Aboriginal cultural heritage survey industry under scrutiny

Allegations of “cartel conduct” by mining companies and Aboriginal heritage service providers are under investigation by the ACCC.

SMH reported that claims of price fixing for consulting work carried out on Aboriginal heritage surveys, as well as destruction of artefacts and sites to enable mining development have come to the attention of the competition watchdog.

With concerns raised in July, the ACCC has investigated claims which involved Rio Tinto Coal, Ashton Coal and NuCoal Resources operations in the Hunter Valley.

It was alleged that “registered Aboriginal parties” who conducted field surveys were all paid a pre-fixed rate for services, and that only certain aboriginal groups were given work by mining companies.

The registered parties are also paid to manage or salvage artefacts from areas affected by mining development.

The ACCC said it would continue to monitor the situation rather than act on claims, and has advised the Aboriginal groups to review their business practices to ensure they comply with the requirements of the law.

The ACCC will consider taking action if further allegations arise.

Tocomwall Cultural Heritage Consultants aboriginal cultural heritage expert Maria Cotter said that Aboriginality had been commodified by the heritage survey process, with decisions about cultural sites being “driven by dollar reimbursement and not by informed Aboriginal people making decisions about their heritage.”

“[People] are being bought to be Aboriginal, whether they have clear connections and understanding of the heritage of a particular place or not,” Dr Cotter said.

Australia Mining spoke to Dr Cotter, who said there were many examples of sites “being made way for mining developments.”

“I’ve been on a survey where I was involved with one group recording their cultural landscape values and another fellow from elsewhere… we came across a tree with a dripline and because they knew there was a burial ground in the area, and were trying to liase with other aboriginal people in the area to make a big story of it,” she said.

“I and other archaeologists said that wasn’t the case… It wasn’t a burial ground, it was a tree with sa dripline, and in this case some 50-odd people that turned up for the survey were trying to say ‘let’s call this a burial ground’ because we can get money out of the mining company.”

“It was my understanding that would a bargaining chip.”

Cotter said she didn’t find fault with the aboriginal communities in some instances, but that there were ethical problems with the planning and heritage assessment processes at fault.

She also pointed out that disadvantaged aboriginal communities were able to benefit from reimbursements and compensations from mining companies, but that those concerns needed to be separate from the heritage process.

Tocomwall company director Scott Franks, who is also a registered ‘Wonnarua’ native title claimant, said there were indigenous “blow-ins” without knowledge or qualifications, who were hired by mining companies.

In June of this year allegations that aboriginal hand stencils found near the Invincible and Cullen Valley mines were not authentic were raised by a survey commissioned by mine operator Coalpac.

It was suggested that the initial survey did not consult local traditional owners, and a later survey found that the stencils were genuine due to presence of corroborating artefacts.

Coalpac’s application for expansion of the mines was recently turned down by the Planning and Assessment Commission, resulting in suggestions from Coalpac that it would go into voluntary administration.

Wanaruah Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Noel Downs denied allegations of cartel behaviour, but said that some Aboriginal parties were “attempting to corner the market for themselves”.

Image: Ironbarkheritage