Australian Aboriginal opposition mounts to new state heritage laws

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Opposition is mounting from Australian Indigenous groups to draft Western Australian heritage legislation as groups say there is little change to regulations that allowed Rio Tinto to destroy culturally and historically important caves last year.

Rio's destruction of the 46,000 year old Juukan Gorge rock shelters led to a leadership overhaul and a national inquiry into how heritage of the world's oldest living continuous culture is managed.

The Aboriginal Heritage Action Alliance (AHAA), which represents the state's senior traditional owners, wrote to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson last week to express their legal and cultural concerns over the draft bill, which is set to be introduced in the state parliament later this year, it said.

Western Australia has been redrafting its 50-year-old heritage laws which give the state Aboriginal Affairs minister the ultimate say in whether miners can destroy heritage sites in a process that does not allow traditional owner groups to object.

"The bill does not represent ‘best practice’ in the field of cultural heritage management or protection by any form or measure," the AHAA said in a statement.

"The bill affords the minister unfettered and unsupervised power to make decisions in respect of cultural heritage and that ... this contravenes both the objects of the bill and the terms of UNDRIP."

UNDRIP is the United Nations regulation on the rights of Indigenous people. The minister's office had no immediate comment.

The group called on the minister to withdraw the bill and start mediation with traditional owners to design best practice reform.

"The terms and operations of the bill amount to and will result in large-scale interference, damage and destruction of areas of cultural heritage for which we, the holders of this cultural heritage, give no consent, nor, under the terms and operations of this bill, have the ability to stop."

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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