Australian mining state passes Aboriginal heritage protection law

Western Australia state Premier Mark McGowan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Western Australia’s parliament passed legislation late on Tuesday aiming to better protect Aboriginal heritage in the mining state, however indigenous groups said it did not go far enough and are now counting on changes at the national level.

Indigenous heritage protection has become a major issue after global miner Rio Tinto in 2020 legally destroyed culturally significant rock shelters dating back more than 46,000 years for an iron ore mine, sparking public and investor outrage.

Western Australia state Premier Mark McGowan said the new legislation, which overhauled a 1972 law, took a respectful approach to managing Aboriginal cultural heritage in a state rich in mineral and energy resources on their land.

“Finding a balance between the protection of that rich cultural heritage and delivering on the economic potential of natural resources to ensure our state’s continuing prosperity is crucial,” McGowan said in a statement.

The state said the new law is the only Aboriginal heritage legislation in Australia to require that Aboriginal people give “informed consent” for agreements.

One of the main concerns raised by Aboriginal groups is that the legislation keeps the final say over development decisions with a government minister in cases where a developer and traditional owners cannot agree terms.

“This will be business as usual on our sacred sites, which leads to the continued destruction and desecration of Aboriginal cultural heritage,” National Native Title Council Chairman Kado Muir said in a statement.

The state’s Chamber of Minerals and Energy has backed the legislation but said the next step of setting out regulations within the new framework would be tough.

“Change of this scale is complex, and the challenge ahead to deliver on the potential set out in the bill should not be underestimated,” the chamber’s chief executive Paul Everingham said in a statement in November.

An Australian inquiry into Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge recommended a new national legal framework and for Aboriginal people to be the top decision makers on heritage issues.

Aboriginal groups are now counting on federal legislation to go further than the Western Australia law.

(By Sonali Paul; Editing by Michael Perry)

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