Chris Johnston, Context Pty Ltd
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
This section offers some ideas and directions arising from the observations made and conclusions drawn throughout this commentary.
Heritage and environment are still distinct elements in government legislation, structures and policies. This arises from the past. Looking forward, natural resource management policies and plans are increasingly aware of and responsive to cultural heritage values. Natural heritage values, especially biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, are strongly embedded in such plans.
The term natural heritage is often not used in these plans, but the naming of the Natural Heritage Trust indicates its importance and helps explain why the natural heritage values referred to in the Australian Natural Heritage Charter 2002 are largely captured by and absorbed into natural resource and environmental management policies. This appears to be a great strength.
Cultural heritage is now included in regional natural resource management plans, but this is a recent change, and might not yet be consistently applied. The natural resource management and NHT regional plan frameworks could be enhanced by guidelines and best practice examples on how to consider cultural heritage values and places.
Increasingly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives on the environment are being recognised and are helping to bridge the boundaries between government agencies and policies. Natural resource management plans often acknowledge that, traditionally, Indigenous people had a worldview that did not separate humans and nature. While some might argue that Western thinking has modified this worldview, there is a strong resurgence of this worldview even in areas and amongst Indigenous communities that were severely impacted by colonisation.
The Australian Natural Heritage Charter and the Burra Charter together provide effective guides to recognising heritage values and places. Natural resource management plans often use different terminology, whereas reference back to these charters would create greater national consistency and clarity in the plans.
Within government policy, heritage continues to be primarily defined as special places. Community responses to some issues—such as impacts on valued rural landscapes, on urban streetscapes and neighbourhoods, and on community associations with places—suggests that a broader approach to heritage by government is desired. At a community level, ‘heritage’ is a far more than places and encompasses a wide range of values and associations: heritage is as likely to be an event, a tradition, a product, or a story.
Environmental management planning could benefit from recognising other ways in which people connect to place and environment. Much environmental policy is based on an expressed commitment to ‘care for the environment’ whereas cultural heritage policy has begun to recognise the importance of attachment to place, of meanings and associations, and the links to cultural, community and personal identity. The importance of natural heritage as part of local and personal identity, for example, would be a worthwhile area for exploration in natural resource management planning.
The Australian Government’s EPBC Act and new national heritage system has the potential to present a more integrated view of ‘heritage’ as a set of values that form an integral part of the environment. Some natural resource management plans have started to address aspects of intangible heritage—such as customs, traditions and connection to land—primarily in relation to Indigenous peoples. This initiative should be encouraged and expanded to non-indigenous peoples.
The natural resource management approach to broad-scale regional analysis of the landscape could be more widely adopted for cultural heritage analysis. As well as assisting in closer integration of cultural heritage values into natural resource management planning, it would also reduce the risks associated with defining cultural heritage values as only occurring within cultural heritage places.
Likewise ‘caring for country’ is now a familiar phrase in relation to Indigenous people and communities. The concept reflects the strong and intimate connection between Indigenous people and the landscape, recognising that this connection is not simply material or utilitarian. While it is important to recognise that non-Indigenous Australians do not have the same culture, traditions and spirituality as Indigenous Australians, it is equally important to acknowledge that land, landscape, environment are important to many people in non-material ways: these include a strong sense of connection to particular places and landscapes; a spiritual sense of place; and personal and community identity.
Finding ways to engage people fully in caring for our environment—because it supports all life, because it is valuable in its own right, because it helps meet our needs and because it is part of who we are and what we love—offers an opportunity to natural resource management planning that it appears ready to take on.
Managing for all values means finding ways to recognise and understand them. Conflicts between values will become more apparent, enabling better solutions to be developed. Natural resource management planning processes can provide a forum for such discussions, potentially leading to outcomes that are well-supported and that recognise the complexity of community values. This is especially important at the local level, where community support and effort is needed to implement government policy, and where conflict over values can have significant impacts on community cohesiveness.
While specialisation and technical expertise is increasingly important to understand the environment and its values, so is interdisciplinary communication to enable conflicting values and complex issues to be fully considered and resolved. Employment, training and volunteer work opportunities can help participants build these valuable multidisciplinary skills.
Finally, whole-of-government policies, strategies and plans reflect a new approach, seeking to integrate all government policy and actions while also recognising the need for specialist agencies with particular functions. Natural resource management planning seeks to create an integrated vision, priorities and actions across governments and communities and is a powerful tool. Increasing the recognition of cultural heritage values within natural resource management will strengthen Australia’s ability to protect natural and cultural heritage values and places for the future.
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