World Heritage listing of Australian National Parks and recognition of First Peoples

It appears (see below) that the World Heritage Listing of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area proceeded without recognition of the First Peoples Cultural Values in this beautiful part of Australia.

I admit i am not familiar with the official situation in the Blue Mountains but i do know Koories are actively involved with the area at this time.

There is far more to the Blue Mountains than what modern Western minds regard as ‘nature’. The indigenous cultural dimensions are profound.

Anyone who has been to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains would know why the iconic Three Sisters are called by that name.

The Dreaming story of the Three Sisters comprises the spiritual heartland of the Blue Mountains. For this not to be recognised raises serious concerns about the World Heritage process.

The fact that Charles Darwin made a fleeting visit to Bathurst and crossed the Blue Mountains, for example, pales into complete insignificance compared with the eons of occupation of the Blue Mountains by Australia’s First Peoples.

The Dreaming Songlines of First Peoples – which cross this area – record a far richer aspect of our human heritage on this planet. These Songlines contain life’s accumulated wisdom, recorded in the best possible form – narratives, song, dance. These great life stories are mapped onto the country itself.

These dimensions of country have remained invisible, alas, to the uninformed eye which bushed aside First Peoples and their cultures in a great European land rush. Cattle have regularly trampled sacred sites underfoot in Australia since 1788.

When i visited the Three Sisters with senior Warumungu/Alyawarra lawmen in 1983 – returning from the High Court in Canberra where they were fighting for their land rights – they reminded me that they too had a Three Sisters Wirnkarra (Dreaming) site back in Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory, some thousands of kilometers distant.

European eyes have yet to learn to see this country through the eyes of that part of our human family which has had the closest and most intimate association with the land and life since – as they say – the beginning.

World heritage listing which does not include the values of Australia’s First Peoples simply cannot be taken seriously. It is outmoded and out-of-date.

There is far more to country than the mere landforms. Humanities story itself has been sung into the very features of the land.


There is also a campaign underway at the moment by the First National Park group of conservationists which seeks World Heritage listing for the Royal National Park and associated areas (“the Royal Reserves”) located between Sydney and Wollongong in New South Wales.

They seek World Heritage listing to gain recognition of the role of conservationists in establishing national parks. The Royal National Park was originally established as much for recreational purposes as conservation.

There is, i understand, a large number of indigenous art ‘tangible cultural heritage’ sites within the Royal National Park, as well as other sites of significance to indigenous peoples.

These have barely been mentioned – let alone comprehensively documented – by the book prepared by Dr Geoff Mosley for the First National Park campaign.

The title for his book is “The First National Park – A Natural For World Heritage” 2012 Sutherland Shire Environment Centre. (Well worth a read for the other conservationist aspects he covers in an expert manner.)

Issues of the living intangible cultural heritage in these ‘Royal Reserves” for contemporary First Peoples are also not really part of the First National Park campaign materials.

On the face of it, the campaign for World Heritage nomination for the “Royal Reserves” is shaping up to repeat the same mistake as that for the Greater Blue Mountains nomination.


It needs to be noted that things are very different in 2013 than when the Blue Mountains World Heritage nomination was made.

The NSW Constitution was amended in 2010 to provide a degree of recognition for “First people and nations”. It states, in part:

Constitution Act 1902.
2 Recognition of Aboriginal people
(1) Parliament, on behalf of the people of New South Wales, acknowledges and honours the Aboriginal people as the State’s first people and nations.
(2) Parliament, on behalf of the people of New South Wales, recognises that Aboriginal people, as the traditional custodians and occupants of the land in New South Wales:
(a) have a spiritual, social, cultural and economic relationship with their traditional lands and waters, and
(b) have made and continue to make a unique and lasting contribution to the identity of the State. (accessed 4 June 2013)

There is now the Federal Parliament’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Peoples Recognition Act of 2013 which states, in part:

3 Recognition
(1) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, recognises that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
(2) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters.
(3) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. (accessed 4 June 2013)

Australia has also signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights Of Indigenous Peoples. One of the many aspects relevant here includes:

Article 11
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.
2. States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spir- itual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.
Article 12
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and cer- emonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.

Article 13
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral tradi- tions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.
2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.

And much, much more of direct importance – both within Australian and internationally – in such matters. (accessed 4 June 2013)

There is now a lot of catching up to be done as we leave behind the bad old days of terra nullius, and adjust to true Australian realities.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn


Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Advisory Committee

Meeting report February 2013

“At the launch of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area in June 2001 at Govetts Leap, the then Federal Minister for the Environment, the Hon Senator Robert Hill, stated that the Australian Government would renominate the GBMWHA for the World Heritage List for its Indigenous cultural values at some time in the future, providing that there was enough evidence to indicate a likely listing by the World Heritage Committee. This reflected the decision by the World Heritage Committee, when it considered the nomination in November 2000, that there was not at that time enough evidence to support World Heritage listing for Indigenous cultural values.

Since then, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act has been amended to establish the National Heritage List. The GBMWHA and some adjacent lands are being assessed by the Australian Heritage Council for their potential National Heritage values, including Indigenous cultural values. The Council must provide its recommendation to the Minister on whether the GBMWHA should be listed for values additional to those for which it is already listed by the end of June 2015. The boundary of the place will be reviewed at the same time. Following the Minister’s decision on that recommendation, a decision will be made whether to seek the addition of the GBMWHA to the World Heritage Tentative List and to commence the preparation of a new nomination document.”