Indigenous Australians Fight to Protect Sacred Art From Industry and Pollution

Standing before a sacred rock site, Clinton Walker called out an acknowledgment to his ancestors in the language of the Ngarluma people.

In the early morning, it was quiet, save for his voice and the chirping of birds. Surrounded by mountains of rock carvings and arrangements denoting tens of thousands of years of continuous Aboriginal heritage, he could feel the land thrum with the spirit of his ancestors.

But underneath it all was a low hum — the interminable, inescapable drone of industry across the peninsula.

“This place, you feel it. It’s alive,” he said. “But this mob are trying to kill it.”

The Burrup Peninsula, on Australia’s northwest coast, is home to a million petroglyphs believed to be up to 50,000 years old. They document extinct animals and include some of the oldest depictions of the human face.

The peninsula, called Murujuga by Aboriginal people, is also what the state government calls the “gateway to Australia’s biggest oil and gas operations.” A major liquefied natural gas project in the works is set to supercharge drilling off the coast, and plants will be built to process it.

Some traditional custodians of the land say the projects threaten a place they hold deeply sacred.

A petroglyph on the peninsula. Murujuga is home to one of the largest and oldest collections of rock art in the world, including some of the earliest depictions of the human face.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times
A rock art carving depicting a kangaroo in Murujuga National Park. “Once the artwork is gone, we can’t get it back,” said Ms. Cooper, a co-founder of the Save Our Songlines group.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

The fight to protect Murujuga is the latest in a string of high-profile controversies involving Aboriginal heritage that have embroiled mining and resources companies and exposed the mechanics of what experts and Indigenous people describe as a deeply unequal relationship between the people who traditionally belong to the land, and those who extract billions of dollars in profit from it.

“We don’t have the voice to say no,” said Mr. Walker, a traditional, or Indigenous, owner who works as a tour guide and teaches visitors about Murujuga’s significance. “We legally don’t.”

Australia’s mining and resources industry has been facing a reckoning since 2020, when the mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the archaeologically important Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia without the consent of traditional owners, but with approval of the state government.

The resulting global outcry “drew attention to something that was business as usual,” said Kado Muir, the leader of the National Native Title Council.

The Yara Pilbara nitrate plant in Murujuga, one of the world’s largest ammonia production facilities.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

The episode prompted inquiries, promises and changes. Western Australia overhauled its Aboriginal heritage protection laws, and the federal government last month committed to writing better nationwide laws.

But Indigenous leaders and experts say that in a country where mining is king, the struggle over Murujuga shows that the scales are still tipped against Aboriginal people seeking to protect their heritage.

Central to that struggle are two Aboriginal groups: the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, the recognized body responsible for protecting Aboriginal heritage on the peninsula, and Save Our Songlines, a breakaway group that says the former is hamstrung by longstanding agreements with the government and by reliance on funding from the same companies now threatening that heritage.

Save Our Songlines fears that industrial pollution on the peninsula is eroding the petroglyphs — a concern supported by some scientists who say there is evidence that acid rain, resulting from the nitrous oxide in emissions from the plants, is wearing away the thin layer of varnish used to create the artworks.

“Once the artwork is gone, we can’t get it back,” said Raelene Cooper, a co-founder of Save Our Songlines and a former board member of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.

The footprint of industry is set to increase. Last year, Woodside Energy Group received approval to drill for gas on the Scarborough field off the coast of Western Australia and to expand its liquefied natural gas processing plant on the peninsula. The project will be one of Australia’s most polluting developments, progressive research institutes and experts say, estimating that it will release an additional 1.5 billion to nearly 1.8 billion tons of emissions over its lifetime..

“We don’t have the voice to say no,” said Clinton Walker, a traditional owner who works as a tour guide and teaches visitors about Murujuga’s significance.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Murujuga is the site of some of the first creation stories in Aboriginal culture, Ms. Cooper said, and the root of many songlines — intangible spiritual paths that crisscross the country, passed down through song and imparting important cultural knowledge. Every petroglyph tells a story and documents a direct connection to ancestors who lived tens of thousands of years ago, she said. If the artwork is eroded, “the significance of that story is lost.”

Woodside Energy says there is no reliable research to demonstrate that emissions are affecting Murujuga’s rock art. “Peer-reviewed research has not demonstrated any impacts on Burrup rock art from emissions associated with Woodside’s operations,” a company spokesman said in a statement, referencing previous industry-funded studies.

But some scientists have questioned the data that the research relies on, which they say was not collected consistently or in a way that allowed the effects of pollution to be tracked.

“At this point we don’t know the answer,” said Jo McDonald, the director of the Center for Rock Art Research and Management at the University of Western Australia. “And it’s a shame we don’t know, because obviously people have been asking that question for 15 years, but the early studies were not the right ones.”

Residential lots for sale in Karratha, a town near the peninsula that has experienced a boom in recent years because of the jobs created by the gas industry.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Save Our Songlines has another, more immediate concern: A new urea plant will be built by the multinational Perdaman Industries to process the gas extracted by Woodside. It will require some sacred rock sites to be moved — a process Ms. Cooper likened to “severing your neck.”

“There’s some marnda, or rock art,” she said, and “once you move that rock out, the spiritual energy within that marnda is gone. It dissipates, it’s disconnected.”

The group petitioned the federal government to stop the plant’s construction but was denied. The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the petition was not supported by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.

The corporation has stressed that it has no power of approval over the urea plant and acts only as an advisory body.

Responding to emailed questions, Peter Jeffries, the corporation’s chairman, said that after extensive consultation with Perdaman about the sacred rock sites, “it was ultimately determined that a number of sites could not be avoided by the proposed development and it was the strong preference of the Circle of Elders that if the development were to go ahead, then these sites should be relocated to an area outside of the development footprint.”

Ms. Cooper meeting with Australia’s environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, center, to discuss concerns over the gas industry’s impact on rock art, in Hearson’s Cove, Murujuga.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Perdaman did not respond to calls and emails for comment.

The Western Australian government says its new heritage laws, which will start next year, focus on “agreement making” between companies and Aboriginal organizations, and put “traditional owners at the heart of decision making.” But critics argue the legislation fails to address the key issue, which is that in the case of disagreements, final say rests with the state minister for Aboriginal affairs, not with the traditional owners.

“We still do not enable traditional owners to say ‘no’ or veto a project,” said Kristen Lyons, a professor of sociology at the University of Queensland whose research focuses on mining and Indigenous rights. Instead, she said, they are “left negotiating the terms of a ‘yes’ by which the destruction or mining of their country will go on.”

Surveyors and engineers working on the proposed site for the Perdaman urea plant. The project will require some sacred rock sites to be moved.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Because of this, Aboriginal organizations will often choose to comply with mining companies, she said, aware that it “can be very risky financially to seek to veto a project, because it can rule you out from getting any remuneration if the project goes ahead.”

Financial considerations can be particularly pertinent in the rural areas where many developments take place.

Ms. Cooper and Save Our Songlines have lodged an application with the federal government to investigate the threats to Murujuga and determine whether it should receive protection. Their chances are slim; out of 500 applications over the last 40 years, only seven have been granted long-term protection.

But Ms. Cooper remains optimistic. She has to keep fighting, she says. “That is our obligation. That’s our bloodline and blood right to this country.”

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