Social Issues

Australia lawmakers seek reform of Aboriginal heritage protection laws

Sydney, Australia, Oct 18 (EFE).- Australia must reform “grossly inadequate” laws to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage and give traditional owners the “right to withhold consent,” a parliamentary panel probing the destruction of two ancient rock shelters has recommended.

The panel made the recommendations in its final inquiry report published Monday.

In May 2020, Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto destroyed 46,000-year-old rock shelters at the Juukan Gorge.

Puuti Kunti Kurram indigenous community considers the area in the Pilbara region of northwest Australia sacred.

The caves were the only inland site in the country occupied by Ice Age humans.

The destruction of the heritage site by Rio Tinto, which had allegedly obtained ministerial consent to damage the caves in 2013, sparked a huge controversy and widespread criticism.

The Northern Australia Committee published the report, “A Way Forward,” after more than a year of probe.

The panel recommended the creation of a new framework for the protection of indigenous heritage at the national level.

It also sought amendments of laws for the protection of indigenous and environmental heritage so that traditional owners have a primary decision-making power on actions that may damage their heritage as well as the power to withhold consent to the destruction of cultural heritage.

The investigation acknowledged that despite an extensive inquiry, some questions about how the Juukan Gorge destruction could occur remained “unanswered.”

“Despite the national current awareness, and condemnation, of these destructive acts, they are ongoing,” said the report.

It suggested that traditional landowners should retain the ability to extend protection to and/or override decisions made under inadequate state or territory protections that would destroy heritage sites.

“Traditional owners should be able to effectively enforce Commonwealth protections through civil action.”

The report indicates that the mining industry had also “called for reform of the legislative frameworks governing cultural heritage” and “wants a clear set of guidelines-with adequate penalties.”

“There (are) many in the industry working to rectify past poor practices and set higher standards for the industry as a whole and they recognize that singular events like Juukan Gorge diminish the industry as a whole.”

The destruction of the caves led Rio Tinto’s chairman Simon Thompson, non-executive director Michael L’Estrange and CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques to announce their departures.

“We know this will take time and there will be challenges ahead, but we are focused on improving our engagement with Indigenous Peoples and our host communities to better understand their priorities and concerns, minimize our impacts, and responsibly manage Indigenous cultural heritage in and around our operations,” Rio Tinto Chief Executive Jakob Stausholm said Monday. EFE


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