Chris Johnston, Context Pty Ltd
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
To consider whether Australia’s heritage is being effectively managed in relation to other environmental management issues, an important starting point is to look at how ‘heritage’ is defined. This section starts by examining definitions used in Australian legislation and practice, then looks at what we know about broader community perspectives, and finishes with emerging directions. It concludes that effective environmental management needs to be open and responsive to changing understandings of heritage if it is to effectively recognise and conserve heritage values.
Recognition of Australia’s heritage at a national level started with the Hope Inquiry into the National Estate, which reported to the Parliament of Australia in 1974 (Yencken 1985). The Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 (AHC Act) created the Australian Heritage Commission and established the Register of the National Estate, defining the National Estate as:
those places, being components of the natural environment of Australia or the cultural environment of Australia, that have aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance or other special value for future generations as well as for the present community. (AHC Act, s. 1)
Section 1A of the AHC Act further defined the criteria that needed to be met for a place to be considered part of the National Estate.
Commenting on this important period, David Yencken notes that the term ‘national estate’ gave formal expression to ‘an emerging consciousness of our natural and man-made heritage’ (Yencken 1985, p. 6). National estate combines the idea of ‘inheritance’ with that of national identity—these are the ‘things we want to keep’ and pass on to future generations. In the years since, governments around Australia have sought to define and protect heritage.
Heritage is far from being a fixed concept. Rather it is a cultural construct, mutable in its meanings, and often contested (Aplin 2002, p. 27). A challenge for governments has been recognising and responding to changing professional and community perceptions of the meaning of ‘heritage’.
At a national level, s. 528 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) has introduced a definition of Australia’s heritage as forming part of the environment (emphasis added below):
(a) ecosystems and their constituent parts, including people and communities; and
(b) natural and physical resources; and
(c) the qualities and characteristics of locations, places and areas; and
(d) heritage values of places; and
(e) the social, economic and cultural aspects of a thing mentioned in paragraph (a), (b) or (c).
The EPBC Act (s. 528) further defines the ‘heritage value’ of a place as including the ‘place’s natural and cultural environment having aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance, or other significance, for current and future generations of Australians’. Indigenous heritage value is defined as the values of a place to Indigenous persons, rather than to ‘Australians’:
Indigenous heritage value of a place means a heritage value of the place that is of significance to indigenous persons in accordance with their practices, observances, customs, traditions, beliefs or history.
The Australian Natural Heritage Charter and the Burra Charter respectively (Australian Heritage Commission and Australian Committee for IUCN 2002; Australia ICOMOS 1999) are important guides to heritage practice in Australia. Neither defines ‘heritage’ specifically, but each uses the concept of ‘place’ and a definition of significance to guide an understanding of how to recognise, conserve and manage a place of cultural or natural significance.
The Burra Charter defines place as a ‘site, area, land, landscape, building or other work, group of buildings or other works, and may include components, spaces and views’ and defines cultural significance as meaning:
… aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations. (Australia ICOMOS 1999, p. 2)
The Natural Heritage Charter defines a place as a ‘site or area with associated ecosystems, which are the sum of its geodiversity, biological diversity and natural processes’ and defines natural significance as meaning:
… the importance of ecosystems, biological diversity and geodiversity for their existence value, or for present or future generations in terms of their scientific, social, aesthetic and life-support value. (Australian Heritage Commission & Australian Committee for IUCN 2002)
The Australian Natural Heritage Charter also recognises that:
places may have both natural and cultural heritage values’ and that these ‘values may be related and sometimes difficult to separate. Some people, including many Indigenous people, do not see them as being separate. (Australian Heritage Commission and Australian Committee for IUCN 2002). While there is a considerable area of commonality across these definitions, suggesting shared understandings of ‘heritage values’, there are also some key differences. Three values are suggested in the charters that are not explicitly in the EPBC Act: spiritual value, existence value, and life support value.
Spiritual value is a relatively recent inclusion in the Burra Charter, dating from 1999. As yet Australia ICOMOS has not attempted to define this value further.
A brief survey of Commonwealth, state and territory heritage legislation for reference to ‘spiritual’ and ‘existence’ values found that the term ‘spiritual’ is used in s. 22 of the Commonwealth Australian Heritage Council Act 2003 and s. 21 of the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.
In Queensland and the Northern Territory, legislation to protect Indigenous cultural heritage, the term ‘spiritual’ is not used. Spiritual values are not assessed by the government agency in making determinations for the heritage register. Instead, these values are determined and explained by the Indigenous people making the nomination. In New South Wales for example, the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 refers to ‘… traditions, observances, customs, beliefs or history …’(71D (1)).
While the term ‘spiritual’ is generally not used in legislation to protect Indigenous cultural heritage, other associated terms, such as sacred, secret, ceremonial, and beliefs, are used almost exclusively in association with Indigenous communities.
State and territory legislation to protect historic places generally includes spiritual as a component of social significance. For example, the heritage registers in Western Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, and New South Wales all use a version of the Commonwealth’s criterion (g), which refers to strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons.
Life support value is not defined, and it is probably self-evident. In the Natural Heritage Charter it is expressed as a value for ‘present and future generations’.
Existence value is defined in the preamble to the Natural Heritage Charter as meaning that living organisms, earth processes and ecosystems may have value beyond the social, economic or cultural values held by humans (Australian Heritage Commission and Australian Committee for IUCN 2002, p. 3). The term ‘existence value’ (as defined in the Natural Heritage Charter)is not referred to specifically in any of the heritage legislation reviewed.
What do these definitions illustrate? Firstly, they are a simple demonstration of the differing perceptions of heritage values, and the potential for our understanding of heritage values to change over time. Secondly, the concept of existence value seems to give natural significance a paramount position over cultural significance. The challenge for environmental management practice is to recognise all heritage values, and to be attuned to changing perceptions of heritage values, especially in the community and amongst professionals.
Community perceptions of heritage are poorly understood, and there are few data available to help us assess whether perceptions are changing. Experience in working in this field suggests, however, that they are changing.
The Australian community is unlikely, of course, to have a single view; more likely is a great diversity of perspectives.
Different people perceive and define heritage very differently, depending on their educational background, previous experiences, beliefs and philosophy of life. (Aplin 2002, p. 30)
Research into community interest in environmental issues tends to have a narrower focus than envisaged in the definition in the EPBC Act. For example, regular surveys from 2001 to 2003 examine the level of concern about environmental problems, environmental involvement and household environmental practices, but do not help us understand changes in community appreciation for heritage values (ABS 2001, 2002, 2003).
Research designed to test the concepts in the Distinctively Australian initiative (the new national heritage system) indicates that there is:
- a high level of support for heritage as a concept
- a strong view that some core areas of heritage - the processes of identifying, protecting and maintaining heritage places - are the preserve of experts and/or government
- a strong interest in connecting to and engaging with Australia’s heritage, with an emphasis on feeling and experiencing, and especially through people’s stories that can bring places and the past to life. (Colmar Brunton Social Research 2005)
Heritage was defined in the focus groups initially by participants, and then by the researchers as ‘natural, Indigenous and historic places that are especially significant for all Australians and Australia’ (Colmar Brunton 2005, p. 26). An unpublished investigation by Colmar Brunton Social Research (2004, and Lennon 2006) reveals that 54 per cent of Australians are interested in finding out more about Australian heritage. Interest in natural places, events and stories is highest amongst the general public in comparison with cultural and Indigenous places, events and stories.
The community heritage workshops held across Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales during the 1990s as part of the Comprehensive Regional Assessment of national estate values for the regional forest agreements, indicate that those participating had a broad understanding of heritage that encompassed both natural and cultural significance.
For example, in community heritage workshops for the West Victoria Regional Forest Agreement, many places identified as ‘heritage’ by participants had multiple values: of places recognised for their cultural values, around 65 per cent (608 places) had social value, 63 per cent (592 places) had aesthetic value, and about 62 per cent (584 places) had historic value. Some 65 per cent of places were recognised for their natural value (612 places). Some values were recognised as existing across very large areas, rather than being limited to a specific place: examples included ‘all old growth’, ‘all trees with hollows’ (fauna habitat values), and ‘all coastal streams’ (Context 1999).
A more recent opportunity for communities in several states to identify heritage values and places was offered through the development of ‘heritage icon’ lists by National Trust organisations in South Australia and Queensland, by the New South Wales Heritage Office, and by the Western Australian Government and National Trust in that state. The Western Australian programme was the largest, generating more than 4700 nominations. The most strongly recognised were places such as the Swan River, Rottnest Island and Kings Park (Perth). But not all of the heritage icons were places: both in South Australia and Western Australia, events and people were also recognised, suggesting that heritage has wider meanings (National Trust of Australia websites).
Community consultation during 2004–05 as part of the development of the Victorian Government’s Victoria’s Heritage 2010: strengthening our communities. A draft strategy also indicated that heritage does not just mean the ‘heritage values of places’ (Heritage Council Victoria 2004, p.7).
Our heritage is more than just places; it is also the objects, collections, records, stories, the traditions and the special local characteristics that build community pride, create opportunities for cultural enrichment and attract visitors and tourists.
From a cultural heritage perspective, there is currently strong interest in the following heritage values: recognising intangible heritage; gaining a better understanding of how Indigenous people value land and landscape; and involving communities in identifying strong and special associations with place. In understanding natural significance, developing ways to assess aesthetic significance remains an important challenge.
Intangible or living cultural heritage is relatively newly recognised internationally. The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003) defines intangible cultural heritage as the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage (UNESCO 2003).
These aspects of intangible heritage may occur within particular places, and may be part of the heritage values of that place. The convention proposes that the process for recognising these values involve developing an inventory and policies. While a growing body of work now documents Indigenous intangible heritage, and current guidelines (Commonwealth of Australia 2004, p. 2) encourage its recognition in natural resource planning, only a limited amount of work has been done in Australia on traditions and practices of non-Indigenous peoples in relation to heritage values and place.
In south-eastern Australia, Indigenous peoples have been substantially displaced from their traditional country and important cultural ties have been severed. Nevertheless, cultural revival processes within communities is enabling many Indigenous people to reconnect with land and landscapes. Studies of heritage values are starting to recognise that, for Indigenous people in Tasmania and Victoria for example, elements of the pre-colonial landscape may be as important as specific sites that demonstrate Aboriginal occupation (C. Johnston, pers. comm.):
Indigenous people throughout Australia have links to the land and the sea that are historically, spiritually and culturally strong and unique. (Commonwealth of Australia 2004, p. 2)
Indigenous perspectives on land, environment and heritage often cross different government agencies. This offers opportunities for the development of a cross-agency or whole of government approach. In Victoria, for example, the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), Heritage Victoria (in DSE) and Aboriginal Affairs Victoria have developed a Strategy for Aboriginal Managed Lands in Victoria with support from the state and Commonwealth governments to create a framework for Indigenous land and water management across Indigenous controlled lands (SAMLIV 2003).
Two of the heritage criteria used at a national level for many years suggest a need to involve communities in understanding the significance of the place: the aesthetic significance criterion refers to aesthetic characteristics ‘valued by a community or cultural group’ and the social significance criterion refers to special associations with a particular community or cultural group.
While there are numerous examples of projects that seek to identify the social significance of places, this heritage value is considered to be substantially under-assessed (C. Johnston, pers. comm.).
In understanding natural significance, developing ways to assess aesthetic significance remain an important challenge. Recent work on Inspirational Landscapes for the National Heritage list (Context 2003) is an example of the development of a more integrated approach, working across natural and cultural heritage values, including spiritual value.
A review of assessments of aesthetic significance in relation to mountainous places on the Register of the National Estate concluded:
However, although the evocations of the landscapes, including mountains, are realised and generally highly appreciated, those particular values have not been well represented in the majority of the mountain landscape listings in the Commonwealth Government’s, national heritage register, the Register of the National Estate (RNE). Approximately 544 mountains and ranges records are in the Register of the National Estate and of these 221 have included Aboriginal values, 80 of the records are for historic places (mostly mining sites and huts) while the aesthetic value of the places, when mentioned has, until recent years, been at best, only briefly noted as the place having ‘scenic quality’. (Johnston and Ramsay 2005)
Effective environmental management needs to be open and responsive to changing understandings of heritage values if it is to effectively recognise and conserve Australia’s heritage.
This is an ongoing challenge. There is a need to reconsider the scope of heritage legislation and policies at all levels of government when opportunities allow for review to ensure that the definitions of heritage value reflect current community values. It would be helpful to have more up-to-date information about community and professional views on heritage values, and this could be facilitated through regular surveys and professional exchanges. Development of integrated assessment methods for the National Heritage List could bring an effective spotlight to this issue, and help develop resources to guide practice throughout Australia.
The necessity for deliberate selection and definition of ‘heritage’, combined with the diversity of community perceptions as to ‘what is heritage’, means that the concept of ‘heritage’ is culturally constructed, commonly contested and therefore highly political (Aplin 2002, pp. 27–28). In contrast, many other components of the environment, for example air or water, are not subject to this process of selection, they just exist.
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