Western Australia state to consider Aboriginal heritage protection bill

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MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The resource-rich state of Western Australia will on Wednesday introduce to parliament a bill to safeguard Indigenous heritage during development applications, 18 months after the legal destruction of culturally significant cave sites by miner Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO) sparked widespread anger.

The bill, which has been under revision for three years, will focus on reaching agreement with Aboriginal groups and on obtaining full, prior and informed consent for development, the state premier’s department said in a statement.

But it was met with distress from Aboriginal groups who have protested the bill, saying they have not been adequately consulted, and it still leaves the final decision on protection of their heritage in government hands.

“It’s a devastating day for Aboriginal heritage,” said Tyronne Garstone, chief executive of the Kimberley Land Council.

“Fundamentally, this Bill will not protect Aboriginal cultural heritage and will continue a pattern of systematic structural racial discrimination against Aboriginal people.”

KLC was one of three groups to release a statement this week calling for the final decision about impacts to Aboriginal culture and heritage to “lie with Aboriginal people, not industry or government.”

Western Australia’s heritage laws have been under the spotlight since Rio Tinto, with express permission from the state government, destroyed rock shelters at Juukan Gorge that showed evidence of continual human habitation stretching back 46,000 years for an iron ore mine.

The rock shelters had contained remnants of a 4,000 year old hair belt that showed a genetic connection with the area’s traditional owners, as well as evidence that they were used as shelters extending back into the last Ice Age.

Amid a public uproar, three senior executives including then chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques left the company and parliament launched a national enquiry that found regulations must be overhauled to better account for consent.