About Indigenous heritage
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage has a central place in Australia's national heritage that all Australians should be proud of. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is the oldest continuing culture in the world, with archaeological evidence of human occupation dated to be over 65,000 years old. This culture has been passed down for thousands of generations and must be protected for generations to come so all Australians can recognise, experience and appreciate this unique and important heritage.
Protecting Indigenous heritage places
Australian governments have a range of laws to protect Indigenous heritage. Under Environmental law these include the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986.
- Find out more about Indigenous heritage laws
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 enables the Australian Government to respond to requests to protect important Indigenous areas and objects that are under threat if it appears that state or territory laws have not provided effective protection.
The Australian Government can make special orders, called declarations, to protect traditional areas and objects of particular significance to First Nations Australians in accordance with Aboriginal tradition from threats of injury or desecration. However, the government cannot make a declaration unless an Indigenous person (or a person representing an Indigenous person) has requested it. The power to make declarations is meant to be used as a last resort, after the relevant processes of the state or territory have been exhausted.
To find out how you can make an application under the ATSIHP Act, refer to the ATSIHP Act guidelines and application form.
Under the EPBC Act, there are penalties for anyone who takes an action that has or will have a significant impact on the national heritage values of a place.
The Indigenous Advisory Committee advises the Minister on the operation of the EPBC Act, who takes their knowledge of the land, conservation and understanding of biodiversity into account when making decisions related to the Act.
Australia's state and territory governments have broad responsibilities for recognising and protecting Australia's Indigenous heritage, including archaeological sites.
- Find out more about the different types of protection under state and territory laws.
Partnering to protect Indigenous cultural heritage
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage is an important treasure – it is part of Australia’s national identity.
Despite this, Indigenous cultural heritage sites are frequently damaged, disturbed and displaced.
In partnership with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, we are working to modernise and strengthen our Indigenous cultural heritage protections. On 29 November 2021, Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley joined with Traditional Owners to sign the historic agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance to reform protections that preserve our cultural treasures for future generations.
The First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance is made up of Aboriginal Land Councils, Native Title Representative Bodies and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Organisations from across Australia.
The Alliance will consider policy transformation law reform, administrative improvement, and the review and restructure of process, procedure and protocols.
- Find out more about the signed partnership agreement (PDF 324 KB).
The Commonwealth and the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance have developed an Implementation Plan, with an associated Terms of Reference as well as a Discussion Paper to undertake this national engagement. These documents have been created to help guide collaboration and the development of advice for the modernisation of cultural heritage protections.
- Read the Implementation Plan (PDF 250 KB)
- Read the Implementation Plan (DOCX 184 KB)
- Read the Terms of Reference and associated documents (PDF 273 KB)
- Read the Terms of Reference and associated documents (DOCX 154 KB)
- Read the Discussion Paper that will guide consultations as part of the national engagement process (PDF 426 KB)
- Read the Discussion Paper that will guide consultations as part of the national engagement process (DOCX 175 KB)
Identifying Indigenous heritage places
The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) established the National Heritage List, which includes natural, Indigenous and historic places that are of outstanding heritage value to the nation. The Act also establishes the Commonwealth Heritage List, which comprises natural, Indigenous and historic places on Commonwealth lands and waters or under Australian Government control and identified by the Minister for the Environment (the Minister) as having Commonwealth Heritage values.
- Find out more about the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
The Australian Heritage Council (the Council) is the Australian Government's expert advisory body on heritage matters. It includes Indigenous experts, who must be Indigenous people with appropriate heritage experience or expertise, at least one of whom represents the interests of Indigenous people on the Council.
Seeking Indigenous views on listings
When a place is nominated for inclusion in the National or Commonwealth Heritage lists and the Australian Heritage Council considers it may have Indigenous heritage values, the Council must endeavour to identify the Indigenous people with rights and interests in the place. The Council must then invite the views of First Nations Australians on whether the place should be included in the list. The Minister takes those submissions into account when making a decision about listing the place.
Managing Indigenous heritage places
Indigenous Australians are involved in developing management plans for places with Indigenous heritage significance on the National or Commonwealth Heritage lists. National heritage places on Indigenous land can be managed through conservation agreements, which operate in the same way as Indigenous Protected Areas.
Where the Minister considers that the heritage values of a place in the National or Commonwealth Heritage Lists could be significantly damaged by the disclosure of some information, the Minister may decide to make publicly available only a general description of the place, its location or its national heritage values.