Among the sites added to the World Heritage List this year are Sydney’s 19th century Hyde Park Barracks and Tasmania’s Port Arthur penal settlement, which Unesco deemed of “outstanding universal value”.
The listing will ensure protection for the buildings, but the move has outraged Aboriginal activists, who claim their own cultural heritage is in danger of being destroyed.
Michael Mansell, director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, said Aboriginal sites were also in need of protection.
“What we have got is about 50,000 years of human existence and evidence of that existence from one end of the country to the other,” he said.
“None of that heritage has been nominated by Australia as worthy of world heritage status.
“In the meantime 200 years of white history has resulted in 18 nominations.
“That suggests a strong ethnocentric bias towards everything Anglo-Saxon and a prejudice or ignorance about the Aboriginal past and a lack of understanding of its value.”
While Ayers Rock and the Kakadu National Park were already on the list, several significant sites relating to the country’s Aboriginal past were absent from this year’s nominations, he said. Mr Mansell named 20,000-year-old rock art in the Northern Territory, a recently-discovered treasure trove of ancient artefacts outside Hobart and scarred trees in New South Wales, which were used by indigenous tribes during coming of age ceremonies, as Aboriginal sites that were worthy of immediate protection.
Mr Mansell said that the lack of Aboriginal sites on the list could be blamed on the fact that there were no indigenous MPs in federal parliament and no indigenous people on the board that decides on the country’s Unesco nominations.
“The people who made the nominations are all white people and they do prioritise their own culture,” he said.
Before Unesco announced the list, Mr Mansell wrote to the organisation, calling on it to deny approval to the “white Australian sites” while the country’s indigenous heritage was in danger of extinction.
But, when it released the list, the UN body said that the sites were the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of prisoners and that they deserved to be conserved.
Richard Broome, a professor of history at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said the Australian community did tend to focus on European sites when it came to heritage.
“You’ve only got to look at the work of such as the National Trust and other heritage bodies and it is time that we looked more rigorously at the protection of Aboriginal cultural sites,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“I think we can do both things at once. We are clever enough and big enough country to do that,” he said.
New UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
Old Government House
Hyde Park Barracks
Cockatoo Island and Old Great North Road in NSW
Fremantle Prison in Western Australia
Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area on Norfolk Island
Port Arthur in Tasmania
Brickendon and Woolmers Estates
Darlington Probation Station
Coal Mines Historic Site
The Cascades Female Factory