Recently, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Victoria became the first site in Australia accepted onto the UNESCO World Heritage List solely for Aboriginal cultural significance. A handful of other Australian sites, such as Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu National Park, are listed for both natural and Aboriginal cultural significance.

The occasion presents a chance to reflect on what World Heritage listing means and how Australian environmental and cultural heritage legislation applies to Aboriginal cultural landscapes. But first, some background about Budj Bim and the World Heritage List.

Budj Bim Cultural Landscape

This 6,600 year old site comprises a large and complex aquaculture system developed by the Gunditjmara traditional owners using rock to construct channels, weirs and dams to divert water and trap eels.

The World Heritage Committee considered the site was of outstanding universal value and satisfied the selection criteria for listing of:

  • bearing a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared (Criterion iii); and
  • being an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land use or sea use representative of a culture(s), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change (Criterion v).

World Heritage List

Acceptance onto the World Heritage List occurs under the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972) (World Heritage Convention).

That convention was amended in 1992 to capture in its definition of ‘cultural heritage’ cultural landscapes, those being the ‘combined works of nature and man’. Such sites are described by the ‘Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention’ as reflections of the evolution of human society over time, as influenced by physical constraints, opportunities presented by the natural environment and social, economic and cultural forces.

What does World Heritage listing mean?

Listing confirms a site’s heritage value and its protection in accordance with the terms of the World Heritage Convention.

If the World Heritage Committee considers special measures are required to protect a World Heritage listed site, it may put that site on a separate list of World Heritage in danger. The inclusion of the Great Barrier Reef on the ‘in danger’ list is expected to be reconsidered next year, after previous decisions were made against its inclusion.

Development and commercial activities may occur within a World Heritage listed area, provided that there are no significant impacts on the area’s World Heritage values and/or other legal requirements, including with respect to environmental and cultural heritage, are satisfied.

Environmental legislation

Any cultural landscape on the World Heritage List will be a ‘declared World Heritage property’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act). Cultural landscapes may also be a ‘National Heritage place’ under the EPBC Act. Activities which will or are likely to have a significant impact on the world or national heritage values of such a site may require approval under that Act.

The EPBC Act also imposes obligations on the Commonwealth regarding plans for managing World Heritage listed sites and acting consistently with the World Heritage Convention and the Australian World Heritage management principles.

State and Territory environmental protection legislation can also regulate activities which may impact cultural landscapes to the extent those Acts apply to social and cultural environmental values.

Cultural heritage legislation

Different approaches and terminology are adopted in cultural heritage legislation across the Australian jurisdictions to define the heritage values to which those Acts apply and provide protection. They typically apply to sites, places, areas and/or objects of cultural significance.

The Victorian Act’s definition of an ‘Aboriginal place’ expressly includes a landscape that is of cultural heritage significance to Aboriginal persons. A number of other jurisdictions are considering reforms involving making similar expression provision for cultural landscapes.

In Western Australia, current reform proposals include aligning the definition of ‘place’ with the equivalent definition in the Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance, 2013 (Burra Charter) and associated explanatory materials, which includes cultural landscapes. The current definition of ‘place’ in the Western Australian Act may not have the necessary flexibility to capture all elements of a cultural landscape, with a landscape’s specific features requiring consideration on a case-by-case basis.

The proposed definition of ‘Aboriginal cultural heritage’ in the consultation draft for New South Wales’ Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2018 could also capture cultural landscapes. ‘Aboriginal cultural heritage’ is proposed to be defined as:

the living, traditional and historical practices, representations, expressions, beliefs, knowledge and skills (together with the associated environment, landscapes, places, objects, ancestral remains and materials) that Aboriginal people recognise as part of their cultural heritage and identity.

Other nominations

World Heritage listing based on cultural value is currently being pursued for the Aboriginal rock art collection at Murujuga, the Aboriginal name for the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia. More nominations of Aboriginal cultural sites may follow in the future.