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Indigenous Tasmanians protest disturbance of ancestral burial ground

Grace Crivellaro -

A protest disputing government works over an ancient burial site at Eaglehawk Neck has been deemed "a success, so far" by Tasmania's Aboriginal Land Council Chair, Michael Mansell.

Held on November 30, the protest involved a group of Tasmanian Aboriginal people from around the state gathering at Eaglehawk Neck on the Tasman Peninsula to stop works on a part of the Arthur Highway.

Under the recommendation of the Aboriginal Heritage Council, permits were granted to the State Government to commence works widening roads on the Arthur Highway, including the construction of new turning lanes and bus stops.

Preliminary site investigations including the digging of 90 test pits to bedrock directly over a highly sensitive 9,000-year-old Aboriginal burial site were also permitted.

Aboriginal Heritage Council Chair Rodney Dillon said research needed to be carried out to determine how far the burial site extended before road works commenced.

The proposed test-pitting over the burial sites were also intended to be a part of archaeological research to determine whether it was the site of a massacre.

Professor Lyndall Ryan told the ABC if the site is found to have the remains of up to 80 people, then it would be one of the most important sites on the map project.

However, Aboriginal community members were outraged.

Mansell said Tasmania's Aboriginal community will never consent to roadworks in proximity to the site.

"According to the government-approved plan, works will stop if human remains are discovered. Of course they will be discovered," Mansell said.

"We already know what was there. It's the skeletons of Aboriginal people that have been buried there over a long period of time."

An Aboriginal Health Worker at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Aaron Everett, who attended the protest, called the proposed works disgraceful.

"The biggest thing is that community couldn't actually understand why they'd do that. And they use the fact that they have government departments such as Aboriginal Heritage Tasmania and the Aboriginal Heritage Council and they automatically think that they stand for our people," said Everett.

"But they are still employees of the government and these decisions are not being made by the community."

"They wouldn't do that around a burial ground of their own so why should they do it to one of ours?"

Mansell said the State's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Roger Jaensch failed to consult the Aboriginal community about the proposed works.

However, Mansell noted the protest was successful, commenting that the government agreed to stop works and consult with the community.

"The protest got a lot of publicity," Mansell said.

"And the government then stopped the works and had negotiations with Aboriginal representatives."

Both Mansell and Everett called on the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1975 (TAS) to be changed to require consultation with community members.

"This whole Act is corrupt. It doesn't enable the government to deal with Aboriginal people as a check against what it's doing," Mansell said.

"It's just a way of the bureaucracy carrying out more and more expansion of white society at the expense of Aboriginal culture."

Everett suggested the government should look to upgrading the road before potentially interfering with the burial ground.

"We're proposing that if they do anything, that they upgrade the road that's there," he said.

"If they have an issue with how things are going if there's been incidents with the road ... do what you do in town, drop the speed limit."

By Grace Crivellaro

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