Cancellation of the 2024 IFRAO Congress
To explain the cancellation of the proposed 2024 IFRAO Congress I must begin with the cultural atrocity by the British mining giant Rio Tinto, who needlessly destroyed the Juukan Gorge rockshelters in the Hamersley Ranges of Western Australia’s Pilbara region with explosives. These sites included evidence of 46,000 years of ‘continuous’ occupation and their obliteration was followed by a global outcry. This led to a parliamentary inquiry that reported its findings in October 2021, just a few weeks before AURA accepted the Perth bid for the Fourth AURA Congress (and IFRAO-2024 Congress). It recommended a review of the relevant protective legislation and the removal especially of one controversial clause. We had every expectation that the inquiry’s recommendations would be adopted.
However, on 22 December 2021, the Western Australian Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2021 was introduced.
It remained as flawed as the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 it replaced. It retained the Section 18 exemptions: any decision by the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee to preserve sites could be overruled by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Of the c. 1000 Section 18 applications made since 2010, only five (0.5%) have been denied. Therefore, the destruction of Aboriginal cultural heritage has been legal in Western Australia for the past fifty years, ever since the 1972 Act was introduced. That includes the Juukan sites, whose destruction was approved in 2013 by the then Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Collier. It also includes the destruction of almost one-quarter of the Murujuga petroglyphs in the Dampier Archipelago, reputedly the largest rock art concentration on the planet. Indeed, the 2021 federal inquiry stated that the Act made “the destruction of Indigenous heritage not only legal but almost inevitable”.
The implications of the Western Australian Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2021 for the state’s extensive rock art are profound. For powerful corporations like Rio Tinto, BHP and Woodside, who pay consultants for securing their exemptions and for the (highly lucrative) removal of rock art, it will simply be business as usual: the legal destruction of rock art sites will continue. With the new legislation of December 2021, the Western Australian government has missed another opportunity to discontinue this practice. Under these conditions, it would be inappropriate to hold the premier academic event of our discipline in Western Australia — or for that matter, anywhere in Australia. It was State Premier Hon Mark McGowan MLA who invited us to Perth. I have written to him (see below), explaining that it is no longer appropriate to hold the event in Western Australia because of the legislation enacted since we awarded the congress to Perth. It could be interpreted as an approval of the state’s cultural heritage vandalism.
R. G. Bednarik
Letter to the Premier of Western Australia
Hon Mark McGowan MLR
We thank you for your invitation of 20 September 2021 to hold the Fourth Congress of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA) and the 2024 Congress of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO) in Perth. Your proposal, through Business Events Perth, was by far the best of the five venues that bid for the event. It included substantial financial support and was to be held in the state that is reputed to comprise the largest concentration of rock art in the world. These significant advantages are in addition to the many other benefits Perth and Western Australia offered to an international conference that is very much focused on an extensive field trips program occupying several weeks. Some of these advantages were rightly emphasised in your invitation.
Therefore, we had no hesitation confirming our acceptance of the Perth bid in November of last year. We were enthusiastic about the prospects of our conference being held in Perth in mid-2024. Our collaboration with Business Events Perth was exemplary, but unforeseeable events soon became a significant concern.
In October 2021, the Joint Standing Committee formed in the wake of the Juukan Gorge disaster had formulated its finding that the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 needed to be reviewed. Specifically, its Section 18 provisions meant that rock art was ultimately without effective protection in Western Australia, being at the mercy of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Nearly all applications for site destruction under that legislation have been granted for the past 50 years. We were confident that your government would adopt the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry. However, in late December, the 1972 Act was replaced with the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2021, which retained the Minister’s ultimate powers. Aboriginal people are denied the right to appeal, and rock art will continue to be destroyed. The deliberate damage of monuments is incompatible with the UNESCO Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage (2004, Section VI), to which Australia is a signatory. In these circumstances, it would be inappropriate to hold an international rock art conference in Western Australia and to accept financial support from a Western Australian government agency.
Therefore, we regret having to advise that the Perth AURA / IFRAO Congress is cancelled.
Prof. Robert G. Bednarik
Convener/Editor, IFRAO, & Secretary/Editor, AURA
To Prof. Robert Bednarik,
24 July 2022
your message is fully shareable and contains guidelines of the highest interest.
You recalled the IFRAO 1995 Meeting in Turin, Italy, where I was President of IFRAO and how, on that occasion, Mila and the Portuguese Delegation were able to lay the foundations to save Foz Coa from the destruction planned by the Lisboa government. Another important battle was the one that IFRAO waged against the possible destruction of Rock Art located in western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula, Murujuga, one of the world’s most significant rock art regions. The fight of the IFRAO was led by you with excellent results.
It is true, if we work together we can “move mountains”; it has happened before and we must do it now too.
The Rock Art spread all over the world is a World Heritage Site that we are (and the territorial Authorities first) obliged to pass on to future generations, to our children and to our children’s children, and so always in the future.
We are not the masters of that priceless Cultural Heritage that comes from the distant past, but we must be the faithful guardians who guarantee it intact for the future.
There is a hiatus in most of the rock art districts in the world between prehistory and current times, in Australia, vice versa, there is a precious continuity between the prehistoric rock art and the cultural world of the current aboriginal populations; a further reason therefore to preserve with respect and diligence all these elements of the Cultural Heritages of every age.
Dear Robert, you who are Australian and live in Australia, you are certainly the most suitable personality to set up and lead the fight for conservation, involving all the institutions and scholars of the IFRAO, all Australian scholars (archaeologists, anthropologists, schoolteachers, etc.), public opinion, ministerial bodies for conservation, environmental circles or associations and cultural circles shouting “Save Kangaroos and Rock Art”; (in Spitzkoppe, Namibia, in IFRAO 1996 it was said: “Save Black Rhino and Rock Art”).
All institutions and scholars who manage a website are warmly invited to host the press review, deliberations, writings, reports and messages that IFRAO Convener will decide to make public and disseminated.
As of now, the CeSMAP Board of Directors has made its website available: www.cesmap.it
Assuring my maximum personal collaboration and that of CeSMAP in this battle of ethics, justice and freedom, I send cordial greetings.
(Prof. Dario Seglie, IFRAO-UNESCO Liaison Officer, CeSMAP of Pinerolo, Italy)
——– Messaggio originale ——–
> Oggetto: Re: IFRAO-2024 in Perth cancelled
> Data: 15/07/2022 20:45
> Mittente: Robert Bednarik
> Destinatario: Dario Seglie
> Dear colleagues,
> Thank you so much for your kind and supportive messages. They have
> reminded me of what Mila has taught IFRAO in 1995: that if we work
> together, we can move mountains. Mila faced the government of Portugal
> and won and encouraged by this, we have secured other great victories
> since. It is important to remember that IFRAO is the only international
> body that has been an effective force in protecting rock art; UNESCO,
> for instance, is beholden to the member states. In the present case,
> there is one factor that is in our favour: Australia is a nation that is
> sensitive to international criticism, so international censure can be
> effective. Moreover, we would have the support of the media and most of
> the general public. No nation likes to see its heritage thrashed
> The background to the Western Australian controversy is that the state
> is ruled by some of the world’s largest mining and energy giants, who
> have infiltrated government and academia. These massive companies see
> heritage protection as limiting their freedom to destroy whatever is in
> their path, so they are fundamentally opposed to it. Their consultation
> with the Aboriginal ‘owners’ of the sites is farcical. They employ
> archaeologists who facilitate the destruction of rock art sites and pay
> them millions of dollars.
> If IFRAO is to launch a campaign to address these issues I think the
> best way is to first alert the media and, therefore, the public. I
> propose to organise a media release. It would be useful for this to have
> to hand brief statements from IFRAO Representatives expressing how
> people in other countries feel about the need to cancel the Perth
> conference. Such quotations would be very useful. Also, your ideas about
> steps to be taken would be much appreciated. Such different perspectives
> would help a great deal in addressing the matter effectively.
> Kind regards,
> INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF ROCK ART ORGANISATIONS – IFRAO is a
> federation of 60 national and regional organisations promoting the study
> and protection of rock art throughout the world. IFRAO facilitates
> international co-operation, and initiates and pursues common policies
> and projects in the discipline; http://www.ifrao.com/ifrao/ 
> From: Dario Seglie
> Sent: Friday, 15 July 2022 9:00 AM
> To: Robert Bednarik
> MUSEO D’ARTE PREISTORICA
> Subject: Re: IFRAO-2024 in Perth cancelled
> Dear Robert,
> the news you have communicated to the members of IFRAO is disconcerting
> and tragic! In a democratic and modern country like Australia, a
> situation such as the one you are denouncing is extremely illegal: rock
> art as well as for Australia is the heritage of all humanity and future
> generations. Allowing its destruction is a criminal and ethically
> unbearable act.
> Do you already have in mind the actions to be taken, at the IFRAO
> level, to address and solve this serious problem? I believe we must move
> quickly, in a short time.
> (Prof. Dario Seglie, IFRAO-UNESCO Liaison Officer)
> Il 13/07/22 23:47, Robert Bednarik ha scritto:
>> Dear IFRAO Representative,
>> The Fourth AURA Congress, which was to host the IFRAO-2024 Congress,
>> has been cancelled due to political issues. The principal impediment
>> is that the Government of Western Australia has recently passed
>> legislation facilitating the deliberate destruction of rock art, the
>> _Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill_. This is in direct conflict with
>> UNESCO’s _Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of
>> Cultural Heritage_ to which Australia is a signatory. In these
>> circumstances, it would be inappropriate to hold an international rock
>> art conference in Western Australia and to accept financial support
>> from a Western Australian government agency. No major rock art
>> conference will be held in Australia until this state is corrected.
>> Therefore all IFRAO member organisations are welcome to submit
>> alternative proposals to host the IFRAO Congress in future years. It
>> is now probably too late to prepare for such an event in 2024, but
>> 2025 or 2026 are realistic dates and expressions of interest are
>> Kind regards,
(Prof. R. G. Bednarik, IFRAO Convener)
>> INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF ROCK ART ORGANISATIONS – IFRAO is a
>> federation of 60 national and regional organisations promoting the
>> study and protection of rock art throughout the world. IFRAO
>> facilitates international co-operation, and initiates and pursues
>> common policies and projects in the discipline;