Where are we now? Current threats to Victorian Aboriginal Cultural Heritage

There remain significant threats to Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in Victoria.

The Aboriginal Heritage Act and [UN] Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples], together, provide some of the greatest protections for Traditional Owners in the country. However, there is still much to be done in realising a fundamentally self-determined and tangible ownership of our Culture, Heritage, History and Country.

There remain significant threats to Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in Victoria.

The AHA sets up a system for developers of land to obtain clearance where Cultural Heritage sites are potentially impacted. The AHA readily facilitates a ‘salvage’ mentality of removal of sites for development rather than empowering Aboriginal self-determination to control, manage, protect and retain their Cultural Heritage. The shift from protection to self-determination is occurring in some respects with the development of the Traditional Owner Settlement Act (TOSA), but to deliver the goals for Aboriginal Peoples to manage and control their heritage will take much more.

In addition:

  • there is limited collaboration and consideration undertaken prior to destruction of sites
  • museums and archives continue to hold much of Victorian Aboriginal Peoples’ Cultural Heritage
  • intangible property is recognised but considered separately from tangible Cultural Heritage, and the registration system has not been taken up effectively

NOTE: As of October 2020, there has only been one registration of intangible heritage on the Aboriginal Heritage Register.

Finally, both the AHA and the TOSA that followed in 2010 provide rights to Traditional Owners over Country, causing overlap, potential confusion and administrative burdens for Traditional Owners.

Since the 2016 amendments to the AHA, there have been many projects, both State and private, that have caused damage and destruction to Aboriginal sites and Cultural Heritage. The vast majority of the damage and destruction has been legal and in accordance with the CHMP system under the AHA.

Some of the more immediate threats include:

  • lack of Cultural mapping – Only approx. 6% of the state has been surveyed for Cultural Heritage
  • unnamed waterway, including tributaries
  • private housing development,
  • State infrastructure
  • private and State land use practices,
  • State emergency management practices,
  • major changes to landscape, including clearing of native bushland and levelling of dunes,
  • public use of State managed land and deliberate damage,
  • erosion and other natural processes.

The CHMP process has some significant flaws. A CHMP assesses the potential impact of a proposed development activity on Aboriginal Cultural Heritage registered within the activity area or found during the standard and complex assessments. The intention is that RAPs are then empowered to stipulate the measures to be taken before, during and after the activity to manage and protect the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage within the activity area. The practice of this process, however, compromises this intention. To highlight just a few of the weaknesses of this process, here are a few observations:

  • A sponsor (project proponent) generally approaches the CHMP process as a ‘check box’ exercise. Actual engagement with the cultural significance of a site is superficial. In many instances the sponsor’s ideal outcome is to move through this process with minimal disruption to their development plan (and timeline).
  • RAPs have insufficient authority in the process. RAPs are part of the process, but they cannot conclusively control the outcome of the proposed activity or the impact on Cultural Heritage. Appeal to VCAT is often prohibitively expensive, and the prospects of success appear to be slim.
  • The archaeological analysis of a site is too narrow. The archaeological techniques used as well as the parameters for what they are searching is very restrictive and skews the ultimate outcome and ‘ranking’ of significance.

Each year approximately 600 Cultural Heritage Management Plans are undertaken to manage the protection of our Cultural Heritage. Stronger enforcement measures came into effect with the 2016 amendments to the Act. But our heritage is still being destroyed and it breaks my heart.

Discussion question: What are the current threats to Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in Victoria?

  • What have been the major impacts to Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in Victoria since 2016?
  • How can these pressures and threats be addressed?
  • What is needed for Aboriginal Peoples to have greater control over the CHMP process and protection of their Cultural Heritage?