Frequently asked questions

What is Aboriginal cultural heritage?

Our cultural heritage in WA is made up of: areas of cultural significance, places and spaces of spiritual significance, intellectual and cultural knowledge, community ties, traditional rights, property and cultural materials. Physical or not, cultural heritage is ‘alive’, and depends on custodians to continue their relationship with it in order for it to live on. The responsibility is on custodians to ‘care for’ their cultural heritage and ensure it passes from them to their descendants, fertile with spirituality to enjoy, meanings to learn, resources to use, and rights to be bestowed.

What is a sacred site?

Sacred sites are geo-physical places imbued with spiritual meaning. They may also have physical features which demonstrate to custodians of the place that an event of the Dreaming occurred there. Such sites may be river beds, soakages, ‘native’ wells, rock outcrops, caves, clearings, claypans, individual trees or a stand of trees. Sacred sites may, for example, be as large as an entire mountain range and contain many associated sites, such as caves and trees and rock holes, all interconnected by a Dreaming, or set of Dreamings.

Aren’t sacred sites protected under current law?

The current WA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 protects cultural places that were or continue to be used in traditional ways or have a spiritual, or Dreaming, significance.  These places are protected if they have been recorded and mapped and placed on the Register of Sacred Sites. If a proponent, such as a mining company, wishes to carry out activities on a protected sacred site, they must apply to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to ‘use’ it (‘Section 18’ applications).  Once the Minister agrees, traditional custodians have no avenue under this law to prevent the destruction. This is the process by which Rio Tinto was given approval to destroy the 46,000 year-old cave sites at Juukan Gorge. They caves were protected, but the Minister approved their destruction.

Will the new Bill protect sacred sites and cultural heritage?

The new Bill will make it very difficult to protect sacred sites and cultural heritage. Here’s some reasons why:

  • The Minister still has the right to approve destruction of sacred sites where there is a ‘social and economic benefit to the State to do so’. The Minister holds the right to declare an area to be of ‘outstanding importance’. In doing so, however, the Minister must weigh this decision with his duty to consider the sites’ ‘social and economic benefit to the State’. This test may well result in the Minister deciding for the proponent where there are perceived economic benefits.

  • Places, including sacred sites, must be shown to be part of a ‘cultural landscape.’

  • ‘Protected status’ is only given to cultural landscapes the Minister decides are of ‘outstanding significance.’

  • The Bill allows any works not involving ground disturbance to occur on any place of cultural heritage, outstanding in significance or not. This includes clearing vegetation or burning off, regardless of the damage that might do to art sites, sacred trees or medicinal plants.

  • Works involving ground disturbance may occur on cultural heritage sites if the proponent says the work will have a ‘minimal impact.’

Who should have the final say on whether cultural heritage is protected?

Our right to say “no” to the destruction of sacred sites and places of cultural heritage is paramount.  This right is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Australia is a signatory.  The right to veto destruction of important cultural places is not the same as vetoing activities, such as mining, altogether.  Saying “no” to the destruction of important cultural places means we can protect these places now and into the future.

Is cultural heritage protection the same across Australia?

No.  The quality of protection differs dramatically across each State and Territory. There are strong, unified calls for Federal legislation to be developed to protect and preserve cultural heritage across the nation.