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Specific cultural impact examples

Explore cultural impact assessments and examples of heritage destruction, highlighting the importance of effective assessment and protection.
Aboriginal cave paintings in the Kimberley, Western Australia.

A cultural impact assessment is crucial in identifying the potential ways in which a proposed activity can impact areas, sites, and values that are of cultural heritage significance.

Such impacts can compromise or destroy them, leading to irretrievable losses. A cultural impact can affect cultural heritage value and includes impacts on sites, structures, and remains of archaeological, historical, religious, cultural, or aesthetic value.

One controversial example is the destruction by Rio Tinto in 2022 of a series of rock art caves in Western Australia, which were ancient sites for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama traditional landowners. In its bid to expand its operations for its iron ore mine in the Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto destroyed two caves in Juukan Gorge. These caves were 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters and the only inland site in Australia that showed human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age. This loss is not only tragic but also a loss for future generations as these sites held enormous spiritual and intangible value. This case exemplifies how the EIA process, in practice, failed to protect the values it was supposed to assess. Another example, also from Australia, is the $2.1 billion light rail project completed in Sydney, New South Wales, where a site holding over 2,400 stone artifacts was destroyed. This site was proof that Aboriginal people had used the area between 1788 and 1839 and its destruction meant the irretrievable loss of cultural heritage.

Uncastillo Fortress, Zaragoza, Spain Uncastillo Fortress, Zaragoza, Spain.

In some contexts, an activity such as building a bridge or road can cut through areas of great cultural significance holding enormous intangible as well as physical cultural value, for example, making a road or train line through a UNESCO-listed city. In some cases, restoration work itself might cause cultural impacts, and impact assessments will be necessary, such as the restoration of the Uncastillo Fortress described in the article by Mohaddes Khorassani et al. (2019). Acid rain, a classic consequence of development, causes damage to iconic buildings such as the Colosseum worldwide. The marine environment is not to be forgotten either! Developments can affect, dislodge, destroy, or disrupt maritime archaeological sites, and these sites will need assessment and protection. In the USA, maritime heritage, including prehistoric sites, shipwrecks, and naval battlefields, is protected by law. Many port, wharf, offshore wind, oil, and gas operations will have to take into account the potential impacts of any activity on maritime heritage. In England, guidelines exist for assessing and managing marine archaeology in any port and harbour development, and given the long maritime history of the English, there are many shipwrecks and other special cultural assets that will need to be accounted for in any proposed development. To read up on these guidelines, see The Assessment and Management of Marine Archaeology in Port and Harbor Development / Historic England. [1]

Various approaches can be used for cultural heritage assessments, each with specific techniques and approaches. These assessments can be desktop or empirical and range from talking to people to taking site samples to determine if built heritage is being affected by an activity. For more information on the range of approaches that can be undertaken, see the article by Partal and Dunphy (2016), titled “Cultural impact assessment: a systematic literature review of current methods and practice around the world.” [2]


1. Adriana Partal & Kim Dunphy (2016) Cultural impact assessment: a systematic literature review of current methods and practice around the world, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 34:1, 1-13, DOI: https://10.1080/14615517.2015.1077600

2. (n.d.). The Assessment and Management of Marine Archaeology in Port and Harbour Development | Historic England. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Apr. 2023].

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