Juukan Gorge inquiry calls for sweeping new heritage laws and ministerial powers

By Jackson Graham

Tuesday October 19, 2021

Warren Entsch
Warren Entsch was the inquiry chair. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Australian governments need to introduce new heritage laws protecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and give the minister for Indigenous Australians more powers, a report following the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters found. 

The federal inquiry, A Way Forward, found Rio Tinto’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old site in 2020 was a disaster for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama People and Pinikura people, and an extreme example of destruction of heritage. 

But it found the destruction was not unique and was capable of occurring again.

“The destruction of Juukan Gorge was the result of Rio Tinto’s failures, but the events also highlighted the inadequate protection afforded by the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act,” inquiry chair Warren Entsch said. 

“Throughout the course of the inquiry, it became apparent that there are serious deficiencies across Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage legislative framework, in all state and territories and the commonwealth.”

The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia has spent 16 months probing state and federal heritage protection laws and has recommended a range of sweeping changes. 

The committee urgently recommended the Indigenous Australians minister should have responsibility for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage protection act 1984 and the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation act 1999.

It identified a need for an overarching federal legislative framework that the government would need to design with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. 

The new framework should give Indigenous communities the power to refuse development applications that could affect heritage, the recommendations say. 

It would also include mechanisms for traditional owners to review or appeal decisions, enforcement and penalties for destructive activities. 

The report also suggests buffer zones around cultural heritage sites and a process for decisions to be reconsidered if new information about cultural heritage becomes available. 

Among other recommendations are a review of the native title act; an independent fund to administer funding of prescribed body corporates under the act; a model for cultural heritage truth telling; and action on the findings of a 2020 report.

Mining company Rio Tinto said in a submission to the inquiry earlier this year that the destruction of the historically significant Indigenous rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge, in the Pilbara region, “should not have occurred”.

In the submission, the company said it had offered an unreserved apology to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and that it was “determined to learn the lessons” to prevent any future destruction of heritage sites.

Entsch said in a statement that the disaster was a “wakeup call” about the serious deficiencies for the protection of cultural heritage. 

“What is needed now is a way forward, for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and industry,” he said.


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