Natural and cultural heritage: 9.1 Defining Australia's heritage

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

9.1 Defining Australia’s heritage

Reporting on the state of Australia’s heritage is a particular challenge because heritage is selected, and the selections are often contested (Aplin 2002). In contrast, many other components of the environment, for example air or water, are not subject to this process of selection.

The community’s understanding  of heritage has continued to expand as people have come to realise that cultural and natural heritage are closely integrated. Heritage is still regarded as consisting of ‘special places’, but there is an emerging recognition by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians of intangible heritage and cultural landscapes, and of the importance of heritage as a part of people’s locality and identity. It is encouraging that some states have introduced the concept of cultural landscapes as a heritage listing and protection device. The rise of community groups to protect their local area and the continuing involvement of National Trust organisations in defending the heritage values of suburban areas are evidence of the strength of community feeling.

People’s understanding of heritage changes over time. A good example is the improving recognition of the importance of Indigenous languages in sustaining cultural heritage, which was a result of surveys for national state of the environment reporting completed in 2000 (McGonville and Thienberger 2001) and again in 2004 (AIATSIS and FATSIL 2005 ). Another example is the shift in thinking observed in catchment management plans over the last 10 to 15 years (Johnston 2006). The shift has been from a narrow definition of natural resources towards a values-based and more integrated approach, particularly during the reporting period for SoE2006.

All of the environment is part of Australia’s natural heritage, but the term has special meanings that include internationally recognised natural places, such as World Heritage sites and Ramsar wetlands (see ‘Aquatic biodiversity’). In addition, Australia’s role as a mega-diverse, first-world continent is seen by many to make an important contribution to national heritage and to the world’s natural heritage. Other parts of this report indicate how Australia is discharging these responsibilities. The increasing recognition of the landscape as the relevant unit for natural resource management is creating a framework in which better integration of natural and cultural heritage can be expected.

From a cultural heritage perspective, there is currently strong interest in 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. For natural heritage, an important challenge is to develop ways to assess aesthetic significance.

Tensions can arise in the recognition of heritage values. For example, reservation of public land to protect its natural heritage values often restricts traditional uses such as hunting, grazing of stock, and riding horses. While these uses may conflict with natural heritage conservation, the long associations between particular communities and these activities may be of cultural heritage significance. New approaches to this issue are starting to emerge, including as a recent example the revised management plan for Kosciuszko National Park (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service 2006).