• Siblings and Traditional Owners Steve and Dolly Talbot are part of a group demanding changes for stronger Indigenous heritage protection laws. (Supplied: Sarah Collard)Source: Supplied: Sarah Collard
As Indigenous cultural heritage is being destroyed "across the country", Traditional Owners are demanding tougher legal protections to safeguard their sacred sites.
Sarah Collard

25 Mar 2021 - 3:21 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2021 - 8:46 AM

First Nations people have travelled to Parliament House to demand a federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Act to give stronger protections to culturally and historically significant sites across the country. 

Traditional Custodians from Gomeroi, Wiradjuri, Garrwa and Yunyuwa Countries, along with advocacy group Get Up, are calling on the federal government to protect sacred Indigenous sites and heritage. 

The legal destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge in WA's Pilbara region by mining giant Rio Tinto last year has spotlighted weak and ineffective heritage protection acts across the country. 

Gomeroi Traditional Owners and siblings Steve and Dolly Talbott are fighting to save their Country, currently threatened by the Chinese Shenhua group's Watermark coal mine near Gunnedah.

The mine has been conditionally approved by federal and NSW governments but works are yet to begin.

Dolly Talbott said heritage protection is failing Indigenous peoples. 

'It is happening on hundreds of sites right across the country'

In a bid to protect their land in NSW’s Liverpool Plains against a proposed coal mine, Steve Talbott and his sister Veronica ‘Dolly’ Talbott sued the federal government.

The suit was unsuccessful. 

"I feel like we got a kick in the guts"  Steve Talbott told NITV News.

The Gomeroi man said too many irreplaceable sites across the country are at risk of devastation, and that First Nations people need to have more control over activities on their lands. 

"They shouldn't be able to make a decision without the endorsement of Traditional Owners and Native Title claimants from those areas," he said. 

Dolly Talbot is calling for stronger national laws to protect Indigenous sites across the country, including her traditional lands in New South Wales Gunnedah region. 

"We have all these government departments and none of them are on the same page," she told NITV News. 

"The next decision that's made overrides the decision before that — so nothing actually gets saved at all."

Labor and Greens parliamentarians and advocacy group Get Up are supporting the Traditional Owners' calls to safeguard Indigenous sites. 

Get Up First Nations Justice Campaign Director Larissa Baldwin said sites of cultural and historical significance are being lost or damaged nationally. 

'What is being destroyed, right across this country, it's not just in WA, it's not just the Juukan Gorge caves; it is happening on hundreds of sites right across the country

"As the oldest continuing culture in the world, we set the standard globally around how to protect Country. We want to see, in legislation, real protection," Ms Baldwin said. 

She said there needs to be a multi-pronged approach to ensure cultural sites are protected, including fines and deterrents for companies and individuals that breach cultural heritage standards. 

Greens senator Lidia Thorpe said economic benefits must be carefully balanced with cultural protection and heritage laws. 

"We want economic development. We want economic empowerment. We're not against mining altogether," the federal Greens MP said.

"We're not going to economically develop by destroying our own land and water. It's breaking our own law. Let's get the balance right," Ms Thorpe said. 

The Talbotts have met with the Labor shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, but have yet to have a meeting with either the federal Environment Minister or the Minister for Indigenous Australians. 

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