Daisy Dumas, The Guardian, August 28, 2023
A UN agency was forced to remove a “hurtful” document that for more than 40 years publicly claimed Tasmanian Aboriginal people were extinct.
The inaccurate claim, stating that “Tasmanians are now an extinct race of humans”, was made as part of the nomination process for the declaration of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and its addition to the world heritage list in 1982.
The reference was included in the technical evaluation of the temperate wilderness area, which now encompasses about one-fifth of Tasmania’s landmass, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The review also suggested the survival of the thylacine, which is believed to have gone extinct in 1936:
“With … important Aboriginal sites (the Tasmanians are now an extinct race of humans), and many endangered species of plants and animals (including, perhaps, the thylacine or Tasmanian wolf), the area is unique and special at a world scale.”
In May, the Australian reported that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) had refused to remove the erroneous reference. The agency refuted that claim, saying it had not been contacted regarding the statement, and confirmed the reference was removed the day the article was published.
“As soon as the World Heritage Centre was informed of this issue … the document was removed from the World Heritage website pending revision by IUCN, the Unesco advisory body that produced the document in 1982,” a Unesco spokesperson told the ABC on Monday.
“Unesco is very committed to the recognition and consideration of Indigenous populations for the protection of world heritage sites.
“The World Heritage Centre therefore agreed with IUCN to have its 1982 report amended to take into account scientific data collected since that date, which confirms that the Tasmanians are not extinct.”
Palawa elder and the chair of Tasmania’s Aboriginal Heritage Council, Rodney Dillon, said the inaccuracy speaks of the longstanding mistreatment of Aboriginal people.
“Our people feel the sadness, the hurt. It’s pretty typical of people in these positions … they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years,” he told Guardian Australia.
“Of all the people in the world who you’d think would understand this and be sensitive about it, it would be the UN. If that’s how little they think of us, how do they represent us?”
A document from the Department of Climate Change, Energy and the Environment in May stated that it is important to formally acknowledge that the 1982 IUCN document is “incorrect and offensive and that the record cannot stand”.
“The Tasmanian wilderness is one of the world’s largest temperate wilderness areas. It is a precious cultural landscape for Tasmanian Aboriginal people, who have lived there for at least 35,000 years,” the ministry’s website says.
Tanya Plibersek, the federal minister for the environment, said she asked the UN to correct the record at a meeting in Paris in May and that the error served to undermine Aboriginal history.
“Like many people, I was shocked when I first learned that a Unesco document stated that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were ‘extinct’,” she told Guardian Australia.
“We now know how wrong, insulting and hurtful that term is.”
She said she welcomed Unesco’s removal of the offensive document and is working with the agency to fix the original statement to reflect the enormous cultural heritage value of the Tasmanian wilderness.
Plibersek also told the ABC: “Generations of Australians were taught the wrong thing at school, they were taught a history that isn’t true.”
The corrected Unesco statement, the Retrospective Statement of Outstanding Universal Value for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, is expected to be adopted in September.
Dillon added that the correction does “not go anywhere near far enough” to make up for the damage done by the original statement.