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GA2023 Murujuga Cultural Landscape Symposium

Amy Stevens (MAC) and Jo McDonald (CRAR+M)

The Murujuga Symposium brought together First Nations people from across Australia and the world to hear about the nomination of the Murujuga Cultural Landscape and to talk about the challenges and opportunities that Indigenous people face in managing World Heritage properties. After a Welcome to Gadigal Country by Allan Murray (MLALC), the Symposium was launched by the Honourable Tanya Plibersek, MLA, Minister for the Environment, who reiterated her support for the nomination and outlined some key initiatives to increase the recognition of cultural values on the Australia’s world heritage properties.

The symposium had three high impact plenaries. The first by Amy Stevens and Peter Jeffries − was on how the nomination demonstrated Ngarda-ngarli cultural values and responsibilities at Murujuga. We also heard inspiring plenaries from Maori scholar Diane Menzies on heritage as social justice; and from Steve Brown on meanings, challenges and futures for cultural landscapes.


An Indigenous-led nomination to WHL

For the traditional owners and custodians of Murujuga, this symposium was an opportunity to share what is important about Murujuga from the perspective of those who have managed this landscape for over 50,000 years.

While it is on Australia’s National Heritage List for its significant rock art and stone structures, Murujuga is also a creation place, a university and a record of how Ngarda-ngarli have managed country for thousands of generations.

Shared responsibilities of managing the Murujuga Cultural landscape

This indigenous led nomination required the active support of many experts that came together to help manage and protect this landscape. The State and Commonwealth Governments actively supported the process while ensuring that decision-making remained in the hands of Ngarda-ngarli.

Terry Bailey, the independent advisor who chaired the Murujuga Heritage Committee, outlined the processes of nomination.

Jo McDonald described CRAR+M's documentation of scientific values through its long-term collaboration with MAC - funded in part by RioTinto’s Conservation Agreement with the Commonwealth.

Ben Mullins, leading a world-class team of scientists and art conservationists on the Murujuga Rock Art Monitoring Program, described some initial results of work done to demonstrate that the rock art can be protected from industrial emissions.


Two-way learning between Murujuga and other Australian Indigenous owners

The symposium was designed to share learnings between MAC and other indigenous owners of Australian World Heritage properties. As well as inspiring presentation from custodians at Kakadu and the Tasmanian Wilderness WHA, we heard from people at Willandra Lakes how they discovered their country had been World Heritage listed – after it was inscribed. We heard from Uluru Kata-Tjuta custodians about the challenges they faced in achieving genuine co-management.

But we also heard about the extraordinary work that is possible when Aboriginal people are supported to manage their traditional country.

This session was chaired by Chrissy Grant.

Two-way learning between Australian and international WH place managers

We heard from Indigenous managers of international WH properties in India, New Zealand, Vanuatu and Canada; who identified significant challenges they faced from a lack of resourcing before and after being inscribed onto the WH List.

They also highlighted the challenges of co-managing cultural landscape in very different geo-political realities to those envisaged by the UNESCO criteria for natural and cultural values.

In NZ – a river is a person. For Ngarda-ngarli at Murujuga, their country is their culture!


Systemic challenges to World Heritage (WH) Listing

The symposium highlighted the need for more flexibility in how knowledge is recorded, transmitted and evaluated within the WH processes. And there were extensive conversations about the inseparability of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ from an indigenous perspective, two categories fundamentally separated by UNESCO’s criteria for Outstanding Universal Values. In the case of living cultural landscapes, people are part of those landscape as much as any natural or cultural element(s).

MAC also stressed that they considered there was a risk that comes with world heritage listing for First Nations people, especially those who are managing a property that is part of a living culture.

“There is risk in conveying the connection between people and country when that information is secret / sacred. There is risk in an inscription that tries to list a series of attributes, practices and traditions that contribute to OUV that are then managed by a non-indigenous body. There is risk in an inscription that freezes management at the moment of inscription and fails to recognize the dynamic adaptability of land management over so many years, especially as we stand on the precipice of what may well be significant change in our world.” Amy Stevens

Bridging the divide

This Symposium highlighted the importance of elevating First Nations’ voices through both the processes of nomination as well as the ongoing management of World Heritage properties.

MAC’s custodians argue that Indigenous agency, self-determination, and decision-making has been part of this landscape’s management for 50,000 years: and that this is indeed an intangible value to be recognized and protected as contributing to the Outstanding Universal Value of this property.

We all come together for country! Ngayintharri Gumawarni Ngurrangga!


This text summarises the presentation made by Amy Stevens and Jo McDonald at the Final plenary for the Scientific Program on Friday the 8th September, a week after the Murujuga Cultural Landscape Symposium.

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