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Australia must do more to protect indigenous heritage, parliamentary inquiry finds

AUSTRALIA must do more to protect indigenous cultural heritage, a parliamentary inquiry has ruled, in the wake of the destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site at Juukan Gorge.

Laws must give traditional landowners the “right to withhold consent” over developments on their land, the committee said today.

It also recommended the establishment of a new, independent national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage council to “act as a voice to the commonwealth government.”

The inquiry was ordered last year after global mining company Rio Tinto blew up the ancient caves, which contained evidence of human occupancy dating back 46,000 years, to access higher-grade iron ore.

Three of its top executives and two board members, including the chief executive and chairman, were forced to resign following international outrage.

A series of public hearings were held across the country, leading to the publication of the final report, A Way Forward, today.

Inquiry chairman Warren Entsch told parliament that the current legislation designed to protect cultural heritage may have instead contributed to the damage and destruction.

“Loss of cultural heritage diminishes the heritage of our nation and deeply wounds the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for whom their heritage is sacred,” he said.

According to the report, representatives of Australia’s indigenous community must be enabled to negotiate on an equal footing, with the current situation skewed heavily in favour of multinational mining companies.

“It is time for the legislative frameworks in Australia, in all Australian jurisdictions, to be modernised to bring meaningful protection to Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage, to ensure that nothing like Juukan Gorge ever happens again,” Mr Entsch said.

The committee blamed the government for failing the indigenous people and called for responsibility for heritage protection to be transferred from the environment minister to the First Nations minister.

In a statement, the traditional owners said: “Actions, not words, will be the true test.”

“It was never our wish or choice to be in this position but the response by Rio Tinto, other mining companies and government decision-makers to the events at Juukan Gorge will be a test case for First Nations people throughout Australia and internationally.

“Our focus therefore continues to be working in good faith with the leadership of Rio Tinto to ensure that the attitudes and processes which resulted in the Juukan blast are truly replaced by a genuine partnership and respect,” they said.

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