New draft law won’t protect our sites, say Aboriginal groups

MELBOURNE, (Reuters) – Aboriginal protesters on Thursday sharply criticised revisions to Western Australia’s heritage laws, saying that, under the proposed changes, their traditional lands remained exposed to the risk of being destroyed by developers.

Legislation in the state has until now largely green-lit development projects on heritage sites, but the drafting of amendments to those laws has gathered pace since Rio Tinto last year legally destroyed ancient rock shelters for an iron ore mine there, prompting a public outcry.

The state government has begun briefing Indigenous groups, miners and other stakeholders on the proposed revisions, and notes on the latest draft seen by Reuters on Wednesday showed Aboriginal groups would get wider rights of consultation on development projects.

But the groups would gain no veto, with a government-led process determining the outcome of development applications where no agreement could be reached through consultation.

On Thursday, members of major Western Australian land council groups marched to Parliament House in Perth to demonstrate against the proposals in their current form.

“Under this current draft, if the Minister decides destruction of heritage can occur, it will. A key concern for us is the lack of appeal or review available,” said Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, (YMAC) in a statement.

“This is legislation about us, being written without us,” added Kado Muir, chair of National Native Title Council.

Rio’s destruction of the sites at Juukan Gorge, which showed signs of human habitation stretching back 46,000 years, also cost top executives at the global mining firm their jobs and prompted a national review of industry practices and national heritage laws.

That review has yet to release its recommendations – another major concern for the Aboriginal groups.

“We stood on the steps of parliament today to call on the government to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the laws around Aboriginal cultural heritage right,” said Kimberley Land Council Chair, Anthony Watson in a statement.

“Traditional owners must have control over their cultural heritage.”