Australian survey recommends new national standards to protect Aboriginal heritage

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Members of Aboriginal groups carry Australian Aboriginal flags while participating in a march against what they say is a lack of detail and consultation on new heritage protection laws, after mining group Rio Tinto destroyed old rock shelters for an iron ore mine last year, in Perth, Australia, August 19, 2021. Courtesy of Gabrielle Timmins / Kimberley Land Council / Handout via REUTERS

  • Expert group recommends consent best practices for mining
  • Indigenous people must be the primary decision-makers in heritage matters
  • Report follows legal destruction of cultural sites

MELBOURNE, Oct. 18 (Reuters) – Australia is set to establish a new national legal framework to protect indigenous cultural heritage, an investigation into the destruction of ancient rock shelters for an iron ore mine found in its final report on Monday.

The report says indigenous traditional owners should be the primary decision-makers on development demands that could impact their heritage and have the power to withhold their consent and bring civil suits to enforce proposed new laws.

The recommendations follow a 16-month parliamentary inquiry into how Rio Tinto Ltd (RIO.AX) legally destroyed sites in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge last year which showed evidence of human habitation over 46,000 years since the last ice age.

Widespread anger over the destruction of the caves has focused on industry practices and cost the jobs of Rio CEO and two other top executives and led President Simon Thompson to signal he would resign in 2022.

The committee, which recommended in December that Rio pay restitution to traditional owners, on Monday made recommendations for reforming a patchwork of state and federal laws with different definitions and processes, all of which it said contained “serious shortcomings”. Read more

“It became evident to the Committee that legislation designed to protect cultural heritage has, in many cases, directly contributed to the damage and destruction,” the report says.

Rio Tinto said in a statement it welcomed the findings.

“We are focused on improving our engagement with Indigenous Peoples and our host communities to better understand their priorities and concerns, minimize our impacts and responsibly manage Indigenous cultural heritage,” the company said.

Rio said it has examined more than 2,200 heritage sites under its existing mining plans and has increased the staff overseeing heritage practices by 20% compared to last year, to 300 people.

The committee’s recommendations are likely to adapt well to Indigenous groups who have called for more control over decision-making regarding their heritage, as well as national standards. Read more

The traditional owners of the destroyed caves, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinakura (PKKP), said in a statement that the sense of grief and loss persisted.

“The response from Rio Tinto, other mining companies and government decision makers to the events at Juukan Gorge will be a test for First Nations people across Australia and abroad,” the PKKP said, adding that they were working with Rio to improve relations. .

The report recommended that the Australian government legislate on a new framework for the protection of cultural heritage at the national level in agreement with the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The new legislation should establish minimum standards for state protections and traditional owners should have the primary decision-making power regarding their cultural heritage in development processes.

The legislation must include adequate compliance and enforcement mechanisms as well as sanctions, according to the report.

“Traditional owners should be able to effectively enforce Commonwealth protections through civil actions,” he recommended.

The report comes as Western Australia prepares to announce an overhaul of its heritage protection laws, which indigenous groups have criticized because final development decisions remain with the state government.

Other recommendations included that industry and government fund Indigenous development review bodies in return for greater transparency from these groups.

The federal government has six months to table its response to the report.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Richard Pullin

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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