FORTY-two years ago, the first heritage law in Australia designed to protect Aboriginal sites was declared in Western Australia. It was a landmark move by a state government facing its first major resource boom.
Mining was precisely the reason why a new Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) was needed, then minister for community welfare Bill Willesee told state parliament.
Ancient rock paintings, standing stones and scattered artefacts had once been protected by their remote location, but mining activity that ramped up in the early 1960s had triggered “fears for the safety of sites of importance to Aborigines”.
The sites now needed protection, Willesee noted, as “important records of the history of early settlement of Australia” and the only physical evidence of the region’s Aboriginal past.
Today the landscapes of the Pilbara and Kimberley regions are being extensively reconfigured in the era of GPS, aerial exploration and fly-in, fly-out workforces. Evidence of Aboriginal occupation is still scattered across those landscapes, lying in the path of planned roads, railways and mines. One mining tenement can hold thousands of such artefacts.
But the pioneering law that protects Western Australia’s heritage sites is now being dismantled and registered sites are disappearing from the records of the very organisation whose job it is to preserve them.
These are the claims of Aboriginal groups, heritage experts and anthropologists across the state as a proposed overhaul of the Aboriginal Heritage Act by the Barnett government gets under way.
Some critics have even coined the term “stolen heritage generation”; they say the fate of Western Australia’s prehistory is being placed entirely in government hands.
This week, Kimberley traditional owners, who gathered for a cultural festival outside Fitzroy Crossing, are discussing the threat. Tomorrow, hundreds of Aboriginal people, their native title bodies, MPs and state Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier have been invited to gather at Yule River outside Port Hedland, in the Pilbara.
Yule River may well become a symbolic crossroads for Aboriginal heritage. It is likely to deliver a stinging rebuke to the Barnett government over proposed amendments to the act that would give a single person, the chief executive of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, pre-eminent power over listing and preservation of sacred and historic sites.
“One person, not necessarily with any relevant expertise or experience in cultural heritage management, will have the discretion to protect or destroy Aboriginal heritage sites and objects,” says Simon Hawkins, from the Pilbara-based Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation.
In the past, approval to carry out activity that would damage or destroy a site had to be assessed by a department-appointed Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee; it was required to include at least one qualified anthropologist with “special knowledge”.
That latter requirement will go, and the ACMC’s role will be downgraded, as the chief executive — and ultimately their minister — assumes decision-making powers over which sites will remain on the state’s Register of Aboriginal Sites, and which will be removed. They can also issue declarations over an entire area, stating no sites exist.
The Yamatji Marlpa Corporation is organising the Yule River summit “to help show the state government that the Aboriginal community cares about its heritage”. They point out that the new act does not specify how the chief executive will make a decision to remove a site, or whether traditional owners will have any say in that decision.
Nor will the new act provide them any right to appeal. On the other hand, a company or developer — usually a mining company — can appeal a decision not to grant them permission to damage or destroy a site.
Collier responds that the new system “will mean decision-making will occur on an ongoing basis without relying on the system of monthly (ACMC) meetings”.
It would also “encourage the early engagement between land users and Aboriginal people”, although he doesn’t specify what that engagement will be.
Collier also points to the new act’s increased penalties for unlawfully destroying a site — from $20,000 to $100,000 for an individual, and from $50,000 to $500,000 for a company.
But the minister openly admits that pressure from resource companies and developers is a significant factor in the proposed reforms, which will go before parliament in coming months.
He says change is “especially necessary to meet the new demands placed on the act by mining and exploration (and) rapid state development.”
Under the new rules, land developers will be allowed to transfer a permit to disturb a heritage site to a new purchaser, removing the requirement that a permit should be reviewed if site ownership changes hands.
Simon Bennison, chief executive of the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies, says AMEC “is keen to see the early passage of the amendments”. He says heritage surveys “can take days or weeks to complete and costs are extraordinarily high for miners and junior explorers to bear with limited budgets”. The industry says a backlog of 6000 unassessed heritage sites is causing costly delays.
Consultants with experience working with companies in heritage assessment disagree. Among them is Peter Veth, Winthrop professor of archeology and chairman of the Centre for Rock Art Research at the University of Western Australia. He says the sums industry pays to gain heritage compliance “is an infinitesimal part of a mine’s cost”, adding that the Barnett government is dismantling a system that, although flawed, has delivered certainty in handling heritage conservation.
Responsible resource companies, land managers and native title holders have “brokered good neighbour protocols” over heritage issues ever since native title legislation required that Aboriginal perspectives be heeded.
“The major companies — Rio Tinto and BHP, for example — have invested over 20 years to make that stuff work. I guarantee if these amendments go through, there will be test case after test case. It introduces risk that is entirely unnecessary,” Veth says.
He suspects the concentration of decision-making in the hands of a single bureaucrat is a bid to silence heritage experts. He likens it to removing experts from nature conservation assessment.
“It’s like saying, ‘We’ve got rare and endangered fauna and flora, but let’s get rid of the zoologists and botanists who can determine their value. Let’s do it ourselves.’
“Why would you suddenly cleanse the landscape of an entire raft of professionals that are looking after 47,000-year-old rock shelters in the Pilbara, irreplaceable art sites, and ochre mines like Wilgie Mia and Little Wilgie?”
Veth is referring to two hills in the remote Weld Range, east of Geraldton in the mineral-rich Murchison region. The hills are laden with multicoloured ochre that represents the death throes of a speared ancestral kangaroo — red ochre for his blood, yellow for his liver, and green for his gall.
Wilgie Mia and Little Wilgie were documented as significant in 1952 by anthropologist Donald Davidson; added to the National Heritage List in 2011, they are the largest and deepest underground Aboriginal ochre mines in Australia. They even contain evidence of “stop and pillar” indigenous mining techniques used to gouge out the prized ceremonial ochre.
Local Wajarri Yamatji people are working with a team from the UWA on chemical testing and anthropological surveys of the sites.
Yet despite numerous formal applications in 2012 to the West Australian Register of Heritage Sites, Little Wilgie has still not been accepted.
It is typical of the confusion that is emerging over priceless heritage in the state, says UWA archeologist Vicky Winton.
Heritage archeologist Joe Dortch, who has worked for 23 years on indigenous sites, says a large number of sites have been reclassified on the register.
He says he compared Department of Aboriginal Affairs data from April 2012 with data from July this year, and found the status of about 2500 sites had been changed — including 1516 sites that had been moved from “registered” to “stored data”, which effectively strips them of legal protection. Some status changes reflected the fact that the site had been destroyed.
More than 80 per cent of the affected sites lie in the iron ore mining region of the Pilbara, says Dortch. More than half of those, or 817 sites, are in the vicinity of adjacent mines linked to Australia’s top mining magnates, Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill mine and Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group mine sites at Cloudbreak and Christmas Creek.
A Department of Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson says there has been “no downgrading of sites”: the 1516 figure is made up of places or objects that heritage consultants referred to the ACMC for consideration, but they were never registered sites.
“The comment is incorrect,” responds Dortch, “and the department doesn’t understand its own data.” The fact that so many affected sites lie in the Pilbara shows “an overwhelming bias toward certain development areas”.
“Heritage sites that collectively covered large areas for thousands of years, and represented irreplaceable cultural landscapes, have now been removed to benefit a relatively small number of shareholders,” Dortch says.
Fiona Hook, president of the Australian Archaeological Association, says another shift in the heritage landscape has been the department’s actions in dissuading companies from seeking heritage clearance. She cites the example of remarkable stone arrangements in Nyiyaparli country, south of the remote town of Marble Bar. A mining company, cognisant of the heritage implications of mining around them, applied for a section 16 permit to date them.
“The mining company treated them as if they were sites and had us excavate and date them,” says Hook, who runs her own archeological consultancy.
“But DAA wrote back to the company and told them they needn’t have bothered. They didn’t see that it was heritage.”
Veth says such actions undermine the state’s heritage system. “The clear message is: ‘Why did you bother to do all this? Stone arrangements? Forget it, they’re just several thousand years old and represent ritual and symbolic behaviour; they are mini Stonehenges in that country. But don’t worry, off you go.’ That’s a real example of what’s been happening in the last year or two.”
Emotion is rising over amendments to the Aboriginal Heritage Act; eight heritage peak bodies and 23 Aboriginal groups have lodged detailed objections to the draft.
Yet even Veth concedes that some problems have plagued heritage assessment and its reliability in a minerals boom. “There was a burgeoning of heritage workers and there were issues around the standard of some practitioners,” he admits. “But the simple response to that is to have mandatory registration of professionals, as happens in Victoria.
“In Western Australia, DAA is the regulator and they haven’t regulated either the quality of consultants or of heritage reports. So instead, they’re now trying for a fast-track, one-stop mop-up act that gets rid of the ‘intermediaries’, as they call them.”
Collier has declined the invitation to appear at the Yule River summit. The minister insists that “these changes are about improving Aboriginal heritage protection, not watering it down”. He has yet to convince those on the other side of the heritage fence.