WA unveils heritage laws to protect historic sites

The Pilbara landscape Image: Rio Tinto

Western Australia has proposed new heritage laws following the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in the western Pilbara region this year.

The proposed legislation, known as the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020, is intended to replace the “outdated” Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.

It contains a provision for a fine of up to $10 million for damaging heritage sites and $500,000 for each day that it continues.

The draft bill also gives more power to Aboriginal people to make agreements and negotiate outcomes pertaining to activities that may impact their cultural heritage.

The bill is now open for public consultation ahead of its introduction into state parliament before the end of the year.

Western Australia’s Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage stated that the bill established a modern approach to protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage in the state that would reset the relationship between land users and Traditional Owners, and transform how Aboriginal cultural heritage was identified, managed and conserved.

It reflects the feedback of Aboriginal people, industry representatives, heritage professionals and the Western Australian community gathered over two years.

“It will ensure Aboriginal people determine the importance and significance of their heritage sites and empower traditional owners to make agreements regarding the management and impact on their cultural heritage sites,” Western Australia’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said.

“We have seen recently how grossly inadequate the current legislation is to protect Aboriginal heritage and the appeals by Traditional Owners and land users to modernise our system.”

Rio Tinto had relied on a 2013 ministerial consent under section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 to destroy the Juukan Gorge site, a move that was met with industry backlash and devastation of Aboriginal communities.

“The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters should not have occurred and I have unreservedly apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people,” Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques, who planned to continue meeting with Traditional Owners groups across Australia, said during an Australian Parliamentary Inquiry last month.

Fellow mining major BHP has also held off a portion of its development at the South Flank iron ore project in the Pilbara due to its impact on heritage sites belonging to the Banjima people.

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.