Aboriginal groups reject bill to protect cultural heritage in Western Australia mining state

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MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Indigenous Australians say a bill to protect cultural heritage in the mining state of Western Australia is flawed and should not be presented to parliament, as the state reviews laws that allowed Rio Tinto to destroy a 46,000-year-old rock shelter.

Five Indigenous groups on Thursday said they had not been properly consulted over the bill's revisions.

A national Indigenous group said if the bill was passed it would risk further damage to cultural heritage, citing the destruction of two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge by Rio in May 2020.

"If the bill continues in its current form, significant damage to Aboriginal heritage will absolutely occur and, as Juukan Gorge has proved, damage to Aboriginal heritage represents significant financial risk to miners and investors," National Native Title Council chairman Kado Muir in a statement.

The destruction of the rock shelters at Juukan, which showed evidence of continual human habitation before the last Ice Age, led to a leadership overhaul at the world's largest iron ore miner and a national inquiry.

Rio's action was legal and was approved by the state minister of Aboriginal affairs under a process that does not allow Aboriginal groups to appeal.

The Western Australian government has not made public the results of consultation over the bill, undertaken in five weeks last year, said WA Alliance member Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC).

"Members do not believe sufficient time was allowed in this current phase for Aboriginal people to fully engage on the bill and its impacts on their heritage," it said in a statement.

The Western Australian state minister for Aboriginal Affairs acknowledged current laws were inadequate to protect heritage. Drafting of the bill was ongoing and a summary of submissions and responses would be made available when it was finalised, the minister said.

Changes to the bill include allowing traditional owners to appeal decisions made by the minister where currently only proponents may lodge an appeal.

The Kimberly Land Council (KLC) called on the state government to recognise the right of Aboriginal people to protect their own cultural heritage and to protect the Martuwarra Fitzroy River.

They are concerned that state government water allocation plans will threaten culturally important sites and the local ecosystem.

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Michael Perry and Lincoln Feast.)

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