Update on the Australian country team working on Fraser Island World Heritage Area

 © Ian Lilley

© Ian Lilley

The Australian team has been working with traditional owners of Fraser Island World Heritage Area – known as K’Gari­ to the local Butchulla people – to investigate questions of human rights and World Heritage. Fraser is an interesting case study to examine such matters, because Indigenous interests are taken into account in site management even though the World Heritage listing of the site was based entirely on natural rather than cultural values. The SNIS project is being carried out in association with a larger national project on the costs and benefits of World Heritage to Indigenous people, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The project began in earnest late in 2014, when Ian Lilley and Celmara Pocock attended the annual joint meeting of the three Fraser Island World Heritage advisory committees, which separately cover Indigenous (IAC), community (CAC) and scientific (SAC) matters. Celmara is a SNIS team member with long experience in heritage management across Australia. The team outlined the SNIS study as part of a larger presentation about the ARC project. Ian and Celmara also interviewed a number of the members of the IAC about human rights as part of a longer questionnaire about Indigenous people and World Heritage.

At this meeting it was announced that the Butchulla community had just won a court determination recognizing their traditional Native Title over Fraser Island. This determination has major implications for their rights over the World Heritage Area and has important implications for the SNIS project. One of these implications is that a new representative body for Native Title holders has been established – the “Prescribed Body Corporate” (PBC). All Native Title determinations entail the formation of a PBC, which represents the interests of Native Title holders in relation to specific Native Title decisions (in this case, the Native Title interests of the Butchulla Traditional Owners of Fraser Island recognized by Australia’s Federal Court).After that initial fieldtrip, Ian and Celmara attended the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, where Ian co-convened a session on Indigenous heritage matters with Tim Badman. The team interviewed a wide range of WPC delegates from Australia and overseas, including Tim and other colleagues from Hawaii, New Zealand and Tanzania. While at the WPC, Ian and Celmara also met with Ben Boer, a distinguished environmental lawyer and Deputy Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law. Ben agreed to join the SNIS team to undertake the legal dimensions of the project in Australia. His work will explore the links between international human rights law and World Heritage law and national law and regulations in Australia. In doing so, Ben will collaborate with other national legal experts to compare legal frameworks and their application and consider how they articulate with international standards.

In July 2015, Ian and Celmara made another trip to the Fraser Island area, together with Helena Kajlich, a new researcher on the wider Indigenous World Heritage project. Helena is a lawyer with an interest in human rights, and will soon start a PhD on questions closely related to the objectives of the SNIS project. While at Fraser, the team interviewed more Traditional Owners and also visited Fraser Island itself (see photographs). As a follow-up, Celmara, Helena and Marc Hockings returned to the Fraser area to attend a meeting of the IAC. Marc is a SNIS team member and also Vice Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas. He was the principal author of the IUCN’s best practice guidelines on evaluation of management effectiveness in protected areas.

One major element in the meeting agenda was to discuss the role of the new PBC in the management of the Fraser World Heritage Area. The SNIS team attended so it could observe how these changes might impact on management of the World Heritage area, and to update the IAC on the progress of the research. It was anticipated that there might be the opportunity to make a presentation to a combined PBC and IAC meeting, so there could be complete transparency in our dealings with Butchulla representatives. While there was only one Director of the PBC present, there was extensive discussion about the PBC and how rights of people outside the PBC might continue to be recognized in the management of the World Heritage area. The discussion following the presentation enabled the team to ask more questions, and to interview more Traditional Owners about SNIS after the meeting. They have also arranged to interview key government officials at a later date.

All of the interviews undertaken for the project are being analysed with the aid of NVivo, a text-analysis package that enables researchers to identify and track key patterns in qualitative data. The analysis will allow the team to determine how Traditional Owners and other stakeholders perceive matters such as human rights in relation to World Heritage. On that basis, the results will help the team determine how the effectiveness of management approaches to questions of human rights are best measured and improved.

In parallel to this activity, co-leader of SNIS’s Australian team Kristal Buckley has been organizing a small roundtable of key practitioners/policymakers in Melbourne in October 2015. It will be a facilitated discussion, with an initial framing discussion by Laura Kraak, a PhD student researching rights in heritage practice who has done some work for Amund Sinding Larsen and Peter Larsen in the ICOMOS-IUCN ‘Our Common Dignity’ process. It is hoped that Peter Larsen may be able to attend, along with Marc Hockings from the SNIS/ARC team in Brisbane.