About First Nations heritage
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage is central in Australia's national heritage, which all Australians should be proud of.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is the oldest continuing culture in the world.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have passed down their culture to their next generations for the past 65,000 years, and they will continue to do so for future generations. This is demonstrated in ongoing cultural connections to their countries, as well as by archaeological evidence of human occupation dated to be over 65,000 years old.
First Nations’ heritage must be protected for generations to come. This will allow all Australians to recognise, experience and appreciate this unique and important part of Australia’s heritage identity.
Protecting First Nations heritage places
The Australian Governments has a range of laws to protect First Nations' heritage.
Under Environmental law, these include:
- the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)
- the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act)
- the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986.
Find out more about Indigenous cultural heritage laws
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 enables the Australian Government to protect important Indigenous areas and objects under immediate threat, if it appears that state or territory laws have not provided effective protection.
The government can make special orders, called declarations, to protect traditional areas and objects of particular significance to First Nations Australians from threats of injury or desecration.
The government cannot make a declaration unless an Indigenous person (or a person representing an Indigenous person) has requested it.
The power to make declarations is a last resort, after the relevant processes of the state or territory have been exhausted.
Learn how to make an application under the ATSIHP Act at the ATSIHP Act guidelines and application form.
Under the EPBC Act, there are penalties for anyone who takes an action that has or will have a significant impact on the national heritage values of a place.
The Indigenous Advisory Committee advises the Minister on the operation of the EPBC Act, who takes their knowledge of the land, conservation and understanding of biodiversity into account when making decisions related to the Act.
Australia's state and territory governments have broad responsibilities for recognising and protecting Australia's Indigenous heritage, including archaeological sites.
Find out more about the different types of protection under state and territory laws.
Partnering to protect First Nations cultural heritage
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage is central to Australia’s national identity.
Despite this, First Nations cultural heritage sites are frequently damaged, disturbed and displaced.
In partnership with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, the Australian Government is working to reform and strengthen our First Nations cultural heritage protections. In 2021, the former Minister for the Environment joined with Traditional Owners to sign an agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance to reform protections that preserve our cultural treasures for future generations. In 2022, the Minister for the Environment and Water extended and expanded our Partnership Agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, to work in a genuine co-design partnership with the Alliance and communities to reform our cultural heritage laws.
Partnership Agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance (PDF 1.2 MB)
Partnership Agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance (DOCX 81 KB)
If you have difficulty accessing these files, visit web accessibility for assistance.
The First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance is made up of:
- Aboriginal Land Councils
- Native Title Representative Bodies
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Organisations from across Australia.
Our co-design Partnership Agreement with the Alliance will consider policy transformation, law reform and administrative improvement. It will also consider the review and restructure of process, procedure and protocols for First Nations cultural heritage protections.
The co-design partnership has already commenced its reform work with a national engagement process with First Nations peoples, industries, state and territory governments and the broader community.
Stage 1 of the engagement process concluded in June 2022.
An Options Paper which outlines potential options as well as a Directions Report summarising findings has been publicly released:
- Options Paper - First Nation Cultural Heritage Reform (PDF 685 KB)
- Options Paper - First Nation Cultural Heritage Reform (DOCX 312 KB)
- Directions Report - First Nation Cultural Heritage Reform (PDF 468 KB)
- Directions Report - First Nation Cultural Heritage Reform (DOCX 143 KB)
Stage 2 engagements will run until March 2023. Stage 2 will test and explore options for reform with stakeholders at the regional level, to identify a preferred option for government’s consideration.
Other important information about this work, which was used to inform Stage 1 engagements is available here:
- 2021 Partnership Agreement to modernise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage protections (PDF 319 KB)
- Implementation Plan (PDF 250 KB)
- Implementation Plan (DOCX 184 KB)
- Terms of Reference and associated documents (PDF 273 KB)
- Terms of Reference and associated documents (DOCX 154 KB)
- Discussion Paper that will guide consultations as part of the national engagement process (PDF 426 KB)
- Discussion Paper that will guide consultations as part of the national engagement process (DOCX 175 KB)
Identifying First Nations heritage places
The EPBC Act establishes the National Heritage List. The list includes natural, Indigenous and historic places that are of outstanding heritage value to the nation.
The EPBC Act also establishes the Commonwealth Heritage List. It includes natural, Indigenous and historic places on Commonwealth lands and waters or under Australian Government control and identified by the Minister as having Commonwealth Heritage values.
The Australian Heritage Council is the Australian Government's expert advisory body on heritage matters.
The council includes Indigenous experts, who must be Indigenous people with appropriate heritage experience or expertise. They represent the interests of Indigenous people on the council.
- Find out about the National Heritage List
- Find out about the Commonwealth Heritage List
Seeking First Nations peoples' views on listings
When a place is nominated for inclusion in the National or Commonwealth Heritage lists and the Australian Heritage Council considers it may have Indigenous heritage values, the council must endeavour to identify the Indigenous people with rights and interests in the place.
The council must then seek feedback from First Nations Australians on whether the place should be included on the list.
The Minister considers all feedback when making a decision about listing the place.
Managing First Nations heritage places
Indigenous Australians are involved in developing management plans for places with Indigenous heritage significance on the National or Commonwealth Heritage lists.
National heritage places on Indigenous land can be managed through conservation agreements. These agreements operate in the same way as Indigenous Protected Areas.
Where the Minister considers that the heritage values of a place in the National or Commonwealth Heritage Lists could be significantly damaged by the disclosure of some information, the Minister may decide to make publicly available only a general description of the place, its location or its national heritage values.