Race and power collide in a fight over sacred rock art in remote AustraliaNews

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Race and power collide in a fight over sacred rock art in remote Australia

By Amanda Caroline  •  September 24, 2022  •  19

Near a dry, red rock peninsula on Australia’s far western coast, a dusty highway separates two communities with contrasting fortunes tied to an ancient land.

One is home to the small but booming city of Karratha, a regional hub scattered with four-wheel drives that was purpose-built in the 1960s to accommodate a growing army of miners looking to extract the land’s vast stores of iron ore, oil and gas.

The other is Roebourne, a former gold rush town 30 minutes up the highway, where the peninsula’s Indigenous population settled after being driven from their lands by colonialists in the mid-1800s.

For years, news reports painted Roebourne as a “misfit town where everyone drinks, smokes and can’t take care of their kids,” says Josie Alec, a proud descendent of the Kuruma-Marthudunera people, who raised her four kids there.

In reality, she says it’s a deeply resilient community made up of families like her own, whose ancestors have watched over “Murujuga” – the peninsula’s Aboriginal name – for generations, while keeping its vibrant cultural traditions alive.

More than a million drawings are etched onto rocks on Murujuga peninsula on the Western Australia coast.

For Australia’s First Nations people, Murujuga is the birthplace of songs and creation stories explaining the laws of nature, told through more than a million rock carvings scattered across its deserts and nearby islands.

These irreplaceable petroglyphs are 10 times older than the pyramids of Egypt and depict early human civilization, but some of their ancestral guardians fear they could be destroyed by pollution from one of Australia’s largest new fossil fuel developments.

The company behind the project, Woodside Energy, plans to extract millions of tons of gas from the Scarborough field in the Indian Ocean mostly for export to north Asia.

Not only is there widespread concern about the sky high greenhouse gas emissions the project is expected to generate over its lifetime, but there are also fears that industrial pollution from its processing plants could erode Murujuga’s petroglyphs, which show now-extinct animals and plant species, as well as some of the earliest known depictions of the human face.

 

Woodside argues the impacts of its expansion have been “thoroughly assessed” by environmental regulators and says it supports a program by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) and the state government to assess risks to the rock art, which is due to file its first report next year.

MAC is the legally appointed Aboriginal body tasked with advising government and companies on the cultural implications of development on the peninsula.

While MAC doesn’t receive mining royalties, critics argue its ability to object to Woodside’s plans is limited by longstanding agreements, and its reliance on industry for funding has created frustration and resentment among other members of the community who say it’s not doing enough to protect ancestral treasures.

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Mining country

Murujuga is part of Australia’s Pilbara region, a thinly populated area twice the size of the United Kingdom known for its ancient landscapes, dry red deserts, and vast mineral resources.

To White settlers it’s always been mining country.

The promise of gold and pearl brought colonists to the Pilbara in the 1880s, but today companies are more interested in its stores of iron ore, oil and gas.

Resources extracted from the region have powered Australia’s economy and helped create some of the world’s largest mining and energy multinationals. But a comparatively small slice of the overall proceeds has filtered back to First Nations people, many of whom say their land has been exploited and sacred sites destroyed.

And it keeps happening.

Last month federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek said she wouldn’t intervene to stop plans by Perth-based multinational group Perdaman to build a new fertilizer plant on the peninsula – a development requiring some sacred rocks to be relocated.

“This idea that Perdaman is going to suddenly be built on that landscape is just unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable,” said Benjamin Smith, a professor of World Rock Art at the University of Western Australia, who has spent years studying Murujuga’s petroglyphs.

In a June paper, co-authored with other eminent rock experts, Smith found that industrial pollutants from other development on the peninsula – namely nitrogen oxides – are already eroding the outer layer of Murujuga’s petroglyphs, causing the carvings to slowly disappear.

The paper draws on other published studies that “agree that the rich red-brown patina of Murujuga’s rocks, as with other forms of rock varnish, is dissolved with increasing acidity.” Smith says acid levels increase when sulphur and nitrogen oxides emitted from the industrial plants on Murujuga mix with moisture.

 

Smith’s findings contradict previous research – partly funded by industry – that claimed there was “no adverse impact to the rock engravings from industrial pollution,” which Woodside uses to back its claim that its gas plant activities aren’t harming the petroglyphs.

In a statement to CNN, Woodside said: “Peer-reviewed research has not demonstrated any impacts on Burrup (Murujuga) rock art from emissions associated with Woodside’s operations.”

Smith and other experts have long argued that the raw data used to support those findings is flawed.

In June, the Western Australian Environment Protection Agency (EPA) pointed to a lack of consensus on the issue and said it “considers that there may be a threat of serious or irreversible damage to rock art from industrial air emissions,” of which “the most significant sources” are Woodside’s existing gas plants.

This week, the federal government responded to requests to assign an independent consultant to carry out a full cultural heritage assessment of all industry on Murujuga, with their findings to be reported to the environment minister – who will then decide if the site is worthy of an official order to protect it.

‘My family story lies in those rocks’

The independent review was the result of intense lobbying by Alec and Marthudunera woman Raelene Cooper, two traditional custodians, who traveled to Geneva in July to tell the United Nations that the potential destruction of Murujuga’s rocks would amount to “cultural genocide.”

Josie Alec is the co-founder of Save Our Songlines, a campaign group dedicated to protecting Murujuga.

The two women first started visiting Murujuga as children in the 1970s and 80s – around the same time Woodside arrived on the peninsula to begin construction on its sprawling Karratha gas complex.

For Cooper, that meant floating down the Fortescue River on hot days, while watching the local mothers wash their clothes and prepare food.

“I’d swim in the river, have a feed out bush (eat outdoors). We knew industry was there, but we didn’t see it … back then even the iron ore mines were out of sight,” she said.

Like a lot of young First Nations people living across the Pilbara, Cooper eventually found herself working in the mines. For three years, she operated heavy machinery for Rio Tinto, but quit after questioning the damage it was doing to country.

“I realized my job was to protect Murujuga, not dig it up. The economy here shouldn’t just be about breaking up the earth and sucking everything out of it.”

In 2016, Cooper was elected as one of MAC’s board members, a role she proudly occupied for more than five years until February, when she resigned over the corporation’s support of Woodside’s Scarborough development.

“I felt the elders were being manipulated and had no understanding of the risks the project posed. It broke my heart to leave, but I couldn’t support MAC approving the removal of our history,” she told CNN.

For Alec, protecting Murujuga is part of a journey to heal the bonds severed with her ancestors when she was forcibly removed from her mother as a baby and placed in foster care under a government policy from 1910 to the 1970s to “assimilate” First Nations children. The policy created what’s known as the Stolen Generation, who carry the trauma of separation from their people. At the time, the government claimed it was for their own good.

“Growing up as an Aboriginal girl in a White world was tough, but I had a really good foster mom and dad and a strong family,” Alec told CNN.

Alec’s adoptive parents eventually brought her back to Murujuga to meet her birth mother and learn about her ancestors.

By the time she was a teenager, she was making regular trips to Roebourne and its surrounding countryside, and it was there she began discovering the traditional healing techniques her family was known for – by learning to read Murujuga’s rocks.

“My mom was the shaman of the tribe, everyone came to her for healing, and eventually she passed that down to me.”

“My family story lies in those rocks … They take me home, so that’s why I fight so hard for them,” she told CNN.

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