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UNESCO rejects Aussie World Heritage application after 'vague' map submitted

Experts say hundreds of applications are submitted around the world. So how did Australia get it wrong?

Australia’s bid to have an ancient site listed on the World Heritage register faces months of delays after officials sent UNESCO a “low-resolution” map of the area it was being asked to evaluate.

The government has been under increasing pressure to urgently protect Western Australia’s remote Burrup Peninsula because the 40,000-year-old rock art at the site is being diminished by expanding industrial projects.

When we asked the environment minister Tanya Plibersek’s office about the delay, a spokesperson said the advice it received blamed “issues relating to map boundaries and topography”.

“This was due to the fact that Western methods of mapping don’t allow for Indigenous understanding of cultural values, boundaries and knowledge. The cultural landscape nomination spans across land and sea country, which is a difficult concept to fit into Western concepts of borders,” the spokesperson said.

Left - stacked up rock art. Right - a map of the Burrup Peninsula.
Western Australia's Burrup Peninsula (right) can be seen on this standard map. It is home to the world's oldest collection of rock art. (left). Source: Getty/Google Maps/DataSIO/NOAA/US Navy

However, when we shared these claims with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris, it disputed that western mapping was the problem.

“This statement is incorrect,” a Centre spokesperson said. “Usually, State Parties submit high-definition maps which make it possible to precisely verify the boundaries of protected areas. In this case, the map was in low resolution.”

“The file was therefore referred by UNESCO World Heritage Centre to the State Party precisely because the vagueness of the boundaries of the site did not guarantee the full protection of indigenous lands, and cultural knowledge in the face of the industrial projects carried out in this area.”

UNESCO argues its guidelines incorporate Indigenous values

The application was initially submitted in January, but after UNESCO advised necessary information was deemed missing, it entered into a dialogue with Australia to complete a resubmission.

While it was originally set to be assessed as early as 2024, the mapping issue means the Burrup Peninsula will not be considered until 2025.

University of Western Australia Professor of Archaeology Ben Smith told the ABC the "error" was "disappointing" as "hundreds" of groups around the world submit similar applications.

While the problem only publicly came to light this week, there were early indications an issue had been brewing. In September, Plibersek warned about complexities of including Indigenous cultural history within the confines of western maps.

“Models of Indigenous knowledge haven’t always flowed easily through western minds. That has made the World Heritage process difficult for many Indigenous people, including our First Nations here in Australia,” she said at a symposium for the region’s Murujuga people.

A spokesperson from her office said the government has worked with UNESCO to update its understanding about cultural boundaries.

Two pictures of rock art on the Burrup Peninsula.
Rock art around the Burrup Peninsula is believed to be between 40,000 and 70,000 years old. Source: Ray Dahlstrom

But UNESCO said the government’s ability to resubmit its application weeks later, while respecting the Convention guidelines “clearly demonstrates" its "guidelines allow for the "recognition of indigenous understanding of values, borders and cultural knowledge”.

It noted “cultural landscapes” have been recognised since 1992 as a specific category and this has enabled numerous Indigenous sites to be assessed.

Neither UNESCO or the government were able to immediately provide a copy the map in question.

Indigenous leaders furious at delay in UNESCO application

In response to the delay, Mardudhunera woman and former chair of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation Raelene Cooper said it would allow industry to continue to destroy sacred sites.

"We have been trying to secure World Heritage status for Murujuga for decades — my community and my elders have been repeatedly betrayed by government promises over that time,” she said in a statement on Monday.

In 2022, Plibersek ordered a formal investigation into the impact of industrial projects at the site. However the findings are yet to be released, and this has frustrated some cultural leaders.

Cooper is a critic of the expansion of energy giant Woodside’s fossil fuel projects on the Burrup Peninsula, as well as the government’s approval for a fertiliser factory to be built on a site where cultural artefacts had stood for generations.

In 2022, she travelled to the United Nations to warn of "cultural genocide" harming her people in Australia. At more than a milliion pieces, the Murujuga rock art is the oldest and largest collection in the world, but industrial emissions are causing it to disintegrate.

“We increasingly feel the urgent need to defend our ancient history, our stories, our culture,” she said in Geneva.

More than a year later, Cooper reflected on the degradation of the site and the growing need to protect it. “There are no animals or bush medicine out on the Burrup any more, all you see now is dust and chaos as these massive projects destroy our sacred sites,” Cooper said.

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