Australia’s Scarborough project: Race and power collide in a fight over sacred rock art in remote Australia


Close to a dry, crimson rock peninsula on Australia’s far western coast, a dusty freeway separates two communities with contrasting fortunes tied to an historic land.

One is residence to the small however booming metropolis of Karratha, a regional hub scattered with four-wheel drives that was purpose-built within the Nineteen Sixties to accommodate a rising military of miners trying to extract the land’s huge shops of iron ore, oil and gasoline.

The opposite is Roebourne, a former gold rush city half-hour up the freeway, the place the peninsula’s Indigenous inhabitants settled after being pushed from their lands by colonialists within the mid-1800s.

For years, information studies painted Roebourne as a “misfit city the place everybody drinks, smokes and might’t deal with their children,” says Josie Alec, a proud descendent of the Kuruma-Marthudunera individuals, who raised her 4 children there.

In actuality, she says it’s a deeply resilient group made up of households like her personal, whose ancestors have watched over “Murujuga” – the peninsula’s Aboriginal title – for generations, whereas retaining 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 individuals, Murujuga is the birthplace of songs and creation tales explaining the legal guidelines of nature, instructed by means of greater than 1,000,000 rock carvings scattered throughout its deserts and close by islands.

These irreplaceable petroglyphs are 10 instances older than the pyramids of Egypt and depict early human civilization, however a few of their ancestral guardians concern they may very well be destroyed by air pollution from one in every of Australia’s largest new fossil gasoline developments.

The corporate behind the challenge, Woodside Power, plans to extract tens of millions of tons of gasoline from the Scarborough area within the Indian Ocean principally for export to north Asia.

Not solely is there widespread concern in regards to the sky excessive greenhouse gasoline emissions the challenge is predicted to generate over its lifetime, however there are additionally fears that industrial air pollution from its processing crops may erode Murujuga’s petroglyphs, which present now-extinct animals and plant species, in addition to a few of the earliest identified depictions of the human face.

Woodside argues the impacts of its growth have been “totally assessed” by environmental regulators and says it helps a program by the Murujuga Aboriginal Company (MAC) and the state authorities to evaluate dangers to the rock artwork, which is because of file its first report subsequent 12 months.

MAC is the legally appointed Aboriginal physique tasked with advising authorities and firms on the cultural implications of growth on the peninsula.

Whereas MAC doesn’t obtain mining royalties, critics argue its skill to object to Woodside’s plans is restricted by longstanding agreements, and its reliance on business for funding has created frustration and resentment amongst different members of the group who say it’s not doing sufficient to guard ancestral treasures.

Murujuga is a part of Australia’s Pilbara area, a thinly populated space twice the dimensions of the UK identified for its historic landscapes, dry crimson deserts, and huge mineral assets.

To White settlers it’s at all times been mining nation.

The promise of gold and pearl introduced colonists to the Pilbara within the Eighties, however right now firms are extra all in favour of its shops of iron ore, oil and gasoline.

Sources extracted from the area have powered Australia’s economic system and helped create a few of the world’s largest mining and vitality multinationals. However a relatively small slice of the general proceeds has filtered again to First Nations individuals, lots of whom say their land has been exploited and sacred websites destroyed.

And it retains taking place.

Final month federal atmosphere minister Tanya Plibersek stated she wouldn’t intervene to cease plans by Perth-based multinational group Perdaman to construct a brand new fertilizer plant on the peninsula – a growth requiring some sacred rocks to be relocated.

“This concept that Perdaman goes to abruptly be constructed on that panorama is simply unbelievable, completely unbelievable,” stated Benjamin Smith, a professor of World Rock Artwork on the College of Western Australia, who has spent years finding out Murujuga’s petroglyphs.

In a June paper, co-authored with different eminent rock specialists, Smith discovered that industrial pollution from different growth on the peninsula – particularly nitrogen oxides – are already eroding the outer layer of Murujuga’s petroglyphs, inflicting the carvings to slowly disappear.

The paper attracts on different revealed research that “agree that the wealthy red-brown patina of Murujuga’s rocks, as with different types of rock varnish, is dissolved with growing acidity.” Smith says acid ranges enhance when sulphur and nitrogen oxides emitted from the commercial crops on Murujuga combine with moisture.

Smith’s findings contradict earlier analysis – partly funded by business – that claimed there was “no hostile impression to the rock engravings from industrial air pollution,” which Woodside makes use of to again its declare that its gasoline plant actions aren’t harming the petroglyphs.

In a press release to CNN, Woodside stated: “Peer-reviewed analysis has not demonstrated any impacts on Burrup (Murujuga) rock artwork from emissions related to Woodside’s operations.”

Smith and different specialists have lengthy argued that the uncooked knowledge used to help these findings is flawed.

In June, the Western Australian Atmosphere Safety Company (EPA) pointed to a scarcity of consensus on the problem and stated it “considers that there could also be a risk of great or irreversible harm to rock artwork from industrial air emissions,” of which “probably the most important sources” are Woodside’s current gasoline crops.

This week, the federal authorities responded to requests to assign an impartial marketing consultant to hold out a full cultural heritage evaluation of all business on Murujuga, with their findings to be reported to the atmosphere minister – who will then resolve if the positioning is worthy of an official order to guard it.

The impartial overview was the results of intense lobbying by Alec and Marthudunera lady Raelene Cooper, two conventional custodians, who traveled to Geneva in July to inform the United Nations that the potential destruction of Murujuga’s rocks would quantity to “cultural genocide.”

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

The 2 girls first began visiting Murujuga as kids within the Nineteen Seventies and 80s – across the identical time Woodside arrived on the peninsula to start development on its sprawling Karratha gasoline complicated.

For Cooper, that meant floating down the Fortescue River on sizzling days, whereas watching the native moms wash their garments and put together meals.

“I’d swim within the river, have a feed out bush (eat open air). We knew business was there, however we didn’t see it … again then even the iron ore mines have been out of sight,” she stated.

Like numerous younger First Nations individuals dwelling throughout the Pilbara, Cooper finally discovered herself working within the mines. For 3 years, she operated heavy equipment for Rio Tinto, however give up after questioning the harm it was doing to nation.

“I spotted my job was to guard Murujuga, not dig it up. The economic system right here shouldn’t simply be about breaking apart the earth and sucking the whole lot out of it.”

In 2016, Cooper was elected as one in every of MAC’s board members, a job she proudly occupied for greater than 5 years till February, when she resigned over the company’s help of Woodside’s Scarborough growth.

“I felt the elders have been being manipulated and had no understanding of the dangers the challenge posed. It broke my coronary heart to go away, however I couldn’t help MAC approving the elimination of our historical past,” she instructed CNN.

For Alec, defending Murujuga is a part of a journey to heal the bonds severed along with her ancestors when she was forcibly faraway from her mom as a child and positioned in foster care underneath a authorities coverage from 1910 to the Nineteen Seventies to “assimilate” First Nations kids. The coverage created what’s referred to as the Stolen Technology, who carry the trauma of separation from their individuals. On the time, the federal government claimed it was for their very own good.

“Rising up as an Aboriginal woman in a White world was powerful, however I had a very good foster mother and pop and a powerful household,” Alec instructed CNN.

Alec’s adoptive mother and father finally introduced her again to Murujuga to satisfy her beginning mom and study her ancestors.

By the point she was a youngster, she was making common journeys to Roebourne and its surrounding countryside, and it was there she started discovering the standard therapeutic strategies her household was identified for – by studying to learn Murujuga’s rocks.

“My mother was the shaman of the tribe, everybody got here to her for therapeutic, and finally she handed that right down to me.”

“My household story lies in these rocks … They take me residence, in order that’s why I battle so exhausting for them,” she instructed CNN.

The distinction between excessive wealth and poverty that’s come to outline the Pilbara is evident within the current histories of Roebourne and Karratha.

Whereas Karratha reworked from a small useful resource city to a regional metropolis, Roebourne battled poverty, alcoholism and racial violence. Within the Eighties, the city was thrust into the nationwide highlight after a First Nations teenager died in a police cell, upsetting fury and an inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

At present, the battle for Murujuga’s rock artwork displays long-standing and unresolved problems with race and energy.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that consent from First Nations individuals for tasks on their land must be supplied freely, with out coercion or manipulation, and that the self-determination and sustainability of their communities must be on the core of all negotiations.

However in Australia, that’s hardly ever been the case.

Till the early Nineties, specialists say little thought was given to Indigenous land rights as a result of idea of “terra nullius,” which held that the continent belonged to nobody earlier than White settlement.

In 1992, Native Title legislation was written to acknowledge Indigenous land rights, however it was solely designed to safe First Nations individuals a share of the income from exploration or mining actions on their lands, to not cease developments altogether.

Woodside Petroleum's Pluto development on Murujuga, Western Australia, June 2008.

To be able to keep away from prolonged authorized battles, Native Title legal professionals say governments and large business have traditionally sought out potential claimants forward of proposed developments – utilizing negotiated agreements to amass their land in trade for monetary advantages.

Indigenous activists and Native Title legal professionals describe this alleged observe as a “divide and conquer” approach which might trigger unhealthy blood between households as a result of it pits conventional custodians towards each other.

“Authorities and business have this distinctive skill to foster division in susceptible Aboriginal communities,” stated Kado Muir, a Ngalia Conventional Proprietor and Chairman of The Nationwide Native Title Council.

“They create a faction who endorses and indicators off on the agenda a developer brings. Then finally, the group is torn aside, and the cycle of poverty and dispossession continues.”

In 2003, the Western Australian authorities compulsorily acquired Native Title on Murujuga by means of the Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estates Settlement (BMIEA) – a contract signed by the area’s Ngarluma-Yindjibarndi, Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo, and Yaburara Mardudhunera peoples.

In trade for surrendering their land rights to the state authorities for the aim of commercial growth, the Aboriginal teams get together to the BMIEA obtained monetary advantages together with the freehold title of the Murujuga Nationwide Park.

The settlement additionally led to the institution of MAC because the accredited company physique, which shares administration of the park with the state authorities and whose rock monitoring program receives funding from companies that function on the peninsula – Woodside, Rio Tinto and fertilizer firm Yara Pilbara.

MAC’s status amongst locals is polarizing, with activists like Alec and Cooper overtly questioning its independence because of its monetary ties to business.

Members of the group have spoken publicly in regards to the energy imbalance that stems from these monetary ties, together with its CEO Peter Jeffries.

In a June letter to the Division of Agriculture in regards to the Perdaman fertilizer growth, seen by CNN, Jeffries, a senior Ngarluma man, stated the Circle of Elders that advise MAC repeatedly said their choice that the rocks on the website weren’t moved, earlier than agreeing to the corporate’s proposals to shift a small quantity.

Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Peter Jeffries.

Extra broadly, he wrote, “There are critical points that have to be addressed relating to the standard of negotiation between Aboriginal Companies and proponents … the place proponents solely contemplate a negotiation to be full upon receiving the reply they need.”

Jeffries was much less candid when he spoke with CNN about Woodside’s challenge, in an interview organized by the managing director of a public relations agency, who requested to take a seat in on the decision.

The agency – which additionally offers companies for Woodside’s joint-venture accomplice BHP and the state authorities’s growth company – instructed CNN that MAC was the one “accredited cultural authority” to talk about developments on Murujuga, and that it was essential “the proper data” was being shared in regards to the views of conventional custodians in relation to the Scarborough growth.

Within the interview, Jeffries was guarded when requested about MAC’s relationship with Woodside and its reliance on huge business for funding.

“In partnerships, you’ve acquired to take the great with the unhealthy … we’ve to work with business, they’ve been right here for 30-40 years they usually’ll proceed to be right here, so it’s about how we co-exist,” he stated.

Native leaders are uneasy in regards to the affect they are saying Woodside has over MAC, and in March, 27 elders from Murujuga wrote an open letter to the Western Australian authorities, calling for “impartial” financing for the group, so it may “handle the cultural heritage of Murujuga with out being compromised by counting on Woodside.”

In a press release to CNN, Woodside stated it had “engaged and consulted extensively with Conventional House owners in regards to the Scarborough Challenge since 2019” and it was “happy” with the help it had from Murujuga’s custodians.

MAC is underneath intense stress from all sides – however First Nations activists CNN spoke with say that blaming Aboriginal firms detracts from the actual downside.

Gas flares at a plant on Murujuga in Western Australia on June 17, 2008.

“It’s straightforward to look in from the surface and say that Conventional House owners on the Pilbara are ‘pro-mining,’ however it’s a unstable place to talk your fact about what’s going down on nation,” stated Larissa Baldwin, a Widjabul First Nations Justice Marketing campaign Director at GetUp, a not-for-profit that advocates for progressive coverage change in Australia.

“Individuals are afraid of getting their livelihoods threatened in a spot the place there isn’t any different economic system,” stated Baldwin. “It’s the form of energy imbalance that places Indigenous communities in a spot of duress.”

Woodside hopes the primary gasoline piped from the offshore Scarborough area will probably be processed and despatched to Asian markets in 2026.

The corporate’s awaiting final-sign off from Australia’s offshore regulator however in any other case it has the go-ahead from state and federal legislators.

The brand new Labor authorities led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has promised larger cuts to emissions than its predecessor however maintains gasoline is a “transition vitality” because the world strikes to renewables.

That stands at odds with the Worldwide Power Company’s evaluation that the world received’t attain its goal of internet zero emissions by 2050 if governments approve new oil and gasoline developments.

Gasoline, on the whole, is much less carbon-intensive than coal, however it’s nonetheless a planet-warming fossil gasoline, and there’s a rising understanding that its infrastructure leaks enormous quantities of methane – a stronger greenhouse gasoline than carbon dioxide within the shorter time period – undermining the bridge gasoline argument.

Woodside estimates the challenge will pump out 967 million tons of carbon emissions over its lifetime. However researchers at Local weather Analytics say that determine will probably be nearer to 1.5 billion tons from 2021 till the challenge winds down in 2055 – about the identical quantity of emissions Australia produces each three years.

Woodside has instructed CNN it’s dedicated to utilizing expertise to scale back nitrogen oxide emissions throughout its operations whereas it awaits the outcomes of the rock artwork monitoring program, however it additionally confirmed that no new funding had been made into air pollution management measures for its current infrastructure since 2008.

Smith says the prevailing physique of science exhibits Murujuga’s rocks received’t survive the approaching a long time if the Scarborough challenge goes forward – as a result of sheer scale of its projected emissions.

“It’s an apparent no-brainer … there must be no new developments on Murujuga,” Smith stated. “The world is popping towards individuals like Woodside that make huge income on the expense of the planet and the expense of our heritage.”

An emissions monitoring station on Murujuga, June 2008.

Smith additionally expressed concern in regards to the transparency of the rock artwork monitoring program as a result of absence of impartial oversight and a scarcity of entry to its uncooked knowledge.

“For the time being, we don’t have entry to any of the information that has been produced. It has ‘confidentiality’ written throughout it. It shouldn’t,” he stated.

“I can’t see any motive for secrecy of any type of one thing that’s of such public curiosity.”

A spokesperson for the state Division of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) stated the uncooked knowledge will probably be peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists chosen by the federal government in mid-2023 after the primary full 12 months of monitoring. The uncooked knowledge is not going to be revealed, the spokesperson confirmed.

In a rustic that’s constructed its fortunes on mining and stands to make billions of {dollars} in gasoline exports in coming a long time, few political avenues exist to cease Woodside’s growth.

There’s no statutory timeframe for the impartial assessor’s report into growth on Murujuga, and within the meantime Perdaman and Woodside are pushing forward with their tasks.

Alec and Cooper have welcomed the additional scrutiny, however they are saying the federal government’s refusal to grant an earlier request to halt the Perdaman plant “reveals the hypocrisy on the coronary heart of all session between conventional custodians and business.”

Perdaman declined CNN’s requests for remark.

Alec and Cooper say they received’t again down till they’re satisfied Murujuga will probably be protected.

“The rocks are historic beings,” Alec stated. “My job as a custodian is to share our tales and unfold consciousness in a means that makes individuals really feel and perceive the ability of this place.”

“It’s a really private battle,” Cooper added. “However it’s a battle for all of our individuals and for Australia.”