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


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

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

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 stories painted Roebourne as a “misfit city the place everybody drinks, smokes and might’t handle their youngsters,” says Josie Alec, a proud descendent of the Kuruma-Marthudunera individuals, who raised her 4 youngsters 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 identify – for generations, whereas conserving 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, advised by greater than one million 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 considered one of Australia’s largest new fossil gas developments.

The corporate behind the challenge, Woodside Power, plans to extract hundreds of thousands of tons of fuel from the Scarborough area within the Indian Ocean largely for export to north Asia.

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

Woodside argues the impacts of its enlargement 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 yr.

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

Whereas MAC doesn’t obtain mining royalties, critics argue its capability 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 pink deserts, and huge mineral sources.

To White settlers it’s all the time been mining nation.

The promise of gold and pearl introduced colonists to the Pilbara within the Eighteen Eighties, however as we speak corporations are extra excited about its shops of iron ore, oil and fuel.

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

And it retains occurring.

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

“This concept that Perdaman goes to all of the sudden be constructed on that panorama is simply unbelievable, completely unbelievable,” mentioned 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 consultants, Smith discovered that industrial pollution from different improvement on the peninsula – specifically nitrogen oxides – are already eroding the outer layer of Murujuga’s petroglyphs, inflicting the carvings to slowly disappear.

The paper attracts on different printed 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 economic vegetation 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 fuel plant actions aren’t harming the petroglyphs.

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

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

In June, the Western Australian Atmosphere Safety Company (EPA) pointed to an absence of consensus on the difficulty and mentioned it “considers that there could also be a risk of significant or irreversible harm to rock artwork from industrial air emissions,” of which “essentially the most vital sources” are Woodside’s present fuel vegetation.

This week, the federal authorities responded to requests to assign an unbiased 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 determine if the location is worthy of an official order to guard it.

The unbiased evaluate was the results of intense lobbying by Alec and Marthudunera girl 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 began visiting the countryside round Murujuga as youngsters within the Nineteen Seventies and 80s – across the identical time Woodside arrived on the peninsula to start development on its sprawling Karratha fuel 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 outdoor). We knew business was there, however we didn’t see it … again then even the iron ore mines had been out of sight,” she mentioned.

Like numerous younger First Nations individuals residing throughout the Pilbara, Cooper ultimately 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 noticed my job was to guard Murujuga, not dig it up. The financial system right here shouldn’t simply be about breaking apart the earth and sucking every thing out of it.”

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

“I felt the elders had 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 advised CNN.

For Alec, defending Murujuga is a part of a journey to heal the bonds severed together with her ancestors when she was forcibly faraway from her mom as a child and positioned in foster care below a authorities coverage from 1910 to the Nineteen Seventies to “assimilate” First Nations youngsters. The coverage created what’s often called 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 robust household,” Alec advised CNN.

Alec’s adoptive dad and mom ultimately introduced her again to Murujuga to satisfy her start 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 methods 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 ultimately she handed that all the way down to me.”

“My household story lies in these rocks … They take me house, in order that’s why I struggle so arduous for them,” she advised CNN.

The distinction between excessive wealth and poverty that’s come to outline the Pilbara is obvious 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, scary fury and an inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Immediately, the struggle 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 offered 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 not often been the case.

Till the early Nineties, consultants 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 regulation was written to acknowledge Indigenous land rights, however it was solely designed to safe First Nations individuals a share of the earnings from exploration or mining actions on their lands, to not cease developments altogether.

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

In an effort to keep away from prolonged authorized battles, Native Title attorneys say governments and large business have traditionally sought out potential claimants forward of proposed developments – utilizing negotiated agreements to amass their land in alternate for monetary advantages.

Indigenous activists and Native Title attorneys describe this alleged apply as a “divide and conquer” approach which might trigger dangerous blood between households as a result of it pits conventional custodians in opposition to each other.

“Authorities and business have this distinctive capability to foster division in weak Aboriginal communities,” mentioned 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 ultimately, 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 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 alternate for surrendering their land rights to the state authorities for the aim of commercial improvement, the Aboriginal teams social gathering to the BMIEA acquired monetary advantages together with the freehold title of the Murujuga Nationwide Park.

The settlement additionally led to the institution of MAC because the authorized 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 popularity amongst locals is polarizing, with activists like Alec and Cooper overtly questioning its independence as a result of funding it receives from 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 regarding the Perdaman fertilizer improvement, seen by CNN, Jeffries, a senior Ngarluma man, mentioned the Circle of Elders that advise MAC repeatedly said their choice that the rocks on the web site 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 concerning the standard of negotiation between Aboriginal Firms and proponents … the place proponents solely think about 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 supplies companies for Woodside’s joint-venture associate BHP and the state authorities’s improvement company – advised CNN that MAC was the one “authorized cultural authority” to discuss developments on Murujuga, and that it was essential “the best data” was being shared in regards to the views of conventional custodians in relation to the Scarborough enlargement.

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

“In partnerships, you’ve received to take the great with the dangerous … we’ve got 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 mentioned.

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 “unbiased” financing for the group, so it might “handle the cultural heritage of Murujuga with out being compromised by counting on Woodside.”

In an announcement to CNN, Woodside mentioned it had “engaged and consulted extensively with Conventional Homeowners in regards to the Scarborough Challenge since 2019” and it was “happy” with the help it had from Murujuga’s custodians.

MAC is below intense strain from all sides – however First Nations activists CNN spoke with say that blaming Aboriginal companies detracts from the true drawback.

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

“It’s simple to look in from the skin and say that Conventional Homeowners on the Pilbara are ‘pro-mining,’ however it’s a risky place to talk your fact about what’s going down on nation,” mentioned 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 is no such thing as a different financial system,” mentioned Baldwin. “It’s the type of energy imbalance that places Indigenous communities in a spot of duress.”

Woodside hopes the primary fuel piped from the offshore Scarborough area can be processed and despatched to Asian markets in 2026.

The corporate’s awaiting ultimate 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 greater cuts to emissions than its predecessor however maintains fuel is a “transition vitality” because the world strikes to renewables.

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

Fuel, normally, is much less carbon-intensive than coal, however it’s nonetheless a planet-warming fossil gas, and there’s a rising understanding that its infrastructure leaks large quantities of methane – a stronger greenhouse fuel than carbon dioxide within the shorter time period – undermining the bridge gas 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 can 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 advised CNN it’s dedicated to utilizing expertise to cut 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 infrastructure since 2008.

Smith says the present physique of science reveals Murujuga’s rocks gained’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 mentioned. “The world is popping in opposition to individuals like Woodside that make huge earnings 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 unbiased oversight and an absence of entry to its uncooked information.

“In the intervening time, we don’t have entry to any of the info that has been produced. It has ‘confidentiality’ written throughout it. It shouldn’t,” he mentioned.

“I can not see any purpose 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) mentioned the uncooked information can be peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists chosen by the federal government in mid-2023 after the primary full yr of monitoring. The uncooked information is not going to be printed, the spokesperson confirmed.

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

There’s no statutory timeframe for the unbiased assessor’s report into improvement 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 gained’t again down till they’re satisfied Murujuga can be protected.

“The rocks are historic beings,” Alec mentioned. “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 struggle,” Cooper added. “Nevertheless it’s a struggle for all of our individuals and for Australia.”