Farmers are worried they could go bankrupt or be sent to jail for falling foul of contentious new Aboriginal cultural heritage laws, a fiery South West community forum has heard. Another issue that emerged as a flashpoint for Waroona landholders at the packed-out Monday town hall meeting is the high cost of commissioning surveys and a 20-fold increase in the maximum penalty for breaking the rules - plus the additional prospect of jail. Trent Rogers, the third generation of his family to toil on the same local block, told the forum he was concerned about a section of the Act regarding intangible “oral expression of cultural tradition” and Aboriginal corporations could “ransom” landowners to provide consultation about it. “They can make it up as they go,” the young dad and beef farmer said. “And as a landowner, we can’t disagree or question any decision of the LACHS (Local Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Services) regarding permit approvals. “Basically, those Aboriginal corporations can ransom you in any way they feel and there is absolutely nothing you can do. “How’s this not discrimination towards non-Indigenous Australians? How does this not infringe on private property rights . . . and how is this not a caveat on our properties?” After the 250-strong crowd applauded those remarks, Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage representative Cesar Rodriguez said he took Mr Rogers’ point and drew bitter laughter from attendees when he added: “I don’t believe that will happen”. Raymond English complained the process was “very convoluted”, saying he had been instructed to obtain a heritage survey of Swan View land when applying to subdivide it and was quoted $26,000 from a list of consultants provided by the council. Mr English said he then learnt a survey had already been done, by the same consultant from whom he obtained the quote. “It’s open to fraud and deceit,” he said. Mr Rodriguez attempted for two hours to ease the crowd’s concerns, explaining how like-for-like activities — working the same paddock that had been worked for years or replacing fence posts along an existing fence line — didn’t require permission. He also confirmed a landowner was allowed to dig a hole to bury an animal where it lay. A man told the meeting he had just returned from overseas only to discover he was up for an additional $8000 for his project as a result of the new rules. “All of the Government regulations we’re having piled on us and we’ve now got live export that we’re all nervous about,” he said. “What I would like to know is why our property rights are being eroded? “And I would like to know why, if this is so important to the country or the State, the State Government is not paying?” On top of the survey cost impost, Mr Rogers expressed deep concern at the penalties that could be handed to those who harmed Aboriginal cultural heritage, perhaps unwittingly. Mr Rodriguez confirmed that the maximum fine had jumped from $50,000 under the original 1972 version of the Act to $1 million under the “modernised” version, and/or five years imprisonment. “Everyone’s worried about going bankrupt or going to jail,” Mr Rogers said. “We just want to live our lives and not disturb it but we don’t know, that’s the problem.” Mr Rodriguez agreed that knowledge was an issue but said the same obligations to protect cultural heritage existed under the previous version of the Act. “The same maps existed . . . I do understand the frustration and we don’t have all the information but that part hasn’t changed,” he said. A woman said she had trained as an archaeologist for four years to learn what Aboriginal cultural heritage was, asking: “How are these good people going to be able to tell?” Several people also expressed concern that they would be unable to sell their land if cultural heritage was found. “This is very easy to swallow for corporates,” one man said. “We’re not corporates or most of us aren’t. “The new fines are not proportionate. This will make us sell our farms.” The WA government has stressed it will be taking more of an educative than punitive stance in the first 12 months and that changes may be made to the Act after consultation. Opposition Leader Shane Love said the confusion had been caused by the WA Government’s “shambolic implementation”. “Our regional communities are the ones driving our economy and feeding the nation: Government should not stand in the way of these communities doing business,” Mr Love said. He called on Premier Roger Cook to extend the “educative” phase until the State election in March 2025, “giving West Australians the right to decide whether they want these laws themselves”.