Protecting Indigenous sites of significance or sacrality has become both an urgent and contentious dilemma in recent times. The destruction of the Kooyang stone arrangement at Lake Bolac is just the most immediate incident in a long litany of disputes over the protection of sites of cultural magnitude, including the Jukaan caves in Western Australia, the Djab Wurrung sacred trees between Buangor and Ararat in Victoria, and the Gulgurn Manja Aboriginal rock art site at the Grampians-Gariwerd.
For generations many farmers in Australian chose one of two paths when they encountered Indigenous sites: either they quietly acknowledged their existence and preserved them, or they destroyed them. Either way, there was little legislative protection offered to Indigenous cultural heritage - and what there is now is still ineffective, says Larrisa Baldwin, First Nations Justice Campaign director for Get Up.
Ms Baldwin is a Widjabul Wia-Bal woman from the Bundjalung Nations, a passionate advocate in addressing the social justice issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Our oral histories are recorded in song lines and in stories and in landscapes which are incredibly important to our culture. And so when that is disrupted and when that is destroyed, you are destroying part of our culture.Larissa Baldwin
She says it's important to recognise the need to compensate Indigenous people for their loss when a site is destroyed or desecrated, and that fines, which go to government and not to the traditional owners, cannot restore a ruined heritage.
"Destroying a cultural heritage sites that is thousands of years old, the fines are a slap on the wrist; maybe there's a fine, but it doesn't go to the community," Ms Baldwin says.
"So the community should be compensated, but to just talk about compensation doesn't go to the actual trauma this causes to community in terms of losing something. We are a place-based people. Our place on country, our boundaries, makes us unique as to any other Indigenous people in the world.
"Our oral histories are recorded in song lines and in stories and in landscapes which are incredibly important to our culture. And so when that is disrupted and when that is destroyed, you are destroying part of our culture."
Ms Baldwin says the loss of historical sites like the Gomeroi grinding grooves in northern NSW, threatened by the Shenhua Watermark mine, or the Kooyang stone arrangement, is the same as destroying a war memorial.
"I think there's a need for people to understand there is no legislation at a state territory or federal level that can protect Aboriginal cultural heritage. And I think what really brought it to light is seeing the disaster over in the Juukan caves, and also what's happening with the Djab Wurrung directions trees being cut down," Ms Baldwin said.
"I'm someone who absolutely supports a treaty. But these things, treaties and negotiating their process, it's going to take years to happen. In the meantime, I think there's legislation we can change. When we talk about cultural heritage legislation, what we're actually talking about is the same thing people have been asking for for nearly 50 years, the new kind of modern land rights movement, which is the right to veto and the right to say something is important, and you can't destroy it, and we're going to protect that under legislation.
"That's the right that people want acknowledged and have been asking for, for decades for cultural and sacred sites. That includes things like having a list of registered sites. It's about having bodies of commissioners that come together, that are full of Aboriginal people who understand what cultural heritage is, and are not full of anthropologists from museums who get to make decisions about our cultural heritage and what's important.
"So these are types of things we can have under legislation. Right now, at a state and territory and federal level, a lot of these decisions are left up to the ministerial decision. In New South Wales, over 700 applications have been made by Aboriginal communities to protect cultural heritage, to issue stop-work orders. Only five of those have been stopped. That shows, in just over 10 years, the complete disparity in power.
"More than a treaty, the thing that excites me about Victoria is the process of truth telling, talking about what's actually happened since colonisation in 1788, but also what's happening in the present day, in 2021. These sites are being destroyed, and it's having an impact on our community. So a truth-telling process is really important for our community to talk about how we are experiencing these things. but it must be followed up with legislation, whether that's a treaty, and service agreements and legislation change.
It all needs to continue to happen, but I do have hope for the fact that now is becoming a story; that people are starting to turn on or listen to things like this destruction and are saying, 'Hey, that shouldn't be happening, it's not right."
If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat's story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.