Australian mining state passes Aboriginal heritage protection law

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FILE PHOTO: Aboriginal groups’ members carry Australian Aboriginal flags while taking part in a march against what they say is a lack of detail and consultation on new heritage protection laws, after the Rio Tinto mining group destroyed ancient rock shelters for an iron ore mine last year, in Perth, Australia August 19, 2021. Courtesy Gabrielle Timmins/Kimberley Land Council/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Legislators have introduced better protection for Aboriginal heritage in the mining state of Western Australia but indigenous groups said it did not go far enough and are counting on changes at the national level.

Protection has become a major issue after global miner Rio Tinto triggered outrage in 2020 after legally destroying culturally significant rock shelters that dated back more than 46,000 years for an iron ore mine.

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

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.

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

The Aboriginal Heritage Action Alliance “will work with others to ensure national laws which are being co-designed in partnership with First Nations people will deliver cultural heritage protection”, it said in a statement.

Rio Tinto said it supported the strengthening of Aboriginal cultural heritage protection. “We are absolutely committed to ensuring the events at Juukan Gorge are never repeated,” a spokesperson said, referring to the 2020 destruction.

Woodside Petroleum, which is expanding its Pluto liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant near ancient rock art, said it was reviewing the new law.

“We understand that the regulations which will support the bill are yet to be drafted, which leaves a number of uncertainties that will be crucial to the effectiveness of the legislation,” a Woodside spokesperson said.

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

An environment department spokesperson said the federal government had agreed to work with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance to design options “to reform and strengthen protections for indigenous cultural heritage and preserve Australia’s cultural treasures”.

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