The State of Indigenous Inheritance

The progressive, cumulative destruction of Indigenous cultural resources as a result of the cumulative impact of individual development was highlighted in the 2011 recent State of the Environment (SOE) report[1], largely ignored by the mainstream media. In the chapter on heritage, two main threats to Indigenous heritage were identified: the disruption of knowledge and culture and the disturbance and destruction of sites due to urban expansion and resource extraction. 

Part of the problem, as outlined in the report, is that the nature and extent of Indigenous cultural heritage is unknown to most Australians, with the result that we do not really know what is being destroyed.  In fact, surveys and assessments of Indigenous heritage are often funded and undertaken only in response to specific threats from development projects.  Record – then destroy. The SOE report also points out that conflicts about the destruction of Indigenous heritage by industry remain common and that “one of the main threats to indigenous heritage places is conscious destruction through government approved development.” [2] Even when decision makers are aware of potential heritage impacts, they frequently choose to authorise destruction, bit by bit; economic considerations are given priority over heritage protection and the cumulative impact of development is not properly assessed.

Aboriginal heritage may be described as having two main dimensions: the first,  evidence of Aboriginal communities from earlier times, including burial sites, middens, rock and cave paintings and scatters of stone tools, some as old as 50,0000 years , others more recent; the second encompassing the places or landscapes that are of spiritual significance to living Aboriginal people. Such areas are often associated with the actions of mythological beings during the creative period of the Dreaming, moving over the land and shaping the form it now takes and the laws and ceremonies that guide people’s lives. Both aspects of Indigenous heritage are under threat.

It is clear that Australia’s Indigenous people view their world as an interconnected whole: they make no intrinsic distinction between the lands, waters, the plants and animals and the culturally significant sites and objects linked to the traditional knowledge, which  lie at the heart of Indigenous culture and identity handed down through the generations[3]. Such traditional knowledge can only be kept alive through use and application in the country to which it is tied. Protecting land and places and promoting cultural practices (especially languages and creative expression) are both crucial for the maintenance of traditional knowledge. Where such use and application are disrupted, as is often the case with resource extractive industries, cultural heritage in the broadest sense is under threat.

This is particularly evident in Western Australia where the mining boom (despite hiccoughs in recent weeks) is still at full tilt, with both state and federal governments enthusiastically barracking industry players.  Resource extraction industries inevitably place pressure on heritage places, since the activities of the mining and oil and gas industries and the taking of timber from native forests usually require the removal or degradation of features which form an important part of Indigenous heritage and of our heritage more generally – landscapes, habitats, rock art, ancient story lines, geological formations. In the rush to feed and fire the steel mills of China we barely stop to consider the loss that this represents.

What little research there is has shown that “mining and other forms of industrial development can result in profound and often irreversible damage to the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples”[4]. It is fear of such damage that sometimes drives opposition to development by indigenous people, especially since heritage laws have generally proved ineffective in protecting their heritage.  And, in many cases, the promised economic benefits have not materialised.

Some 60% of mining activity in Australia actually abuts or is located on aboriginal land. Commonly, an application is made by a developer or mining company to undertake some activity which may harm Indigenous heritage and the responsible agency will then require that an Indigenous heritage assessment be undertaken by the applicant before a permit is issued. Most of Australia’s Indigenous heritage laws allow Ministers, or other statutory bodies, to authorise the destruction of sites. While consultation with relevant Indigenous groups is generally required, it seldom results in the applications being refused and, as a result, such decisions are a continuing source of conflict between Indigenous communities and government agencies and resource companies.

To compound the problem, there are limited public data on how many and to whom permits or consents are issued authorising harm or destruction of Indigenous sites. The authors of the SOE report indicated that they could find no long-term studies that have systematically assessed the cumulative impact on Indigenous heritage of these decisions to approve destruction; but what evidence there is indicates a perilous situation.  Given the rapid expansion of the resource extractive industries and in the absence of comprehensive strategies to reconcile competing economic and heritage values, this deterioration is likely to accelerate.

This is part 2 in a series: Part 1 can be found here.

[1]Australian State of the Environment Committee (2011) Australia: State of the Environment Report. Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities,

[2] Australia: State of the Environment Report (2011),  p 735.

[3] [3] Damien Bell (2011) “Whose Heritage?”  Essay commissioned by the Australian Heritage Commission,

[4] O’Faircheallaigh, C. (2008). Negotiating Cultural Heritage? Aboriginal-Mining Company Agreements in Australia, Development and Change, 39 (1), 25-51.