An Aboriginal dialectal corporation that covers 5580 km in the Perth region has told land care groups it will stop tree plantings until a demand for $2.5 million from a $10 million river restoration fund is resolved.
It comes amid ongoing confusion over implementing Western Australia’s controversial new cultural heritage laws.
The body cited the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which came into effect on July 1, establishing a vast new layer of bureaucracy via Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services (LACHS), now responsible for determining whether an activity will cause “harm” to cultural heritage.
Under the new rules, penalties for damaging a cultural heritage site range from $25,000 to $1 million for individuals and $250,000 to $10 million for corporations, and jail time — although the state government announced a 12-month “education-first” approach late last month.
According to local media, the demand has stunned the mayors of four councils and two major land care groups on the Canning River.
“We’re standing in solidarity with some of these environmental groups. Somebody needs to clarify this legislation — it has become somewhat of a mess,” City of Canning Mayor Patrick Hall said.
Stephen Johnston from South East Regional Land Care said the seedlings were now at risk of dying.
“We’ve got to get them into the ground to make the most of the wet soil,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of land groups across Perth and the state whose work is critical to the fulfilment of commonwealth, state and local government environmental objectives,” Johnston said,
“It’s not just a nice thing; it is critical.”
Pat Hart from Armadale Gosnells Landcare Group said, “We’ve got four dams on the Canning; it’s under real issues. Time is running out … we can’t wait. We have to keep going forward.”
According to Seven News, when Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti learned the broadcaster was doing the story, he told the mayors there was no issue.
He said, “The matter referred to has nothing to do with the modernised legislation.”
It comes a week after an Aboriginal elder shut down another tree-planting event in Geraldton.
City of Greater Geraldton Mayor Shane Van Styn said it was “the first use of the power of entry and stoppage we are aware of under the Act” but added there was “some confusion now in play” as the person who gave the order was not “technically an official Aboriginal inspector under the Act as no LACHS has yet been created to appoint them as such.”
But Nhanhagardi and Wajarri woman Donna Ronan revealed that her family stepped in to shut down the event because it honoured the late Queen Elizabeth II, denying the new cultural heritage laws were to blame.
“That lady didn’t walk this country; she didn’t walk this land,” Ms Ronan told the ABC.
“Why are we acknowledging her when there are people who come from this area that should be recognised for it?”
Ms Ronan disputed the mayor’s claim that the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act had been invoked to shut down the event.
“I don’t know the intention of the new laws,” she said. “I suppose with this event happening; I will educate myself more on the matter.”
The state government also denied the laws were linked to the Geraldton incident, with the WA Premier Roger Cook saying the works “could not have been stopped” by any provision in the legislation.
“In the interim, per the departmental guidelines, we are to consult the local knowledge holders.” Mr Cook said.