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Tree planting halted after $2.5m ‘demand’

Amid ongoing confusion over the implementation of Western Australia’s controversial new cultural heritage laws, two major tree planting events in the state were cancelled this weekend after an Aboriginal corporation demanded $2.5 million for approval, according to a report.

Seven News reported on Sunday that the planting of 5500 shrubs and trees along Perth’s Canning River by 120 volunteers was called off, after a demand from the newly formed Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation that any planting at sites of cultural significance along the river cease.

The body cited the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which came into effect on July 1, establishing a vast new layer of bureaucracy via Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services (LACHS), which are now responsible for determining whether an activity will cause “harm” to cultural heritage.

Under the new rules, penalties for damaging a cultural heritage site range from $25,000 to $1 million for individuals and $250,000 to $10 million for corporations, as well as jail time — although the state government late last month announced a 12-month “education-first” approach.

According to Seven News, Whadjuk Aboriginal Corporation chief executive David Collard told land care groups they could not proceed with the weekend’s events until a demand for $2.5 million from a $10 million river restoration fund was resolved. has contacted Mr Collard for comment.

According to the broadcaster, the demand stunned the mayors of four councils and two major land care groups on the Canning River.

“We’re standing here today in solidarity with some of these environmental groups saying, somebody needs to clarify this legislation — it has become somewhat of a mess,” City of Canning Mayor Patrick Hall said.

Stephen Johnston from South East Regional Land Care said the seedlings were now at risk of dying.

“We’ve got to get them into the ground to make the most of the wet soil,” he said.

“We’ve got a whole lot of land groups across Perth and in WA, whose work is critical to fulfilment of Commonwealth, state and local government environmental objectives, it’s not just a nice thing to have, it is critical.”

Pat Hart from Aramdale Gosnells Landcare Group said, “We’ve got four dams on the Canning, it’s under real issues. Time is … we can’t wait. We have to keep going forward.”

According to Seven News reporter Geofrey Parry, when Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti learned the broadcaster was doing the story he personally rang the mayors to assure them there was no issue.

He said in a statement: “The matter referred to has nothing to do with the modernised legislation.”

It comes a week after another tree planting event in Geraldton was shut down by an Aboriginal elder.

City of Greater Geraldton Mayor Shane Van Styn claimed in a Facebook post last Sunday that the tree planting event at Wonthella Bushland Reserve had been called off after a “respected local knowledge holder shut down proceedings on the basis of ground disturbance and the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act and the ‘significance’ of the site to the family”.

Mr Van Styn said organisers “complied with the directive to stop” despite having checked the online map “for any Aboriginal heritage, of which there was none” beforehand.

He said it was “the first use of power of entry and stoppage we are aware of under the Act” but added there was “some confusion now in play” as the person who gave the order was not “technically an official Aboriginal Inspector under the Act as no LACHS has yet been created to appoint them as such”.

But on Monday, Nhanhagardi and Wajarri woman Donna Ronan revealed that her family stepped in to shut down the event because it honoured the late Queen Elizabeth II, denying the new cultural heritage laws were to blame.

“That lady didn’t walk this country, she didn’t walk this land,” Ms Ronan told the ABC. “Why are we actually acknowledging her when there are people who come from this area that should be recognised for it?”

Ms Ronan disputed the Mayor’s claim that the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act had been invoked to shut down the event. “I don’t really know the intention of the new laws,” she said. “I suppose with this event happening, I will definitely educate myself a bit more on the matter.”

The state government also denied the laws were linked to the Geraldton incident, with the WA Premier Roger Cook saying the works “could not have been stopped” by any provision in the legislation.

Mr Van Styn hit back at the government on Tuesday, telling he was “flabbergasted” at those statements and saying it was “proof that the government has not read the legislation it rammed through parliament”.

“Nobody knows when the [Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services] will be created or in which form they’ll be created, there is no clear pathway,” he said.

“In the interim, as per the departmental guidelines, we are to consult the local knowledge holders. When a local knowledge holder is standing on site saying ‘stop’, that’s a pretty clear direction … It’s disturbing that we now have a Premier and a Minister saying that we should have disregarded the concerns of local knowledge holders and proceeded.”

Read related topics:Perth

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