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Those who've cared the longest should have a strong say

By Leah Talbot - posted Wednesday, 12 September 2012

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has recently pledged the full support of the UN to promote the full implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He also called on UN member states and the mainstream media to create and maintain opportunities for Indigenous People to articulate their perspectives, priorities and aspirations.

In this context, it is important to recognise that Indigenous Australians have been occupying, managing and caring for this country, Australia, for well over 60,000 years. It is time Australia recognise the contribution of Indigenous cultural heritage to the Australian nation.

For Indigenous Australians the role of managing and protecting country, culture, language and traditions is intrinsically linked to customary lore and obligations as traditional custodians and owners of homeland estates. This link innately connects Indigenous people with country; it is core to their existence.


We as Australians need to realise the most effective protectors, conservationists, educators, interpreters of our outstanding Indigenous cultural heritage values are Aboriginal people themselves.

Historically, there have been limited processes for recognising and obtaining consent from the Indigenous Traditional Owners in developing World Heritage nominations. This has left many Indigenous Australians feeling disconcerted and empty.

Government engagement with Indigenous Australians in World Heritage declarations and nomination processes has a mixed history. At the moment a process for the possible World Heritage nomination of the Cape York Peninsula region is in its very early stages.

As Environment Minister Tony Burke made clear on his visit to Cairns last month to address a symposium on World Heritage, Commonwealth and State levels of government have committed to explore a potential world Heritage nomination for Cape York that must have consent from the Indigenous traditional owners.

If this nomination is successful it will be the first for Australia – and possibly the world – that can demonstrate proper good will and respect for Indigenous Peoples ownership and rights and responsibilities to their country.

It would also be the first example of a government supporting and respecting the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – principles such as the free and prior informed consent by the traditional owners.


It is the business of national governments to develop national policies for World Heritage conservation based on improved engagement approaches to include Indigenous peoples in their formal discussions and meetings of the world heritage committee.

In Australia we have the Australian World Heritage Indigenous Network (AWHIN), which is a network for Australian Indigenous peoples involved in world heritage properties. It is also a sub-group to the Australian World Heritage Advisory Committee (AHWAC).

The Australian and State and Territory governments need to commit to a more strategic and appropriate process that reflects the properly funded and respected inclusion of Australian Indigenous peoples in the process of developing national policies for World Heritage conservation.

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About the Author

Leah Talbot is Cape York Project Officer for the Australian Conservation Foundation. She is a Kuku Yalanji woman whose traditional country borders the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Areas.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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