ESACH Blog | Beyond engagement: community led World Heritage nominations of Indigenous sites in Australia

In the nomination of World Heritage Sites, engaging with communities, and in this case, Indigenous communities, has long been acknowledged as integral. As such, it has been strongly embedded into the Operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention and was added to the Strategic Objectives of UNESCO in 2007.

Written by: Shari Bone.

However, the engagement of communities is not, and should not be, the final objective and there is a small but growing movement towards going beyond this. Both my own and contemporary research are calling for the handing over of leadership to the communities, defined as people who live within, around, or have a strong interest in the site (Court & Wijesuriya 2015). When a site is inscribed by others and against the wishes of the people it impacts, there are a number of negative outcomes which can and have occurred. Advocating for the leadership of Indigenous peoples in the World Heritage nomination of their significant sites is one way to fight this, with the benefits, both at the local and global level, being manifold.

Figure 1: Murujuga Cultural Landscape, a site in the process of an Indigenous led World Heritage nomination. Source: Bone, personal image

Australian examples of Indigenous led World Heritage nominations

Budj Bim, in Victoria and Murujuga, in Western Australia, are just two of many heritage sites within Australia that hold immense value to the country’s oldest inhabitants. The former was successfully inscribed upon the World Heritage List in 2019 and the latter, is currently undertaking that same process, with the expectation for inscription in 2023. At each site, it is the traditional owners, the Gunditjmara and the Ngurra-Ngarli respectively, who have led the desire for and process of inscription. These case studies are representative of Indigenous led nominations in that the traditional owners have participated and have degrees of control in each section of the nomination dossier, along with the final word on whether or not to submit the document to the World Heritage Centre.

Through these examples, it is evident that the nomination of a World Heritage Site requires facilitation from outside actors, of which the reasons are numerous. World Heritage is a highly technical and increasingly complicated system, there is a lack of capacity to undertake the process independently and there are a plethora of actors which must be involved for reasons such as funding as well as complex systems of land ownership and governance.

Figure 2: Map illustrating location of two Australian case studies. Source: Bone, infographic created via canva.com

Internal & external benefits

World Heritage Listing carries a number of oft-cited benefits, yet these rarely trickle down to the local communities (Larsen 2017). It becomes evident that when governance is granted, the opportunity for a fair distribution of both internal and external benefits is possible, exemplified through the Australian case studies.

Externally, Indigenous led nominations can support sustainability at all levels, contributing to the long-term conservation of sites. Such nominations challenge perpetuating discourses around expert authority, intrinsic value and the legitimacy of particular forms of knowledge (Smith 2006). Ultimately, there is the opportunity to alter the World Heritage System in order for it to better align with the global diversity of knowledge systems and worldviews.

Internally, Indigenous led nominations result in the creation of respect and appreciation of Indigenous communities and the knowledge they hold, granting legitimacy to alternative knowledge systems and bridging the divide between western and traditional methods. In each of the case studies, the fight for World Heritage status greatly contributed to the recovering of land and custodial rights throughout the site (Brown 2021, Lindsay 2021). Significantly, this process towards World Heritage Nomination has resulted in a form of social cohesion among a diverse group of peoples at each site, coming together through a shared drive for international recognition and respect.

Figure 3: Budj Bim Cultural Landscape: a successful Indigenous led World Heritage Nomination. Source: Lovett-Murray 2017 via UNESCO, Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation

Future

A number of significant challenges remain, creating a barrier to the meaningful realisation of Indigenous leadership. Australia, and these selected case studies, present comparatively positive examples as the instances in which Indigenous rights are continuously being infringed upon are still being felt at both the national and global scale. While not an exhaustive list, it is clear that the benefits of moving beyond the engagement of Indigenous communities in World Heritage nominations, towards empowerment through leadership, is a fundamentally important step in the improvement of the World Heritage System, and one in which heritage practitioners can, and should, strive to facilitate.

About the author

Originally from Australia with a background in Archaeology and Anthropology, my Masters’ degree has brought me to Germany and Egypt to study ‘Heritage Conservation and Site Management’. Currently writing my thesis and working as an intern for ESACH, Europa Nostra and European Heritage Volunteers, I am passionate about working with people and making any small difference I can on the local level. 

References

  • Brown, Steve. Personal Interview. 6 January 2021. 
  • Court, Sarah, and Wijesuriya, Gamini. “People-Centred Approaches to the Conservation of Cultural Heritage: Living Heritage”. ICCROM Guidance Note, ICCROM, 2015. 
  • Larsen, Peter B., editor. World Heritage and Human Rights: Lessons from the Asia-Pacific and Global Arena. Oxon, Routledge, 2018. 
  • Lindsay, Jessica. Personal Interview. 5 February 2021.  
  • Smith, Laurajane. Uses of Heritage. London, Routledge, 2006. Zischka, Kathy & Razian, Hala. Keeping the Outstanding Exceptional: Snapshot Report on World Heritage Management, International Union for Convention of Nature-Australian Committee, 2012.
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