Senior custodian concerns about the future of NT sacred sites

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The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority NT’s sacred sites watchdog has alleged that Parks Australia illegally built a walking track to the top pools of Gunlom Falls.

The issue appeared in the NT Supreme Court on Monday after the federal government argued Parks Australia could not be prosecuted under the Northern Territory’s Sacred Sites Act. Senior custodians are worried that the decision could water down protection rights.

Parks Australia is hoping to resolve the issue with the traditional owners  saying “Parks Australia reiterates its commitment to continue working with traditional owners of KNP (Kakadu National Park) so that we can move forward together, acknowledging the matters before the court are now outside of our control.”

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From ABC News 22.3.22

A Kakadu senior custodian has raised concerns that a pending Supreme Court decision over alleged sacred site damage could water down protections for other sacred grounds.

The Northern Territory’s sacred sites watchdog, the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA), alleges federal government body Parks Australia illegally built a walking track to the top pools of Gunlom Falls, one of Kakadu National Park’s most picturesque locations.

The walking track is near a sacred men’s site which, under Aboriginal law and custom, should not be viewed by women and children.

The fight reached the NT Supreme Court on Monday after the federal government argued Parks Australia could not be prosecuted under the Northern Territory’s Sacred Sites Act, kickstarting a complex constitutional debate over the culpability of Commonwealth bodies under territory law.

In the second day of submissions, AAPA lawyers argued Parks Australia should be able to be tried for criminal charges under territory legislation.

“I’m hoping this court case will put something down in stone to allow these sorts of things not to happen in the future,” he said.

“We don’t want a new management team coming and going back to this issue again.”

Mr Markham said he felt the legal battle was now far removed from the initial concerns of potential damage to a sacred site.

“There’s a lot of legal jargon back and forth between the lawyers,” Mr Markham said.

“We’re just concerned that the site at Gunlom has been left behind, it’s not the issue in the courtroom.

A picture, taken from the bottom of the rocky cliff, of the new walking track at Gunlom.
Traditional owners say the new track impacted a sacred site at the popular spot in Kakadu.(ABC News: Kate Ashton)

Parks Australia hopes to ‘move forward together’

Parks Australia said in a statement that it was commitment to improving its damaged relationship with Kakadu’s traditional owners.

“Parks Australia reiterates its commitment to continue working with traditional owners of KNP (Kakadu National Park) so that we can move forward together, acknowledging the matters before the court are now outside of our control,” it said in a statement.

“Parks Australia has committed to obtain an Authority Certificate where there is a potential impact on a sacred site in the KNP, regardless of the outcome of this present court case.”

Mr Markham said while the relationship with Parks Australia had improved after an overhaul of Parks Australia’s management, he was still concerned about the future of sacred sites.

“The current management team has worked well with the traditional owners to rectify the situation,” he said.

The Supreme Court justices are expected to hand down a decision in the coming months.

If they find Parks Australia can be tried under the Sacred Sites Act, the matter will return to the Local Court.

Parks Australia has previously apologised to traditional owners for any distress caused by the walking track and agreed to realign it.

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