Why Australia fails to protect its heritage

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Julia Hurst is part of the Indigenous-Settler Relations Collaboration and a lecturer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander history at the University of Melbourne. 

MELBOURNE — The land now known as Australia is an invaded, colonized place. When the invaders arrived, they settled on the basis of the legal fiction of terra nullius, or land belonging to no one, despite the existence of more than 500 clans or nations of Traditional Owner groups.

Digging up this land is the cornerstone of Australia’s modern economy. The rocks we’ve sold to China have seen us avoid recession for 29 years. And while our run of economic growth has ended, we’re ever more dependent on blowing up, digging out and putting our land on ships to make steel for buildings in faraway places.

Australia’s determination to ignore its Indigenous people and their heritage in favor of economic exploitation was made evident in May, when news broke that mining giant Rio Tinto had deliberately destroyed the Juukan Gorge Caves, a cultural site of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Traditional Owner (PKKP) people of Western Australia.

Rio Tinto knew the site was of international significance and held evidence of 46,000 years of continuous human occupation across a changing climate, including the last Ice Age.

Because of the weak protections offered by the outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972 (WA), Rio Tinto’s destruction of the site was, in fact, lawful.

Archaeologists had salvaged more than 7,000 artifacts — some more than 40,000 years old — from the area.

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