not available.

    The mechanisms to ensure the involvement of Indigenous communities in decision-making and protection of Indigenous places appear to fail in a number of situations, and might be improved with better integration of such mechanisms into updated legislation. An indicator on the number of Indigenous representatives on management boards for protected areas would assist in measuring Indigenous involvement in 'keeping country healthy'. The number of cases of places identified by Indigenous people as being in danger and brought before the Commonwealth under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 would be a very useful measure of the lack of protection under State or Territory legislation and of Indigenous people's lack of confidence in the legislation. In addition, statistics about the actual use of provisions of the Act would show the number of cases investigated and conciliated and the number proceeding to invoking the prohibitions available under the Act.

    Indigenous members of the Lake Victoria Advisory Committee inspecting conservation works on burials exposed above water level (2000)

    Indigenous members of the Lake Victoria Advisory Committee inspecting conservation works on burials exposed above water level (2000).
    Located in south-western NSW, Lake Victoria is one of the four major water storages on the Murray-Darling River system.

    Source: Jane Lennon (2000)

    Revegetated burial mounds at Lake Victoria, New South Wales

    Revegetated burial mounds at Lake Victoria, NSW.

    Source: Jane Lennon (2000)

    The protection of many Indigenous places has improved as a result of increased involvement of Indigenous communities in their management. This increased involvement has come about as a result of non-Indigenous Australia recognising a cultural continuity between Indigenous peoples and their heritage places. As a result, Indigenous concerns about heritage places are being incorporated into the procedures for their management. However, most Indigenous communities face difficulties in getting agreed protocols about the involvement of Indigenous people in the identification and assessment of Indigenous places followed, because of the often complex relationship that exists between land managers, land owners and Indigenous organisations. Indigenous organisations across much of Australia face these difficulties daily in their dealings with the wider community. The examples in the following case study highlight the ways in which these difficulties present themselves.

    Case study - Indigenous involvement in protection

    Statutory planning and assessment processes often do not take into account the protocols developed by Indigenous organisations. Protocols in this context establish the agreed nature of consultation between Indigenous representatives and the land manager, and set triggers for initiating that liaison. For example, in one case an organisation in New South Wales that has protocols in place has found that a developer working on State-controlled land has ignored the organisation's recommendations. In preliminary work, some archaeological sites were identified and the organisation recommended that a proper survey be undertaken before the terrain was disturbed for development purposes. It sought to have an elder from the community employed while an archaeologist undertook excavation in order to ascertain the form and extent of the archaeological sites. Because the Indigenous organisation did not control the land it could not enforce its recommendations, but had to negotiate with the State agency regarding the procedure. Despite the State government agency's obligations to meet statutory requirements regarding the identified sites, the organisation found out that the developer was proceeding with excavation work without being issued with a permit to destroy. The Indigenous organisation then had to negotiate with the State agency, seeking a stop to the work until due process had been followed.

    In another instance a large national corporation has maintained a good record in its relationship with Indigenous organisations when it undertakes development projects in an area. However, the organisation has recently started to subcontract this work and the protocols are often not being adhered to. When subcontractors and the large corporation are confronted about this, both say that it is the responsibility of the other to follow the protocols. Indigenous organisations are then left in the difficult position of needing to negotiate with both parties in order to reach agreement over the protection of sites. These cases highlight the problems of protecting Indigenous cultural heritage on land that is not under the control of the traditional owners.

    Source: Knowles (2000).

    Most Indigenous people do not ignore heritage or dismiss a 'heritage' interpretation on matters of interest to them (Williams 2001). The constant pressure placed on Indigenous people to give ground on all cultural matters forces them into a rationalisation (often economic) that means they are forced to behave outside of their own cultural boundaries in seeking dollar 'compensation' at the expense of culture. (This can occur in the case of Native Title claims, 'development' and government acquisition.) Instead, Indigenous people would prefer to leave an area undisturbed. This places into question the power of 'heritage' legislation to protect Indigenous wishes with regard to the heritage of Indigenous Australia.

    World Heritage properties

    As indicated previously, there are four 'mixed' World Heritage properties with both natural and Indigenous values. The conservation of such 'mixed' site listings necessitates the integrated management of both the cultural and natural values.

    The significance attached to the need to have best practice management in place at Australia's World Heritage properties can be gauged from the improvements in management arrangements over the past five years. All have management plans; all have boards of management with members representing scientific and/or community interests including Indigenous representatives, except for Shark Bay and Macquarie Island. (The Australian Fossil Mammal Sites and Macquarie Island do not have community advisory committees.) For Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Indigenous people comprise the majority of board members.

    Conclusions and implications about condition of Indigenous heritage places

    • No reliable data on the condition of Indigenous places exist at a national level.
    • The systems of Indigenous place protection used in many jurisdictions are inadequate, or the reporting methods used are such that adequacy cannot be monitored. The low number of known, recorded or listed Indigenous heritage sites that have been destroyed in 1999-2000 reflects the reporting procedures rather than being an indicator of rate of loss and hence the threatened condition of such places. Environmental impact studies are mandatory in the case of most major developments in some States, and this explains the apparently greater number of sites destroyed in New South Wales, for example, than in other states during the current reporting period.
    • The nature of the continent's Indigenous cultural heritage means that any threat to the natural environment is also a threat to Indigenous heritage. Therefore, the increase in the extent of the conservation reserve system in Australia and in the number of successful land claims over the reporting period can be seen as one indicator of improvement in the percentage of sites being preserved from destruction by development or land disturbance.
    • In some cases, such as in the case of rock art, a comprehensive national database has been produced of the sites. The Rock Art Protection Program contributed towards site protection up to 1997 at an annual cost of $150 000, but the number of sites conserved under this program is not known.
    • In many cases, the protection of Indigenous places has improved as a result of increased involvement of Indigenous communities in their management. This increased involvement has come about as a result of non-Indigenous Australia recognising a cultural continuity between Indigenous peoples and their heritage places. Indigenous concerns about heritage places are thus being incorporated into the procedures for their management.
    • Most Indigenous communities still face difficulties in getting agreed protocols about the involvement of Indigenous people in the identification and assessment of Indigenous places followed because of the often-complex relationship that exists between land managers, land owners and Indigenous organisations. This occurs on a daily basis for many Indigenous organisations.