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An Indigenous site older than Stonehenge has this week become the first in Australia to be inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list due entirely to its Aboriginal cultural significance. 

The Budj Bim site in south Victoria received the protection status from the United Nations during the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee in Baku, Azerbaijan. The status, which comes after decades of campaigning by the local Gunditj Mirring People, is seen as an acknowledgement of the cultural contribution of Indigenous Australians to the nation’s history. 

"It’s official,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews wrote on Twitter.

"Budj Bim has become the first site in Australia to receive UNESCO World Heritage protection solely for its Aboriginal cultural importance. And rightly so. Because Aboriginal history is human history, and it must be recognized,” he added. 

The site — first developed around 6,600 years ago — is home to some of the oldest and most comprehensive displays of aquafarming. For generations, the Gunditjmara People used the site as a sustainable food source by building an intricate system of pools and waterways to harvest eels from the local Lake Condah. 

Budj Bim also holds traces of around 300 stone structures, which present proof that some of Australia’s First People lived in fixed housing. This dispels the popular misconception that all Indigenous Australians were nomadic with no established settlements. 

Denise Lovett, a Gunditjmara elder who was present for the announcement, said the listing was incredibly significant.

"This is a very special day for our community. This landscape, which we have cared for over thousands of years, is so important to Gunditjmara People,” she said in a statement. “The decision also recognizes Budj Bim’s significance to all of humanity. We are so proud to now be able to share our achievements and story with the world.”

Anita Rank, the major of Budj Bim’s surrounding shire, said the site’s new status would positively impact the entire community.

"The obvious benefits are the economic benefits that may come through tourism, but what underlies that is that the Traditional Owners will be able to tell their story and that those lands will be able to be recognized and preserved, and that's what is important.” 

In 2017, the Victorian government revealed it would spend $8 million AUD to fund a visitor center and various tourism infrastructure projects on the site. In May 2019, the government committed a further $5.7 million in the state budget for “collaborative Aboriginal cultural heritage management.” 

The investment increase is expected to help get the site ready for the influx of tourists the UNESCO listing will bring.

Budj Bim is now the 20th site in Australia — and just the second in Victoria — to receive a UNESCO World Heritage listing. The site now joins the ranks of the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.


Defend the Planet

A 6,600-Year-Old Australian Indigenous Site Just Joined the UNESCO World Heritage List

By Madeleine Keck