The Department of the Environment and Energy acknowledges the traditional owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community, including those places that are recognised as having Outstanding Universal Value. We pay our respects to them and their cultures and to their elders both past and present. This part of the web guide provides context, guidance and several important references for ensuring the engagement of Indigenous peoples in World Heritage, particularly in Australia.
The World Heritage List includes more than 1000 properties. More than 800 of these are cultural properties with predominantly historic values. Natural properties make up about one fifth of the World Heritage List and a small proportion (around 3%) is considered ‘mixed’, having met both natural and cultural criteria. Many of these mixed sites relate to peoples’ (including Indigenous peoples’) use of and connection with their environment, or cultural landscapes. The World Heritage Committee accepted World Heritage Cultural Landscapes as a category of sites for nomination in 1992.
The first inscription of a cultural landscape was Tongariro National Park (New Zealand) in 1993, closely followed by Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (Australia) in 1994.
Guidance from the World Heritage Advisory Bodies highlights the importance of conserving cultural heritage as places where social and cultural factors have been and continue to be important in shaping them, rather than as a series of monuments offering physical evidence of the past. The management of World Heritage properties operates within a broader landscape and cultural context and this is particularly so for cultural landscapes of importance to Indigenous peoples.
In 2009 UNESCO published a handbook entitled World Heritage Cultural Landscapes – A Handbook for Conservation and Management (World Heritage Paper No. 26). This handbook provides background and practical guidance on the World Heritage category of cultural landscapes.
The Operational Guidelines for implementing the World Heritage Convention are frequently updated and now call on States Parties to include greater consideration and involvement of Indigenous peoples in all phases of World Heritage practice, from Tentative listing and nomination through to management and monitoring of a listed property.
In particular, paragraph 123 of the Operational Guidelines says that “States Parties are encouraged to prepare nominations with the widest possible participation of stakeholders and to demonstrate, as appropriate, that the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples has been obtained, through, inter alia making the nominations publicly available in appropriate languages and public consultations and hearings”.
Indigenous heritage is a vital part of Australia’s heritage. With one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to have a deep reciprocal connection with the land and sea ‘Country’ of their ancestors.
Four of Australia’s 20 World Heritage properties have been included on the World Heritage List as mixed natural and cultural heritage properties: Kakadu National Park, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the Willandra Lakes Region and the Tasmanian Wilderness. Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is the first Australian place to be included on the World Heritage List exclusively for its outstanding Indigenous cultural heritage values.
Even where World Heritage properties have not been included on the World Heritage List for Indigenous cultural heritage values, Indigenous peoples’ deep reciprocal connection with the land and sea is acknowledged and respected in Australia. Traditional owners are involved in consultative mechanisms and ‘on Country’ management in many of Australia’s World Heritage properties.
The stated objects of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 or EPBC Act (Section 3(1)) place Indigenous peoples at the heart of national environment law:
The objects of this Act are:
- to provide for the protection of the environment, especially those aspects of the environment that are matters of national environmental significance; and
- to promote ecologically sustainable development through the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of natural resources; and
- to promote the conservation of biodiversity; and
- to provide for the protection and conservation of heritage; and
- to promote a co‑operative approach to the protection and management of the environment involving governments, the community, land‑holders and indigenous peoples; and
- to assist in the co‑operative implementation of Australia’s international environmental responsibilities; and
- to recognise the role of indigenous peoples in the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of Australia’s biodiversity; and
- to promote the use of indigenous peoples’ knowledge of biodiversity with the involvement of, and in co‑operation with, the owners of the knowledge.
All Australian World Heritage properties are matters of national environmental significance protected under this law and the role of Indigenous peoples in the cooperative management of these places is promoted.
The World Heritage Management Principles in Schedule 5 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Regulations 2000 also prescribe the involvement of peoples with a particular interest in and affected by a World Heritage property in its management and decisions and actions relating to it, with specific reference to Indigenous peoples.
Australia’s National Heritage List comprises natural and cultural places of outstanding heritage value to Australia. Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act), National Heritage values have the same degree of protection as World Heritage values.
All existing World Heritage properties in Australia are also on Australia’s National Heritage List and may have additional National Heritage values. For example, on 9 November 2012 the Australian Government recognised the national Indigenous heritage values as part of the existing National Heritage listing for the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
Like the Wet Tropics of Queensland, World Heritage properties listed for natural or historic cultural values may be subject to Native Title claims or include Indigenous values recognised in the National Heritage List or State, Territory or local government heritage lists. In such cases, management plans must address management of listed values but can also include appropriate management guidance for additional values and policies and protocols for the involvement of Indigenous peoples.
Australia’s National Heritage List includes many places with listed Indigenous heritage values, and the first place included on the List was the Indigenous cultural landscape of Budj Bim. In January 2017 Budj Bim Cultural Landscape was included on Australia’s World Heritage Tentative List, , and it was included on the World Heritage List in July 2019.
Wet Tropics – National Heritage listed for Indigenous heritage values
The Aboriginal Rainforest Peoples of the Wet Tropics of Queensland have lived continuously in the rainforest environment for at least 5 000 years and this is the only place in Australia where Aboriginal peoples have permanently inhabited a tropical rainforest environment. The Aboriginal Rainforest Peoples developed a distinctive cultural heritage determined by their dreamtime and creation stories and their traditional food gathering, processing and land management techniques. Reliance on their traditions helped them survive in this at times inhospitable environment. The distinctiveness of the traditions and technical innovation and expertise needed to process and prepare toxic plants as food and their uses of fire is of outstanding heritage value to the nation and are now protected for future generations under national environmental law.
Best Practice – Joint Management & other legal agreements
The Australian Government considers that free, prior and informed consent is essential for best practice consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people(s). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the primary source of information on the value of their heritage and the Australian Government’s best practice approach includes:
- identifying and acknowledging all relevant affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people(s) and communities
- committing to early engagement
- setting appropriate timeframes for consultation
- demonstrating cultural awareness
- building trust through early and ongoing communication for the duration of a project, including approvals, implementation and future management.
The EPBC Act recognises that Indigenous peoples play an important role in the conservation and sustainable use of Australia’s natural environment. It also recognises the importance of a co-operative approach between the Government, community, landholders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait people. More information about the Australian Government’s approach to consultation is included in Engage early – guidance for proponents on best practice Indigenous engagement for environmental assessments under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a mixed cultural and natural World Heritage property and is managed jointly by the Director of National Parks and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management. The Director is assisted by Parks Australia, a division of the Australian Government's Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, in carrying out these management responsibilities. On 26 October 1985, the Governor-General presented the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park title deeds back to the Traditional owners. In return the Traditional owners leased the lands back to the Australian Government through the Director of National Parks for 99 years. Since hand-back, Traditional owners and Parks Australia staff have worked together to manage the park. This process of working together has come to be known as 'joint management'.
All management policy and programs at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park aim to:
- maintain traditional culture and heritage
- conserve and protect the integrity of the ecological systems in and around the park
- provide for visitor enjoyment and learning opportunities within the park.
Tjukurpa, traditional law, knowledge and religious philosophy, guides everything that happens in the park - as it has done for thousands of years. This concept is expressed on the cover of the Plan of Management by the words:
'Tjukurpa Katutja Ngarantja' or Tjukurpa above all else
Kakadu is also a mixed cultural and natural World Heritage property. Generations of Bininj Mungguy have lived on and cared for this country for tens of thousands of years. Sharing and looking after country have always been a part of the Kakadu story.
Kakadu National Park remains well protected by a board of management, which has an Aboriginal majority representing the traditional owners. This arrangement showcases to the world how 'joint management' can combine ancient culture and modern practice. A management plan for Kakadu was released in 2016 and is available to download.
An Indigenous Land Use Agreement or ILUA is a negotiated agreement between native title groups and other parties (such as governments, pastoralists and mining companies) about the use and management of land and waters, even if these areas are not heritage listed or the Indigenous values are not part of a heritage listing.
ILUAs may cover many different things such as the conditions upon which activities affecting native title may be carried out, arrangements for cultural heritage inspections and the avoidance of damage to cultural heritage, compensation to native title holders for the loss of native title rights, the way in which the exercise of native title rights may be carried out, protocols for future negotiations and many other things.
The Wet Tropics Regional Agreement (2005) was the first agreement of its kind in Australia, and provides for the cooperative management of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area by the 18 Rainforest Aboriginal peoples associated with the Area, and the Australian and Queensland governments.
The main achievements of the Rainforest Aboriginal Agreement have been:
- Increased participation in decision making through structural arrangements, such as the inclusion of a second Rainforest Aboriginal person on the Board and progression of a rights-based approach. In 2006, the Queensland Government made legislative changes to ensure that at least two of the seven Directors of the Board must be Aboriginal people from the Wet Tropics.
- Recognition of the cultural values of the Wet Tropics through support to list the World Heritage Area for its cultural values on the National Heritage List (achieved in 2012) and potentially the World Heritage List (to complement its current World Heritage listing for natural values).
- Participation in policy, planning, permitting and management through a set of principles, guidelines and very detailed protocols which outline appropriate ways to engage and involve Rainforest Aboriginal people in World Heritage management.
Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreements or TUMRAs describe how traditional owner groups work in partnership with others, such as governments, to manage traditional use activities on their sea country. Each agreement operates for a set time after which it is renegotiated.
A TUMRA may describe how Traditional owner groups wish to manage their take of natural resources (including protected species), their role in compliance and monitoring the condition of plants and animals as well as human activities. An implementation plan for a TUMRA may describe ways to educate the public about traditional connections to sea country areas, and ways to educate other members of a Traditional owner group about the conditions of the agreement.
An example of this is on the Great Barrier Reef where formal agreements are developed by Traditional owner groups and accredited by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Government.
Non-statutory recognition of Indigenous peoples’s responsibility to care for Country can also be achieved by involving relevant Indigenous peoples in managing and making decisions for that Country.
As set out in the EPBC Regulations, managers of all heritage places including World Heritage properties are encouraged to develop policies and protocols for ongoing involvement of Indigenous peoples. Such policies may include Indigenous employment strategies, reconciliation action plans and Indigenous representation on boards of management and advisory committees.
As an example, the Sydney Opera House’s Reconciliation Action Plan commits to a range of actions and initiatives that aim to safeguard these traditions and adapting cultures for future generations. For thousands of years, Tubowgule, the land on which the World Heritage listed Sydney Opera House stands, has been a place of gathering and belonging. The Gadigal would meet on the tidal island, eat and share stories. The Sydney Opera House carries on this legacy by embracing and celebrating the culture of Australia’s First Peoples.
Best Practice - acknowledging Country
Regardless of whether a place is listed for Indigenous cultural values, an Acknowledgement of Country is a public statement that recognises the continuing connection of Indigenous peoples to their Country and pays respect to the traditional owners of the land on which an event is held. It can be delivered by anyone, anywhere, and is appropriate for all World Heritage properties in Australia.
In Australia, it is best practice for organisers of events to arrange a Welcome to Country for major events, ceremonies, gatherings or meetings particularly those involving peoples from different areas.
A Welcome to Country is a ceremony performed by the traditional owners of the land, Elders, or senior representatives of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community to welcome guests onto their country.
It is also best practice for speakers to acknowledge the traditional owners at all major meetings. At the start of the meeting, the chair or speaker begins by acknowledging that the meeting is taking place on the country of the traditional owners.
There is no single ‘correct’ way to provide an Acknowledgement of Country and the speaker is encouraged to tailor the acknowledgement to the location and event. When delivering an Acknowledgement of Country it is best practice to use the name of the Indigenous land and/or the name of the local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples where the event is being held.
If you are unable to gather this information, a general acknowledgement may be delivered mentioning respect for the Traditional owners, Elders past and present and other Indigenous peoples in attendance.
Commonly used Acknowledgement of Country for Canberra.
“I/We wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples.
I/We wish to acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. I/We would also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who may be attending today’s event.”
Commonly used Acknowledgement of Country in generic publications or communication material.
“The [organisation name] acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to them and their cultures and to their elders both past and present.”
Publications and resources:
- Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) This page provides information about the Australian Government’s central piece of environmental legislation. It provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places — defined in the EPBC Act as matters of national environmental significance.
- Engage early – guidance for proponents on best practice Indigenous engagement for environmental assessments under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) These guidelines aim to improve how proponents engage and consult Indigenous peoples during the environmental assessment process under the EPBC Act. The guidelines provide guidance to project proponents on when Indigenous communities should be consulted (in addition to the statutory public comment periods required under Part 8 of the EPBC Act), and set out the Department of the Environment’s (the Department) expectations on how Indigenous engagement should occur.
- Dhawura Ngilan: A vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage in Australia and the Best Practice Standards in Indigenous cultural heritage management and legislation On 16 September 2020, the Heritage Chairs of Australia and New Zealand welcomed and supported Dhawura Ngilan: A vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage in Australia and the Best Practice Standards in Indigenous cultural heritage management and legislation. Developed by and presented to the meeting by the Chairs of Australia’s national, state and territory Indigenous heritage bodies, these two documents provide a roadmap for improving approaches to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage management in Australia. Both documents are the product of extensive consultation with Indigenous stakeholders and relevant peak advisory bodies.
- Indigenous Affairs The Native Title Tribunal website has a range of relevant resources that World Heritage property managers may also find useful.
- Native Title Tribunal UNESCO, ICCROM, ICOMOS and IUCN (2013) Free online resource manual for Managing Cultural World Heritage
- Managing Cultural World Heritage Manual for all those involved in the care of World Heritage cultural properties on how to comply with the requirements of the World Heritage Convention.