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Budj Bim Cultural Landscape

Date of Submission: 20/01/2017
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Department of the Environment and Energy
State, Province or Region:
South Western Victoria
Coordinates: GDA 94 Zone 54 577865E 5783992N
Ref.: 6167
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The Gunditjmara Aboriginal people (represented by the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation) have taken the lead in proposing the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape for inclusion on Australia’s World Heritage Tentative List with the support of the Victorian and Australian governments. If nominated for World Heritage listing, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape would be the first Australian World Heritage site to be nominated exclusively for Aboriginal cultural values. The Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape is already included on Australia’s National Heritage List (Australian Government 2004).

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, located in South West Victoria, includes evidence of one of the world’s largest and oldest aquaculture systems, dating to about 6600 years ago. At the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, Aboriginal people used the abundant local volcanic rock to construct fish traps, weirs and ponds to manage water flows from nearby Lake Condah to exploit short finned eels (Anguilla australis) and other fish as a food source.

Gunditjmara people have a continuous association with the landscape, dating from before European contact and settlement to the present. This was recognised in a native title determination in 2007 in which the Australian Government recognised that Gunditjmara people have an unbroken connection to their traditional lands since before European colonisation (National Native Title Tribunal 2007a). The continuous interrelationship of Gunditjmara people’s cultural systems and the environment is documented through considerable archaeological and historical records, and extensive Gunditjmara cultural knowledge.

The evidence of Gunditjmara people’s management and manipulation of the environment and natural resources over time at the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape challenges the common perception and assumption of Australia’s First People’s as having all been hunter-gatherers living in resource constrained environments. The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape has contributed to an alternative and much more complex view of Aboriginal economy and lifestyle where people were actively intervening in and managing the productivity of the country on which they were living (Coutts et al 1978, Pascoe 2014).


The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is located on the Budj Bim lava flow, which was the result of a volcanic eruption of Budj Bim (Mt Eccles) approximately 30,000 years ago. The volcanic features are of exceptional significance to Gunditjmara cultural tradition, as Gunditjmara people witnessed the eruption of Budj Bim and interpret the mountain as an ancestral being, revealing itself in the landscape. This oral tradition has been preserved for at least 30,000 years. The lava flow is approximately 18 kilometres in length and up to 8 kilometres in width. The lava flow dammed pre-existing valleys to form extensive swamps and lakes including Lake Condah, a low-lying swampy area approximately 4 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide, which is surrounded by a volcanic landscape of bare basalt outcrops known as ‘the Stony Rises’.

Research has concluded that Gunditjmara people have used the hydrological systems of the lava flow for the systematic trapping and farming of eels, for about 6600 years (McNiven et al 2012). The physical evidence of this system is extensive, with large-scale modification of local hydrological regimes occurring along some 30 kilometres of waterways. The highly productive aquaculture system provided the economic and social base for Gunditjmara people who lived along the Budj Bim lava flow.

The extensive collection of wetland swamps and sink-hole depressions located on the lava flow provided an ideal habitat for eels and other fish that was intensively manipulated by Gunditjmara people to enhance seasonal availability. Gunditjmara people harnessed the productive potential of this system by constructing a series of eel traps to farm the eels that migrated seasonally through the system. Many of the trapping systems were designed to operate at variable flood levels, which allowed the system to be used in varying environmental conditions and required minimal alteration. The aquaculture system includes: channels excavated across the lava flow, channel walls, and trapping systems constructed from basalt stone. The locations of these were carefully chosen to take advantage of the natural topography and existing hydrology. Some of the channels are hundreds of metres long (the largest recorded system measuring 350 metres in length) and involved modifying the flow of considerable quantities of water.

Evidence at Darlots Creek indicates ‘penning’ of eels, where dammed depressions and swamps were used to hold young eels and to provide favourable long-term conditions for maturity. Although the fish trapping systems were likely constructed at least 6600 years ago, archaeological evidence indicates that modifications also occurred approximately 800 years ago (McNiven et al 2010 and 2012). Historical records provide evidence for use of the systems during the mid-late nineteenth and early twentieth Century by Gunditjmara people living at nearby Lake Condah Mission.

In addition to the construction of eel trapping systems, archaeological evidence suggests Gunditjmara people constructed dams to maintain water levels. Increases in water-level at Lake Condah which occured during the mid-Holocene (approximately 4600 years ago), when other water bodies throughout South West Victoria experienced a reduction in water level due to climate change. This artificial manipulation of the water bodies of the Budj Bim lava flow may represent a technological response to climatic variability in order to maintain water levels and facilitate the continuation of the aquaculture-based socio economic system.

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape also includes evidence of what has been interpreted as permanent or semi-permanent settlement associated with the aquaculture systems - including stone structures thought to be houses. The stone structures consist of C-shaped features usually 3-4 metres in diameter with 3-5 tiers of stones forming low walls. Ethnographic evidence indicates that the stone walls supported arched posts to form a dome roofed structure covered in wicker and sod for insulation and rainproofing. Earth oven mounds - typically less than 1 metre in height and 10 metres in diameter - are located near swamp margins, and contain a wide variety of faunal remains and earth oven features (Williams 1985).

The volcanic landscape supports a tall woodland of Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), native grasses and herbaceous plants. The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is currently occupied by the Yarra pygmy perch (threatened nationally), dwarf galaxias, and a healthy population of the shortfinned eel. The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape includes numerous significant plant species of conservation status. The condition of the wetland ecology of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is good and has improved as a result of the Gunditjmara people’s restoration of Lake Condah’s hydrology in 2010.

The Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape included on the National Heritage List is an area of approximately 8,155 hectares, with 3,000 hectares independently owned and managed by Gunditjmara people. This area comprises Mount Eccles National Park, the Lake Condah Indigenous Protected Area, and the Lake Condah Mission. It is proposed that the area to be nominated for World Heritage listing would largely correlate to the area inscribed on the National Heritage List. The precise boundary will be revised prior to World Heritage nomination and will take into consideration the extent of the lava flow, the location of recorded fish traps and stone structures, and the views of relevant landowners.

Management and conservation:

Management of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is currently conducted by Gunditjmara Traditional Owners through co-management agreements with the Victorian Government. A co-management agreement between the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and the Victorian Government was formalised with the establishment of the Budj Bim Council, consisting of Gunditjmara representatives, and the Victorian Government. The co-management agreement is reflected in the Ngootyyoong Gunditj, Ngootyoong Mara South West Management Plan, which outlines how the protected area will be managed to conserve, protect and enhance natural and cultural values while providing recreation and tourism opportunities and other community benefits. The management plan area encompasses the area of the 2007 Gunditjmara Native Title Consent agreement between the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and the State of Victoria. The Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation also independently owns and manages ten properties which include important cultural and natural values. It is the intention of the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation to incorporate additional properties within the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape that contain important natural and cultural values, into the management plan.

Currently, a team of nine Budj Bim Rangers manage, conserve, and protect the natural and cultural values of Gunditjmara owned properties along the Budj Bim lava flow. The duties of the rangers consist of a variety of tasks, including cultural burning programs, designed to conserve and enhance existing natural and cultural values, the establishment of tourism and visitor facilities, and the development and delivery of education programs for students and rural land managers.

In addition to management and conservation plans, Gunditjmara people have produced a Budj Bim Master Plan, which establishes the requirements for sustainable tourism and visitation to the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape (Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation 2014). The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is situated near the Great Ocean Road, where existing Aboriginal tourism businesses and experiences are among the most mature and established within regional Victoria. Tourism and education opportunities of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape were identified in Victoria’s Aboriginal Tourism Development Strategy 2013 – 2018.

The Victorian Government is strongly supportive of World Heritage listing for Budj Bim Cultural Landscape and has announced it will provide $8 million for the Gundijt Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation to implement stages one and two of the Budj Bim Master Plan to support tourism infrastructure projects while providing economic opportunities for the Traditional Owners and strengthening their bid for World Heritage listing (Premier of Victoria 2016).

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) provides protection for Australian heritage sites inscribed on the National and World Heritage lists. Approval is required under the EPBC Act for any action that will have a significant impact on the values of a listed place. A significant impact is one that could cause a World Heritage value to be lost, degraded, damaged, notably altered, modified, obscured or diminished.

The EPBC Act provides for the production and implementation of plans of management for heritage places inscribed on the National and World Heritage lists. Management plans identify the significant heritage aspects of the place and how its values can be managed in consideration of World Heritage obligations, and different land‐uses.

The Aboriginal cultural heritage of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is also protected by Victoria’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006. Under this legislation, Aboriginal cultural heritage places or objects cannot be harmed without prior approval from the State Government, or the relevant Registered Aboriginal Party. The Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, the organisation representing Gunditjmara people, is an appointed Registered Aboriginal Party under this legislation. The Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 2007 give effect to the Act. The Regulations set out the circumstances in which a cultural Heritage management plan (CHMP) is required to be prepared, and the standards for the preparation of a CHMP. In summary, a CHMP plan is required for an activity if all or part of the activity area for the activity is an area of cultural heritage sensitivity and all or part of the activity is a high impact activity.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape includes evidence of one of the world’s oldest known aquaculture systems. Gunditjmara people constructed an extensive and technologically sophisticated aquaculture system on the Budj Bim lava flow. Gunditjmara people were able to harvest and farm large quantities of the migrating short finned eel (Anguilla australis) while maintaining a sustainable eel population by manipulating seasonal flooding through the creation of stone channels. Archaeological excavations at the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape conducted by McNiven and Bell (2010) ‘provide evidence for…an early phase of channel construction by removal of basalt bedrock blocks at least 6600 years ago, and two recent phases of channel rock wall construction within the past 600-800 years.’ The age of the aquaculture system, its degree of preservation and completeness, and the continuity of Gunditjmara traditional practices make the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape an exceptional, organically evolving heritage site and continuing cultural landscape.

The attributes of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape are expressed in the interrelationships of cultural and environmental systems; these include Gunditjmara law, knowledge, social practices, the aquaculture system, the volcanic and hydrological systems, and the ecological and biological systems especially of eels. The interrelationships and the interdependence of these systems underpin the values of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape.

The aquaculture system is representative of an ‘intensively manipulated eco-cultural landscape’ (McNiven 2010). These are natural environments that have been manipulated by societies to modify local ecologies, in order to increase production of specific resources. The system of traps, channels, and growing ponds within the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape were designed not only to trap eels, but also to modify the hydrology of the environment and increase production of other plant and fish resources within the system. Moreover, archaeological evidence indicates that damming of water bodies on the Budj Bim lava flow was a technological response to climate change, revealing a remarkable degree of innovative environmental manipulation. The aquaculture system at the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape challenges the traditional dichotomy of hunter gatherer and agricultural societies and establishes it as universally significant and representative of a geo-cultural category, of an ‘intensively manipulated eco-cultural landscape’.

Criterion (iii): McNiven and Bell (2010:86) describe Gunditjmara people as eel fishers and farmers, a tradition passed down from their elders and enshrined across their wetland landscapes in the form of ancient and elaborate stone-walled fish trapping aquaculture facilities. This practice forms part of the oral history of many families, with numerous stories passed down about fishing from the region’s waterways. Therefore:

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape bears an exceptional testimony to the knowledge and ingenuity of Gunditjmara people in the creation of an eel aquaculture system that has likely endured for at least the last 6000 years.

Criterion (iv): Gunditjmara people harnessed the productive potential of the landscape by constructing a series of eel traps along margins of lakes to harvest and farm the eels that migrated seasonally through the system. The pre-contact Aboriginal cultural landscape of Lake Condah challenges past perceptions of Aboriginal people and offers important new understandings and ways of seeing the Aboriginal history of South-Eastern Australia. Therefore:

The Gunditjmara aquaculture system in the landscape of Budj Bim is an outstanding representative example of increasingly specialised systems of Indigenous resource management evident in the archaeological record of many parts of the world from about 10,000 years ago.

Criterion (v): A key dimension of Gunditjmara land management is the conservation of their ancestral waterways and wetlands (McNiven and Bell 2010:86). The interweaving of Gunditjmara land and waterway management, cultural heritage, eel fishing, and identity is exemplified by the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape.

Archaeological investigations have revealed a landscape scale fishery throughout the entire southern portion of the Budj Bim lava flow (Builth 2004). The environment at the time of European arrival was an anthropogenic product reflecting human ingenuity. It had been created, maintained and managed by the collective multigenerational knowledge of Gunditjmara people, and involved a cooperative, governed society. Therefore:

The organically evolved cultural landscape of Budj Bim is testimony to the lives of Gunditjmara people, being an outstanding representative example of human interaction with the environment evidenced in the system of water management to enhance natural resources, that was likely established at least 6600 years ago, on the patchwork of wetlands created by the Budj Bim lava flow.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Andrews and Buggey (2008:70) have noted that “Aboriginal cultural landscapes are living landscapes that change as time progresses, where oral tradition is the canon of proof and where changing practices of embodied experience with landscapes grow from generation to generation, all the while being acted out on a global stage. Any test of authenticity, therefore must recognise, expect, and endorse changes”.

The archaeological and environmental evidence for the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is exceptionally well preserved and has a high degree of authenticity. The water management system continues to function and has been rigorously documented through extensive archaeological research over the past 40 years, and the recording of traditional knowledge of the Gunditjmara community. Additionally, the use and maintenance of the aquaculture system by Gunditjmara people was documented historically by the Government surveyor, Alexander Ingram, in 1893. Ingram produced a map of the aquaculture system during this period, which is currently held by the South Australia Museum (Richards 2011).

The authenticity of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is also evident in the continuing association of Gunditjmara people with the landscape and their traditional and historical knowledge of the life cycle of eels and the practices associated with their trapping and farming, including the construction of stone weirs, and weaving of fibre fish traps. In March 2007, the Australian Federal Court granted native title to Gunditjmara people, stating that ‘...Gunditjmara were able to prove their strong and unrelenting connection to this area [the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape] where their ancestors farmed eels for food and trade, at the time of European settlement and back through millennia’ (National Native Title Tribunal 2007b).

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape has a high level of integrity, which was enhanced through the restoration of Lake Condah’s hydrology in 2010. The use of stone and the lack of major development on the Budj Bim lava flow mean that the primary components of the extensive aquaculture system have survived and can be identified in the landscape. Much of the Budj Bim lava flow has not been cleared of vegetation and the fish trap systems are in remarkably good condition. Recent investigations have revealed that the aquaculture system is considerably more extensive than that recorded by Ingram in 1893 (Richards 2011); and that it is readily identifiable and exceptionally well preserved. As noted earlier, archaeological investigations have provided evidence for both the earliest Aboriginal fish trap facility constructed within the Budj Bim lava flow, and also of enhancement of the facility in the more recent past. Specifically, excavations of the ‘Muldoons Trap Complex’ revealed two stages of construction: an early stage strongly suggested to have occurred at least 6600 years ago, and a more recent stage occurring within the past 800 years (McNiven and Bell 2010, McNiven et al 2012 and 2015).

In summary, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is an intact and representative example of an ‘intensively manipulated eco-cultural landscape’ that has survived through the continuity of Gunditjmara cultural and social practices and active management of the landscape.

Comparison with other similar properties

An independent comparative analysis report has concluded that the potential Outstanding Universal Value of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape derives from the interaction between Gunditjmara people’s cultural systems – including Gunditjmara law, knowledge, and social systems - and their environment, particularly the interconnected volcanic landscape known by the Aboriginal name as the Budj Bim lava flow (Context Pty Ltd 2013). The volcanic cone which dominates the landscape is commonly known as Mt Eccles. Gunditjmara people’s cultural systems are interrelated with the volcanic, hydrological, ecological, and biological systems of the Budj Bim lava flow, especially those of eels. It is these interrelationships that underpin the values of the heritage site and establish it as a cultural landscape.

The comparative analysis evaluated the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape against comparable sites within the theme of ‘intensively manipulated eco-cultural landscapes’ (Context Pty Ltd 2013: 28-36). Such landscapes are defined as natural environments that have been manipulated by societies to modify local ecologies so that they increase production of certain plants and animal resources for human use. A key dimension of these landscapes is that local ecologies are not radically altered but selectively enhanced. The values of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape have been compared to those of other sites that belong within this geo-cultural region.

Eel fishing sites are located throughout South West Victoria in Australia, including at Toolondo and Mt William in the Grampians (or Gariwerd in Aboriginal language), a series of rugged sandstone mountain ranges 260km west of Melbourne in Victoria. Of these sites, however, those associated with the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape are the most documented and best preserved. Other Aboriginal Australian fish trap sites, such as the Brewarrina Fish Trap in northern New South Wales, although indicating a highly sophisticated mechanism for trapping fish, lack the evidence for resource enhancement evident within the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape. In addition, the strength of the interrelationships between the landscape and the cultural systems are more evident within the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape. Similarly, these interrelationships have not been well established within the large number of fish trap sites recorded throughout Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands.

Other fish trap sites may lack the integrity of those of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape. Māori fish trap sites (pa tuna) were once widespread throughout New Zealand. However, due to the construction materials (wood and brush), limited evidence of this practice survives (Context Pty Ltd 2013: 61-62). In contrast, fish traps constructed by Native Hawaiians were manufactured from large stones that required substantial labour to install and maintain. Similar to those of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, these fish traps (such as Kaloko and Aimakapa at the Kaloko-Hono-Honokohau Historical National Park) were associated with stocking and raising resources, as opposed to exclusively trapping. However, the scale and social context of the Hawaiian fish trap complexes, forming part of large-scale agriculture and irrigation systems, are more aligned with Indigenous agricultural societies than intensively manipulated eco-cultural landscapes (Context Pty Ltd 2013: 62-63). Similarly, irrigation systems constructed by the Paiute Native Americans in the Owens Valley, California in the USA, have been interpreted as a social shift to a more settled, agricultural lifestyle as a consequence of climate change. The integrity of the Owens Valley irrigation systems has been significantly diminished by subsequent land use (Context Pty Ltd 2013: 63).

The fish traps most similar to those of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape are those constructed by the Ajumawi at the Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park in California, USA. The Ajumawi constructed fish traps within waterways associated with 3000 - 5000 year old lava flows. These traps were a form of resource manipulation, improving spawning conditions, and enabling selective harvest. The attributes of the Ajumawi fish traps are most similar to those of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape. In both, the wetland landscape has been created by lava flow and the aquaculture systems incorporated stone traps to create a habitat for aquatic species (Context Pty Ltd 2013: 66). Despite the similarities of their attributes, these sites are associated with different cultural groups whose origins are in separate continents. The similarities in the sites support the universality of ‘Indigenous intensively manipulated eco-cultural landscapes’.

Of the properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, five cultural landscapes are considered to have Outstanding Universal Value that is specifically related to the sustainable exploitation of natural resources, and therefore the potential Outstanding Universal Value of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape. The Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Palau, includes evidence for the exploitation of marine resources and permanent settlement (from approximately 1200 AD) in the form of stone villages. The intersection of natural and cultural systems is also evident at the landscape scale in the Saloum Delta, Senegal, and Head-Smashed in Buffalo Jump, Canada. These properties include evidence for the processing of resources, specifically shellfish at the Saloum Delta, and buffalo at Head-Smashed in Buffalo Jump. In all three of these properties, the documentary and archaeological record indicates harvesting of resources in large quantities and processing to preserve the food resource for later consumption or trade. The values of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape are also reflected in the prehistoric caves of Yagul, Oaxaca, Mexico. Archaeological evidence recovered from the caves provides evidence for a gradual shift from social groups based on hunting to those based on settled agriculture. Similarly, archaeological data recovered from the Kuk Early Agricultural Site, Papua New Guinea, provides evidence for the gradual development of systematic agriculture and the earliest evidence for plant domestication within Oceania (Context Pty Ltd 2013: 70).

Of properties identified on the World Heritage Tentative Lists of other State Parties, five cultural landscapes are considered to have Outstanding Universal Value that is primarily related to the exploitation or manipulation of natural resources. In Barotse Cultural Landscape, Zambia; Ivvavik National Park of Canada, Vuntut National Park of Canada and Herschel Island (Qikiqtaruk) Territorial Park; and the Pre-Hispanic Hydraulic System of the San Jorge River, Colombia – these values are expressed in the manipulation of water resources. Also in Barotse Cultural Landscape; and the Pre-Hispanic Hydraulic System of the San Jorge River, as well as Aasivitssuit, Arnangarnup Qoorua, Denmark, there is evidence for increasing intensity of the exploitation or manipulation of natural resources over time, similar to that identified at the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape (Context Pty Ltd 2013: 66).

All five sites identified on State Party Tentative Lists are Indigenous cultural landscapes illustrative of practices associated with the use or harvesting of specific natural resources.  Together with the five properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, these sites can be considered a distinct category of the World Heritage system, although they have not previously been recognised as such. In each site or property, their values are expressed through significantly different attributes and evidence that are a product of the cultural practices, environmental opportunities, and constraints of a specific location. The geographic spread of the properties and the diversity of their evidence strengthen claims for these sites reflecting themes of universal significance. All demonstrate through tangible evidence, and some through continuing community knowledge, the sophisticated ecological knowledge and technical and engineering expertise that underpins Indigenous resource management.

The very small number of properties of similar values to those of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape that have been inscribed on the World Heritage List is not surprising given the relatively small number of World Heritage Indigenous cultural landscapes and sites with Indigenous values in general that have been included on the World Heritage List. While expressing similar values through similar attributes, these sites have no direct cultural relationship, but demonstrate a particular human response to the opportunities offered by the environment and climate change. The comparative analysis emphasised the great diversity of Indigenous cultural landscapes that are associated with the exploitation of specific natural resources. The comparative analysis distinguishes the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape as a rare Indigenous Australian expression of these values which would fill a gap on the World Heritage List and be an outstanding demonstration of an intensively manipulated eco-cultural landscape (Context Pty Ltd 2013: 72).