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Australian woman looking at Australian Aboriginal mythology rock paintings on a rock cave in Kimberley Western Australia
Australia's traditional owners of the land said the destruction of cultural heritage happens on 'a regular basis' and reform is a priorityImage: picture alliance/Newscom

Australia to improve laws protecting Indigenous heritage

November 24, 2022

The government will legislate new protections two years after Rio Tinto blew up sacred Aboriginal caves at Juukan Gorge. A minister likened it to the Taliban's destruction of giant Buddha carvings in Afghanistan.


Australia will strengthen laws to protect Indigenous cultural heritage, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said on Thursday.

It is part of the government's response to a parliamentary inquiry into mining giant Rio Tinto's destruction of historically and culturally significant rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.

The global mining company had blown up 46,000-year-old Aboriginal caves in 2020 while expanding an iron ore mine.

"It is unthinkable that any culture would knowingly destroy Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids or the Lascaux caves in France,'' Plibersek said Thursday in parliament.

"When the Bamyan Buddhas were destroyed in Afghanistan, the world was rightly outraged. But that's precisely what occurred in Juukan Gorge,'' she added.

Rio Tinto not blamed 

Plibersek and Prime Minster Anthony Albanese said Rio Tinto had not broken any laws and instead blamed a system that did not protect cultural sites from mining and other development.

"This was not an isolated mistake or an example of one company going rogue," Plibersek said.

"What's clear from this report is that our system is not working," she added.

Now the Australian government is working with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, a group of 30 Indigenous organizations, to draft laws to better protect their cultural heritage.

It will include the right of Indigenous people to be top decision-makers on developments that could impact their heritage, financing for Aboriginal groups to negotiate agreements with developers and miners, and the right of the federal government to override decisions made following inadequate state or territory protections that would harm sites.

It is part of the government's response to the 16-month parliamentary inquiry into the Juukan Gorge destruction.

The government had accepted all but one recommendation from the inquiry's final report.

Traditional owners not consulted

The Puutu Kunti, Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples, traditional owners of Juukan Gorge, were angry and disappointed they had not been consulted about the government's response.

"All of this started with the destruction of our cultural heritage, everyone keeps on telling us they are sorry about it, but actions speak louder than words," the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation said in a statement.

"We have tasted the devastation and we know what needs to be done," it said without elaborating.

Jamie Lowe, chief executive of the National Native Title Council, which represents Australia's traditional owners of the land, however, welcomed the government's promised changes, which he said were long overdue.

"The disaster and the destruction and the act of violence to Juukan Gorge and the PKKP people some two years ago was something that happens to our people on a regular basis, and the need for comprehensive national reform is something that has been a priority for our people for decades now,'' Lowe told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Rio Tinto's Chief Executive Jacob Stausholm said the company would look at the government's recommendations "as we continue to strive to be the best partner we can be, and play an active role in ensuring heritage sites of exceptional significance are protected."

lo/sms (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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