Starting the important conversation about reforming our laws and values
EDO has submitted an extensive submission to the federal inquiry into the destruction of caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia which showed evidence of human habitation dating back 46,000 years, detailing the problems we have witnessed as lawyers assisting First Nations peoples around Australia as they work to protect their cultural heritage under ineffective state, territory and Commonwealth legal frameworks.
This Inquiry followed the tragic destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves – cultural heritage of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples – by Rio Tinto mining corporation. EDO offered a statement in response to this terrible incident by CEO David Morris and EDO Board Member Joe Morrison.
Wisely, the Inquiry includes consideration of whether regulation of impacts to First Nations cultural heritage in each Australian jurisdiction is effective and how laws may be improved to better protect First Nations cultural heritage.
The destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves was shocking, yet it is just one of innumerable actions which have caused destruction of First Nations cultural heritage – legally – under Australian law. Sadly, the incident was not a surprise to the EDO, as the inadequacy of cultural heritage laws around Australia at a Commonwealth and state/territory level has been raised over many years by Traditional Owners, First Nations organisations, legal academics and lawyers.
EDO lawyers have assisted First Nations peoples around Australia in their efforts to protect their cultural heritage from destruction. One recent example of the failings of these laws was seen in our case representing Dolly Talbot as a Gomeroi Traditonal Custodian in NSW seeking to protect cultural heritage threatened by the Shenhua coal mine. Our submissions to this Inquiry are based on our experience working with state, territory and Commonwealth laws which are supposed to provide some level of protection to cultural heritage. We have worked with First Nations clients who have interacted with cultural heritage laws in many different ways, from litigation, engaging in law reform processes, through to broader First Nations-led environmental governance of country projects.
We have provided key recommendations for reform to help strengthen legal systems across Australia to provide respectful and effective protection of First Nations cultural heritage and empowerment of First Nations peoples to protect their own cultural heritage and which complies with Australia’s obligations under international law.
EDO will continue to work with First Nations peoples to seek changes to support law reforms which put their voices first in the protection of their cultural heritage and which fully implement Australia’s international obligations to require free, prior and informed consent in decision-making that impacts First Nations cultural heritage.
Unless things change, the Juukan destruction will not be the last time Traditional Owners are left devastated and emotionally tormented when a place of immense significance is destroyed against their wishes.
The Environmental Defender’s Office acknowledges the sponsorship of Legal Aid Western Australia