'Flying blind': Researchers call for national database of Indigenous sites

According to a new study, groups undertaking land use and development planning are in the dark when it comes to information about significant Indigenous sites.

Indigenous shell middens behind the sand dunes at Stephens Bay in Tasmania's Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Indigenous shell middens behind the sand dunes at Stephens Bay in Tasmania's Wilderness World Heritage Area. Source: AAP

Researchers have called for the development of a national database of historical and culturally significant Indigenous sites after findings that the lack of an up-to-date, national record has led to issues with the management of sites, including an inability to engage with threats such as climate change.

The research from the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University, which was presented at a symposium on Tuesday, found that a national database was “urgently needed”.

“They are talking about there being incremental pressure on Indigenous places and I realised since we don’t have the Australian Heritage Commission [a federal government authority tasked with managing natural and cultural heritage in Australia] anymore with all sorts of experts and funding … it’s very difficult to follow up nationally what is going on,” researcher Professor Hilary du Cros told SBS News.

The research described a “lack of clarity” when it came to the role of the Commonwealth and states and territories, leading to an overlap of regulatory coverage and, on the other end of the spectrum, situations where sites do not receive adequate protection due to confusion over who was responsible for them.

The excavation site at the Madjedbebe rock shelter in the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.
Source: AAP

Since 2003, the cataloguing of historical and cultural Indigenous sites has fallen largely to the states and territories while some still fall under one of two federal departments; Indigenous Affairs under the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which handles Australia's 75 Indigenous Protection Areas (IPA) and the Department of Environment and Energy, which is responsible for World Heritage, National and Commonwealth Heritage Lists.

According to Professor du Cros, it is unclear if these groups liaise with each other.

The research also pointed out that for sites covered by the federal government there is a lack of technical heritage expertise due to the “broad remit of their work”.

“The lack of a comprehensive national register backed by an adequate database also places us in a difficult position with the international community. For example, we are currently unable to measure our national management practices against international benchmarks or the effects of climate change on our Indigenous heritage places,” Professor du Cros said.

“The risk is they could be making decisions on things without being fully informed.”

According to one person interviewed for the research, 80 per cent of coastal shell middens - sites where debris from eating shellfish has accumulated over time - in Australia could be destroyed by rising sea levels and storm surges in the next 20 years.

Dr Raymond Kelly, deputy head of the Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Centre at the University of Newcastle said a national body would encourage conversation around protecting Australia's cultural heritage.

"There are major things happening in the cultural heritage area in this country, that unfortunately we just put out of our mind and say ok, well it’s somebody else's business," he said, citing the water crisis in western NSW.

"That is one of the downfalls of the loss of the national body, is that people do tend to bunker down into their states and territories and we are really not talking about the major issues across the nation."

But not all Indigenous people are on board with the idea of a national database. CEO of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council Nathan Moran said there is "a lot of trepidation" about listing the sites publically.

"Yes, we want to record and ensure that we are aware of our cultural knowledges and they are maintained, but it’s not the purpose that we foresee a database as doing.  We foresee a database as more about development, government interest, industry interest and non-Aboriginal interest."

Professor du Cros added that groups, including councils, undertaking land use and development planning are “flying blind” when it comes to Indigenous sites.

She said getting a central database back together would be the first step in combating this.

The Minister of the Environment's office has been contacted for comment.

Published 20 February 2019 at 4:39pm, updated 20 February 2019 at 6:22pm
By Maani Truu