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Australia commits to new protections for indigenous heritage sites

Sydney, Australia, Nov 24 (EFE).- The Australian government promised Thursday to legislate new protections for indigenous heritage sites following the 2020 blasting of sacred caves by mining multinational Rio Tinto.

“These reforms are not about stopping development, or halting progress. They’re about redressing an imbalance – our oldest imbalance,” Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek told parliament in Canberra.

Plibersek presented the government’s response to the eight recommendations from a 2001 parliamentary inquiry to improve the protection of cultural heritage after Rio Tinto blasted a 46,000 year-old sacred rock shelter at Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge to expand an iron ore, despite warnings from traditional owners.

According to experts, the Juukan Gorge caves were the only place in inland Australia with evidence of having been continuously occupied by humans through the Ice Age.

As part of the implementation, the government on Thursday began a process in alliance with indigenous representatives to reform heritage protection laws and align local and regional regulations throughout the country.

The Labor government, which came to power in May with the promise of holding a referendum to recognize First Nations, wants “to ensure that Indigenous voices are present at every stage, in every room, and in every decision we make,” Plibersek said.

The minister noted that the government has adopted seven of the eight recommendations, and continues working with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance on the final one, which refers to whether the ultimate responsibility for cultural heritage protection should sit with the indigenous affairs minister or the environment minister.

On May 24, 2020 Rio Tinto blew up the remote caves, sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, in Pilbara region, in the northwest of the country.

Despite the outrage generated by the incident, “no laws were broken” by Rio Tinto, Plibersek admitted.

“This was legal desecration … We had an entire system frustrating the interests of Indigenous history and culture … There were partnership agreements signed under gross inequalities of power, and that were only ever really understood by one party,” she said.

“This was not an isolated mistake, or an example of one company going rogue. What’s clear from this report is that our system is not working.” EFE


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