Minister appoints independent consultant to investigate millennial rock art on WA’s Burrup Peninsula

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One of Australia’s most productive industrial areas will be in the spotlight, after the federal government appointed a freelance journalist to investigate claims that significant Aboriginal sites are under threat from continued development.

The growing industrial area of ​​the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region of WA is the site of the nation’s largest liquefied natural gas producer, Woodside, the Yara Pilbara Fertilizer Plant, and will soon be home to the Perdaman fertilizer plant.

Last month, Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek rejected an application for an emergency stoppage of work – filed as “Section 9” under federal Aboriginal Heritage Laws – by a group of traditional owners to prevent the Perdaman factory from displacing the sacred rock art.

But the government has now put forward a different application, commonly referred to as ‘Section 10’, to appoint a qualified person to review rock art claims in the area is at risk, and whether he is worthy of a ministerial declaration for the protect. .

Murujuga is home to one of the largest petroglyph collections in the world.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Both claims were filed by a group of traditional owners known as Save our Songlines, pursuant to the Torres Strait Islander Aboriginal Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSHIP Act).

“We’re pretty upbeat and positive,” said Raelene Cooper, frontman of Save our Songlines, Mardudunera.

“However, we understand that this is going to be a long and laborious process…and we still have these concerns about our rock art being…relocated.”

The rock art of Murujuga includes more than one million petroglyphs, spread over 37,000 hectares.

Traditional owners say it is a place where everything is connected and moving the rock carvings will damage their spiritual connection to the sites that tell the stories of their ancestors.

A spokesman for Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek said it was “normal” to appoint an independent consultant following an Article 10 request.

“The consultant will take the time necessary to prepare the report. There is no legal deadline,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“Our preference is for the rock art to remain in situ”

While the reporter may take months to investigate whether the industry poses a threat to the millennial rock art, Perdaman has already received all necessary state approvals to begin work on the plant and can begin immediately.

Ms. Cooper is a former member of the region’s official Aboriginal representative body, the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC).

The MAC does not have the authority to approve or reject development in the Burrup Industrial Estate, but has been consulted by Perdaman about his plans to move rock art.

“The Circle of Elders has made it clear on numerous occasions that it prefers rock art to remain in situ and undisturbed,” MAC CEO Peter Jeffries previously told the government in a letter.

“However, [Perdaman] repeatedly indicated that this was not possible and the Circle of Elders recommended moving these sites on this basis.”

Rock art on the Burrup Peninsula, depicting a snake.
The Save our Songlines section 10 app indicates that earth, sky, sea, plants, animals, knowledge and the spiritual world are connected to Murujuga.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Responding to the ABC about the appointment of a freelance journalist, Mr Jeffries said MAC had been contacted by the consultant and would speak with them as part of the process.

“MAC has a vested interest in the legislative protection of Murujuga and we hope the current reporting process will help clarify and strengthen some of the heritage protections we rely on,” Jeffries said in a statement.

The Save our Songlines section 10 application does not only challenge the Perdaman factory.

The group also expressed a number of other concerns, including the impact on the rock art of pollution from the growing industry problems of access to sacred sites on the Burrup Peninsula, as well as the “desecration visual” caused by a solar panel bank project connected to the Yara Pilbara hydrogen plant, close to where the rangers conduct cultural tours.

A spokesperson for Woodside, which has operated in the area for more than 40 years, said the company has undertaken extensive archaeological and ethnographic surveys with traditional owners.

A gasworks with two chimneys igniting at dusk, with trees in the foreground.
Woodside says it has engaged traditional owners and heritage experts to ensure its projects do not impact rock art.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The company said peer-reviewed research found no impact on rock art from emissions from local gas production.

But existing research has been called into question and the Western Australian government has set up a more extensive monitoring program to assess whether pollution is degrading ancient petroglyphs in the area.

Woodside said he supports this program.

“You can count them on one hand”

Save our Songlines remain optimistic that the next report will save their sacred sites from damage as development expands on the peninsula, but history suggests enforcement may not lead to long-term protections.

Raelene Cooper with the sun shining on her at dusk.
Raelene Coopers, who runs Save our Songlines, says she fights for justice for her land and her people.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

According to a report by the Productivity Commission in 2020, only seven out of 500 claims have resulted in long-term returns since the law came into effect in 1984.

Last year traditional owners in New South Wales successfully challenged the construction of a go-kart track on culturally significant land in Bathurst.

Native title lawyer Greg McIntyre SC – who was involved in the historic Mabo native title case – explained that it is common for the Minister to appoint a reporter to investigate, but this rarely leads to a restraining order. protection.

“There have been historical criticisms of this legislation as not being effective because so few applications are actually granted.”

Following the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters by Rio Tinto in 2020, a parliamentary inquiry into the disaster recommended an urgent and thorough review of the ATSHIP Act, to bring it into line with current international human rights standards. rights, which include free, prior and informed law. consent.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney told the ABC in July that the Labor government was committed to developing stand-alone cultural heritage legislation, but a timetable has yet to be set.

Mr McIntyre said that although current federal and state legislation is designed to avoid damage to Aboriginal heritage, it still puts “economic and resource industry interests before the Aboriginal significance of areas”.

“There is still no adequate comprehensive legislation or processes and recognition of the importance to Australia’s heritage of protecting the heritage of its First Nations peoples,” McIntyre said.

“There is no legislation in Australia that requires the consent of First Nations people before heritage is damaged.”

Ms Cooper said she wanted the Burrup Peninsula to represent a turning point for Indigenous Australians.

Raelene Cooper walks along the beach, with rocks in the background.
Raelene Cooper had hoped the government would also approve her group’s Article 9 request to put an emergency stoppage of work at the Perdaman fertilizer plant.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“It’s appalling that in our day and age we’re still being told as First Nations people to sit in the back seat, and that’s not me,” she said.

“If there is any advice for all my compatriots on this whole continent, [it’s that] we have a right and we have a history and we have a history here and our government needs to start recognizing it.

“It’s a matter of equality and quality of life for all.”

The ABC contacted Perdaman, Yara Industries and Australia’s Department of Water and Environmental Regulation, but did not receive a response by the deadline.

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