'Aboriginal Heritage Act' changes give traditional owners less say: First Nations groups

Nicola Gage ABC News 10 March 2016 (edited)

Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands
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Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Elders

Kelly Barnes Source: The Australian

Proposed changes to South Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Act will reduce powers of traditional owners, according to Indigenous groups.

Key points:

▪ SA Parliament proposes changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act
▪ Aboriginal groups say they have not been consulted
▪ Government says changes will not affect traditional owners' protection
▪ Amendments to the act were introduced to Parliament a fortnight ago and today passed the Legislative Council.
PS: At least one of the sites the South Australian Government's is shortlisted for a Nuclear Waste Dump near a Cultural Heritage site

South Australian Native Title Services chief executive officer Keith Thomas believed amended language in the act would give traditional owners less say over their heritage.

"This is going to help people who want to access lands and destroy heritage, rather than improving the protection of Aboriginal heritage," he said.

There are tens of thousands of sacred Indigenous sites across South Australia, from ancient song lines and springs to burial grounds.

The act is in place to protect them from different activities, including mining operations.

Mr Thomas said the proposed changes would make it harder to prosecute companies if they had disturbed a site without approval.

"At the moment they're very concerning, because it's diluting Aboriginal rights, whereas the Aboriginal Heritage Act should be strengthening Aboriginal rights to protect their heritage," he said.

Keith Thomas and Karina Lester
Worried that heritage sites are at risk.
(ABC News: Nicola Gage)

Mr Thomas said the changes would also remove clause 6-2 in the act, which stipulates the minister must delegate his or her powers to the traditional owners of a site.

Aboriginal groups from Lake Torrens have been trying to use that clause over recent years to stop a mining operation from going ahead.

"I think the amendments are being rushed through for some reason," he said.

"It means that the minister doesn't have to delegate his powers and it paves the way for the miners to come back and have another go."

Some Aboriginal groups said they had not been properly consulted over the amendments.

Traditional owner Karina Lester grew up on South Australia's Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands and did not know the bill was in Parliament.

"That was quite concerning for us as native title [holders] because we hadn't been informed," she said.

"Therefore, we didn't know what changes were being proposed."

This waterhole is considered a sacred site to Aboriginal people of the Flinders Ranges. It is near where a nuclear waste dump would be built, if the Flinders Ranges is chosen as the site.

(ABC News: Nicola Gage)

Aboriginal groups have been consulted: State Government

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher said the proposed amendments would not change the level of protection traditional owners currently had over their heritage.

"The level of protection that's been provided by nearly 30 years of the Aboriginal Heritage Act will remain," he said.

"We're not taking away any level of protection."

Mr Maher rejected claims Indigenous groups had not been consulted over proposed changes.

"Possible changes to the act have been consulted with for almost a decade now and one thing has been consistent, Aboriginal people want to be at the forefront of protecting their heritage," Mr Maher said.

"I regularly meet with many groups from around South Australia and have regular meetings with South Australian Native Title Services.

"I will continue to talk to them about any concerns that they have."

The amendments will be introduced into the Lower House during the next sitting week.