Investors and Aborignal groups cast doubt on heritage protection law
A number of investor groups sided with Indigenous groups in Western Australia in rejecting legislation aimed at protecting Aboriginal heritage sites, saying the bill appears to fall short of international expectations.
Reuters reported that the long-awaited bill revamp of heritage protection laws was unveiled on Oct. 17 but the final say over development decisions remained with a government minister, drawing criticism from Aboriginal groups.
Indigenous heritage protection has become a hot button issue globally following the destruction of culturally significant rock shelters during the expansion of an iron ore mine 18 months ago, sparking public outrage.
Australian pension fund HESTA, the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI), Regnan, the advisor to fund manager Pendal, and UK-based investment company abrdn pointed to opposition to the bill by traditional owners.
"There is emerging consensus among representatives of First Nations peoples and the Responsible Investment industry that this version of the Western Australia bill sets the bar below international standards," said Mary Delahunty, Head of Impact at HESTA.
Rock shelters that Rio Tinto destroyed at Juukan Gorge showed evidence of human habitation stretching back 46,000 years into the last Ice Age.
“Since Juukan Gorge drew their attention, global investors who are increasingly sensitive to such issues will be looking for whether Western Australia's response properly prioritizes human rights in cultural heritage,” Regnan head of advisory Susheela Peres da Cosa said in a statement.
“This bill is unlikely to meet their expectations.”
The state premier's department said it will focus on reaching agreement with Aboriginal groups and on obtaining full, prior and informed consent for development.
An Australian inquiry into the Juukan Gorge destruction recommended a new national legal framework and for Aboriginal people to be the top decision makers on heritage issues.
Danielle Welsh-Rose, an ESG director at abrdn, said she was concerned the bill "may not meet the standard for genuine free, prior and informed consent."
Western Australia produces more than half of the world's traded iron ore, a key steel-making ingredient and Australia's most lucrative export.