Western Australia to scrap new law protecting Aboriginal heritage sites

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act came into force on July 1 and is now being dropped after protests by landowners.

The Djadjiling rock shelter at a Pilbara minesite in Western Australia, where ancient aboriginal tools were found, is seen in this undated handout released April 7, 2008. A large cache of stone tools estimated to be up to 35,000 years old has been discovered on the site of one of Australia's largest iron ore mines, sparking calls on April 7, 2008 for the site's preservation. Archaeologists uncovered the tools on the $1 billion Hope Downs iron ore mine, around 310 kilometres (192 miles) south of Port Hedland in Western Australia state's Pilbara region. REUTERS/Australian Cultural Heritage Management/Clive Taylor/Handout (AUSTRALIA). FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
The Djadjiling rock shelter at a Pilbara mine site in Western Australia, where a large cache of Aboriginal stone tools estimated to be up to 35,000 years old was discovered in 2008 [File: Australian Cultural Heritage Management handout via Reuters]

Western Australia will overturn recently enforced laws aimed at protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage sites following widespread opposition by farmers and small landowners, the state’s premier said.

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act came into force on July 1 and was designed to prevent a repeat of the destruction witnessed at the 46-000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelter, which was demolished by the Anglo-Australian mining firm Rio Tinto during the expansion of an iron ore mine.

The ancient rock shelter was one of the earliest known locations inhabited by Australia’s Indigenous people and contained some of the oldest artefacts.

Western Australia’s Premier Roger Cook said on Tuesday that the five-week-old law had proven to be too complex and divisive since coming into force, and the state government would scrap it and restore and amend a 1972 law to ensure the protection of important sites.

“The Juukan Gorge tragedy in the Pilbara in early 2020 was a global embarrassment – and it was clear that we needed to prevent something similar ever happening again,” Cook wrote on the micro-blogging site previously known as Twitter.

The Act that came into force last month was “intended to prevent destruction of significant Aboriginal cultural heritage” in Western Australia, but the legislation had gone too far, Cook said.

“It has become clear that the Act went too far – introducing complicated regulations and ultimately placing the burden on everyday property owners,” he said.

“Simple and effective” amendments to the older, Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, would be adequate to prevent another Juukan Gorge incident, Cook continued, adding that the amended old law would allow property owners to continue to operate their properties “just as they have for the past 50 years”.

Destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters caused deep distress to Indigenous groups in Australia and led to a global outcry that eventually cost Rio’s chief executive, chair and senior executives their jobs. The incident also sparked a national inquiry.

The CEO of the Western Australian Farmers Federation Trevor Whittington told the Reuters news agency that the ill-fated Aboriginal heritage protection legislation was not fit for purpose and his group was waiting to see what the amendments to the 1972 law entailed.

“Every new farming activity that we undertook would require a new heritage survey,” he said of the scrapped legislation.

“It was unworkable.”

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation, whose rock shelters were destroyed in 2020, said over the weekend they were devastated by reports of the state government’s impending decision to drop the new law.

“The previous heritage act … permitted the wanton destruction of Juukan Gorge. While the new act is not perfect, it is better than what it replaced,” PKKP Chairman Terry Drage said in a statement.

“If the state government had listened to community feedback during the consultation phase, we would not be in this mess. Fix the guidelines, which are the biggest problem, not scrap the Act,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies