Press Release

Tuesday, 07 July [Download the Press Release]

Landscape architects call for the protection of cultural heritage

The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Custodians of Australia, and as the world’s oldest continuing cultures. 

It is with this acknowledgement that AILA joins with the national and international community to respond to the destruction of Aboriginal heritage on the lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Peoples in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

In late May, a site known as Juukan Gorge was destroyed to allow for the expansion of a Rio Tinto mine. This site, of immeasurable cultural and spiritual significance, included two ancient rock shelters and evidence of over 46,000 years of continuous heritage.1 

In 2013, Rio Tinto was granted a Section 18 approval by the former Barnett Government for the destruction of the Juukan Gorge site. This authorisation remained in place even after ancient relics, some of the oldest in Western Australia, were discovered in rock shelters on the site the following year.2

In destroying the Juukan Gorge site, Rio Tinto was operating legally under a Western Australian heritage law that was drafted in the 1970s. Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) allows landowners and companies with mining or resource extraction rights to apply to damage, disturb or destroy an Aboriginal heritage site. In essence, Section 18 gives power to destroy, rather than to protect.3

Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee Chair, John Ashburton, said in a statement that there are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one. 

“We know from archaeological studies that it is one of the earliest occupied locations not only on the western Hamersley Plateau, but also in the Pilbara and nationally. Its importance cannot be underestimated,” said Mr Ashburton.4

AILA National President Shaun Walsh says that the devastating destruction of Jukaan Gorge is just one instance of continued heritage vandalism in Western Australia. 

“Under current laws, many more sites of cultural heritage are under threat, or have already disappeared,” says Walsh.

AILA supports a complete review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, under the guidance of Traditional Owners and other cultural heritage experts.

1  Michelle Stanley and Kelly Gudgeon, “Pilbara mining blast confirmed to have destroyed 46,000 yo sites of ‘staggering’ significance,” ABC Pilbara, May 26, 2020.
2  Rebecca Turner, “Juukan Gorge won’t be the last priceless record of human history to be legally destroyed by mining,” ABC News, June 11, 2020.
3  ibid.
Hannah Cross, “Traditional Owners distraught after destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters,” National Indigenous Times, May 28, 2020.
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About AILA:
The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) is the peak national body for Landscape Architecture. AILA champions quality design for public open spaces, stronger communities and greater environmental stewardship. We provide our members with training, recognition and a community of practice to share knowledge, ideas and action. 

With our members, we anticipate and develop a leading position on issues of concern in landscape architecture. Within and alongside government and allied professions, we work to improve the design, planning and management of the natural and built environment. 

In operation since 1966, AILA represents over 3,500 landscape architects and promotes excellence in planning and designing for life outdoors. Committed to designing and creating better spaces in Australia, landscape architects have the skills and expertise to improve the nation’s liveability through a unique approach to planning issues via innovative integrated solutions. In doing so, landscape architects contribute towards better environmental, social and economic outcomes for all Australians.

For media enquiries, please contact:
Ben Stockwin, AILA CEO
Mobile: 0427 931 148