A review has found Australia's environmental laws have failed to protect Indigenous heritage. Image by Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS

Environment

Indigenous ‘tokenism’ in environment laws

2020-07-21 17:46:00

Indigenous Australians have been failed by the nation’s environmental protection laws, a review has found.

Former ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel on Monday released his interim review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which says the laws are not fit for purpose.

The laws are supposed to recognise the role of Indigenous Australians in conservation, protect cultural places and promote the use of Indigenous biodiversity knowledge.

But Professor Samuel says that’s not occurring.

“Traditional knowledge is not valued,” he said.

“There is a culture of tokenism and symbolism…. Indigenous Australians want and frankly, they deserve and we deserve stronger protection of Indigenous culture and heritage.”

Prof Samuel said the EPBC Act should have an Indigenous knowledge and engagement committee to provide the federal environment minister with advice.

He said there should be a standard for best practice for Indigenous engagement and a comprehensive review of national laws to protect Indigenous cultural heritage.

“The EPBC Act has failed to fulfil its objectives as they relate to Indigenous Australians,” the interim report says.

“Indigenous Australians’ traditional knowledge and views are not fully valued in decision-making, and the Act does not meet the aspirations of traditional owners for managing their land.” 

Australia’s Indigenous heritage protections recently came under scrutiny after mining giant Rio Tinto destroyed a significant site in Western Australia that dated back 46,000 years.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Dave Sweeney said there were many examples of when the national laws failed Indigenous communities.

Although Tjiwarl native title holders had taken Western Australia to court to prevent a uranium project, the federal government gave expedited approval in 2019.

“Right now, the federal government is seeking to build a national radioactive waste store and dump site near Kimba in regional SA,” Mr Sweeney told AAP.

“The area’s traditional owners, the Barngarla people, were not included in a local council’s regional ballot to test the public mood on this and remain strongly opposed to the waste plan.”

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley and Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt will hold a meeting with their state counterparts in a bid to improve protections.

WA-based Labor MP Josh Wilson said the ministers must be clear about a timetable for reform so change can happen.

“Labor will consider all and any reasonable changes to legislation that will deliver proper protection of First Nations heritage, stronger consultation with First Nations people, and greater clarity for all stakeholders,” he said.