The NT has the strongest protection for sacred sites in the country.

Under the Northern Territory Sacred Sites Act, all sacred sites in the Northern Territory are protected from unauthorised entry or damage.

The consequences of damage, desecration or interference with sacred sites are immense, not only for Aboriginal people in terms of profound cultural loss and sanctions from their kin, but also prosecution, reputational costs and projects delays for developers, and the diminishment of the heritage of our nation as a whole.

The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, also known as the Authority or the AAPA, is the statutory body established under the Act to oversee the protection of sacred sites across the whole of the NT.

Primarily the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority protects sacred sites by

  • Maintaining records of identified sacred sites in the Northern Territory, and providing information to the public

  • Issuing Authority Certificates, which set out the conditions by which work can proceed in and around sacred sites

  • Investigating and prosecuting damage done to sites.

The AAPA has in place strict secrecy protocols to ensure the Aboriginal cultural restrictions and stories covering the registered sites are respected and maintained according to tradition.

The Authority currently has 13,746 documented sacred sites in its database. More than 5,000 of these sites are water places. This does not represent a definitive list of all sacred sites in the Northern Territory, and only reflects sites currently known to the AAPA.

When development is proposed, the Authority protects sacred sites by consulting with Aboriginal custodians to ensure they are fully informed about the project; setting out clear conditions for land users regarding proposed work in the vicinity of sacred sites via Authority Certificates; and prosecuting when required.

The Authority cannot and does not authorise the destruction of sacred sites.

The AAPA seeks to achieve practical outcomes by recognising and respecting the interests of Aboriginal custodians, landowners and developers, and by fostering understanding and enhancing relations between Aboriginal custodians and others about sacred sites.

Aboriginal heritage sites and objects are also protected in the NT under the Northern Territory Heritage Act. The Act automatically protects all Aboriginal and Macassan archaeological places and objects.

Aboriginal skeletal remains are also considered Aboriginal archaeological places and objects under the Heritage Act.

When skeletal remains are found in the Northern Territory, it is the police who should be contacted in the first instance. If they determine that the remains are not of a suspicious nature and may be of traditional Aboriginal origin, they will contact the Heritage Branch responsible for administering the Heritage Act. The Heritage Branch routinely works with the AAPA in order to consult the relevant custodians, and for advice on sacred sites in the vicinity of the burial area.

Whilst heritage protection is a matter for the NT Heritage Minister, on advice from the Heritage Council, many archaeological places, including shell middens, earth mounds, quarries, stone arrangements, petroglyphs, rock shelters or rock art can have an Aboriginal tradition associated with them as defined under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (1976), and they are therefore considered sacred sites for the purposes of the Sacred Sites Act and are also protected by the AAPA.

AAPA staff reviewing a map
Two people reviewing a map on a beach