By Adeshola Ore
MELBOURNE - For the Anangu people, Uluru, the iconic sandstone rock that juts from Australia's "Red Centre", is a holy area, holding the stories of their ancestors.
But it is also the country's landmark tourist attraction and, until recently, visitors could regularly be seen climbing the sacred rock formation.
Now, it has become one of the latest regions in the country to grapple with the question of how best to protect indigenous cultural heritage.
From mountains to beaches, Aboriginal groups across Australia are pushing back against public access to heritage sites, in an attempt to preserve areas of historical and spiritual importance.
"Aboriginal people are very concerned about protecting sacred sites because they are our cultural landscapes," said Benedict Scambary, head of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.
At the base of Uluru, previously known as Ayers Rock, placards share the history of the Anangu people and request that people not climb the rock formation.
But visitors have continued to ignore the signs.
So, two years ago, the park's management board voted to ban climbing on the site, starting in October 2019.
Photos posted to social media in July showed long lines of tourists snaking up the rock, to get in one more climb ahead of the ban.
Further south, in the state of Victoria, the Grampians National Park is another area rich with indigenous heritage and is known to rock climbers as a world-class climbing destination.
In February the state environment body banned rock-climbing on eight sites which together make up about one-third of the park, citing various reasons, including damage to the indigenous rock artwork.
"We welcome the government's decision to close down those sites," said Jason Mifsud, the chairman of the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, one of the three traditional owner groups that act as caretakers of the site.
"The promotion of cultural heritage is the first principle, (along with) the celebration and story-telling that goes with that cultural heritage," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
The expansive, forested Grampians area in southern Australia is home to a large collection of indigenous rock art sites, which are used for sacred ceremonies.
Parks Victoria said it instituted the recent ban to give it time to work on a new management plan in consultation with the area's traditional owner groups.
The new plan will encompass environmental conversation, protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage and improved support of recreational activities, according to a Parks Victoria spokesman.
The move has sparked fury from climbing groups who say they were not consulted about the ban and have been given no part in building the management plan.
"We're really interested in sitting down with traditional owner groups and understanding if there's anything in the climbing activity that is problematic and then understanding how we can remove that impact," said Jackie Bernardi, vice president of the Australian Climbing Association Victoria.
But Parks Victoria said it is in discussions with bodies that represent climbers and highlighted that the new management plan will include a public consultation phase.
Mifsud of the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation said the group is willing to work with climbers and tour companies to find a long-term solution.
But, he stressed, the plan "will not compromise on cultural heritage".
Mifsud said he has empathy for climbers who demonstrate respect for the heritage of the area, but noted that they could be damaging historical sites without even knowing it.
There are still sacred places hidden around the area that few people can locate and nobody has yet recorded, he explained.
Sometimes they are discovered by accident: In 2014, fires in the Grampians revealed a number of previously unknown Aboriginal artwork sites.
There are also elders who can point the way to little-known culturally significant sites within the area, Mifsud noted.
"It is the right and decision of our traditional owners to share or not share that cultural knowledge with the non-Aboriginal community," he said.
"We need the space, time and resources to decide what that looks like."
SETTING THE COURSE
As debate continues over who has the rights to Australia's sacred rock formations, another dispute over access is taking place along the shore.
In Western Australia, the state government and federal government are appealing a 2018 decision by the Federal Court to give native title holders exclusive access to a 40km (25-mile) strip of beaches north of the town of Broome.
The native title law, passed in 1993, sets out the way Australia's indigenous people can seek native title over land and waters, based on a litigation process but with an emphasis on agreement.
The Federal Court's decision, which dismantles public access to the beach, will be heard in the High Court later this year.
The Broome beaches are popular with locals, but the Kimberley Land Council, which represents the area's traditional owners, says it is vital the local indigenous community's cultural connection to the beaches is not undermined by public access.
"Culturally, Aboriginal people have an obligation to look after the country, whether that equates to managing it or making decisions about it," said the council's CEO, Nolan Hunter, in a phone interview.
The idea of universal public access to land stems from Australia's colonial history, he added.
A spokeswoman for Australia's attorney general stressed that the appeal by the federal and state governments does not challenge the native title rights to the beaches.
It only "seeks to preserve existing public access to and enjoyment of specific parts of the beds and banks of waterways and coastal areas," the spokeswoman said.
Over in Victoria, Mifsud hopes the results of these conversations about access to heritage sites will help set the course for the state's ongoing treaty negotiations with its indigenous community.
Australia is the only Commonwealth country that does not have a treaty with its indigenous people, although the government has said it will hold a national vote within three years on whether to include recognition of indigenous people in its constitution.
The Victoria government passed legislation in June 2018, which is set to make it the first Australian state to have a formal legislated agreement with its Aboriginal population.
"If there is a dispute over the logic of supporting the preservation and protection of heritage ... there's much more work to be done in this country than many of us would like to believe," said Mifsud.