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Aboriginal cultural heritage research in Western Australia could be brought to a standstill by new fees introduced to recover costs under new Aboriginal Heritage regulations, undermining government claims that protection and knowledge of sites will increase.

The state’s amended Aboriginal Heritage Act is due to come into effect this month, with a new fee structure of $250 per application and $5096 per site.

Professor Peter Veth says the processing fee could add $250,000 for his team to work on numerous sites of significance.

The proposed fees mean that Aboriginal heritage sites earmarked for critical research will incur a $5096 cost for every site to gain permits for access to conduct work.

It will be the first time that fees are levied for such permits, including Section 16 permits for research and educational work and Section 18 permits required by mining companies to disturb or destroy sites.

Professor Peter Veth, from the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Rock Art, says imposing fees for Section 16 permits would add a prohibitive cost to important archaeological research.

“Imposing the fee structure onto university-based researchers would potentially cripple existing and future research grants obtained from both state and federal agencies,” he said. “It would be unviable.”

Professor Veth was awarded a prestigious 2022 Laureate Fellowship by the Australian Research Council to conduct a five-year expedition to dozens of significant sites across the Pilbara and Western Desert, documenting them in partnership with 10 Aboriginal corporations.

It will work as a disincentive for proponents to conduct the important step of investigating and understanding a place first

“The processing fee could add $250,000 for my team to work on numerous sites of significance to Aboriginal people who have identified them for non-mining management and educational work,” said Professor Veth.

“The new regulations impose the same fee structure on researchers as it does on mining companies. It’s the same cost as a mining company getting a permit to destroy them.”

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dr Tony Buti said in May that cost recovery was necessary to “underpin $77 million in investment over the next four years to manage and protect Aboriginal cultural heritage in Western Australia.”

Fee exemptions are given to Aboriginal corporations, not-for-profits, and small businesses, but not for university-based researchers.

Professor Veth said that all UWA’s work is conducted under research agreements with Aboriginal corporations, “but the technical nature and duty of care of site investigation requires that the section 16 permit must be in the name of the researcher.”

Chair of the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists Jo Thomson said charging fees could “undermine the principle of heritage management to first assess its value, and then decide on its fate.”

“It could discourage mining companies and developers from doing the necessary work to understand the site, prior to applying to destroy it,” she said.

The Australian chapter of international heritage body ICOMOS has written to the WA government, describing the fees as “highly problematic.”

ICOMOS Australia president Professor Tracy Ireland called for the fee structure to be removed from the new Aboriginal Heritage regulations.

“It will work as a disincentive for proponents to conduct the important step of investigating and understanding a place first before obtaining a Section 18 consent to destroy,” Professor Tracy said.

Traditional owner Harold Ashburton at Juukan Gorge in 2015, before it was damaged.Credit: PKKP and PKKP Aboriginal Corporation

“This will lead to poorly informed decisions and poor outcomes for Aboriginal heritage. Indeed, this is what led to the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters. Section 18 consent was granted before the place’s heritage values were fully assessed or understood.”

She said the ICOMOS Burra Charter required that a heritage place be understood before any management decisions were made.

“The fees would also impede Aboriginal community and university-based research, which would further undermine positive management of Aboriginal heritage.”

In a letter responding to the concerns, the Director General of Planning, Lands and Heritage Anthony Kannis told Professor Veth that the regulations could not be changed or amended.

However, he had asked his department to develop a policy for the possible reduction or waiving of fees.

He said he accepted the importance of research in helping the state to better understand, manage, protect and promote Aboriginal heritage.

“I also acknowledge your concern that fees could impact upon this important work,” he said.

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