Indigenous Rock Art – What are the Federal and Western Australian Governments doing to protect it?

Anna-lea Russo is a day-time legal volunteer at Arts Law

In 2006 Arts Law called for immediate action from the Federal and Western Australian Governments to protect the Indigenous rock art in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, in particular the Abydos-Woodstock Reserves and Burrup Peninsula.

The call for action came as a response to a decision by the Western Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs to weaken the region’s protection status to allow Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) to mine and quarry the area as well as to build a railway line to access these commercial sites.

What’s happened since then?

Another gas and oil giant Woodside Petroleum Ltd sparked debate in the area early this year. Conservationists and Indigenous groups were outraged when Woodside moved some of the rock art in the area while beginning work on a $10 million dollar liquefied natural gas project. Once again several campaigns pushed to have the area heritage listed. Many Australians clearly believe that Indigenous rock art is an important part of our shared cultural heritage.

On April 18 2007 the Federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that he planned to heritage list the area after touring the region and viewing the rock art. Up until late last year both the State Government and Woodside were opposed to the heritage listing. Mr Turnbull stated that the area should be heritage listed by mid this year.

Woodside held their AGM on April 19 and stated that they welcomed the heritage listing and were pleased that the government agreed that “world-class heritage protection and world-class development can co-exist”.

The Dampier Archipelago, of which the Burrup Peninsula forms a part, has recently been named in the World Monuments Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Sites list for 2008. It marks Australia’s only contribution to the list, which includes areas such as Peru’s Machu Picchu, New Orleans in the United States and the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem. The various endangered sites named on the list are at risk from threats of war, climate change, development and tourism. While Fund president Bonnie Burnham’s view is that: “On this list, man is indeed the real enemy”, inclusion on the list ensures increased international exposure, and recognition by relevant governments that they may have to reconsider their attitudes to the endangered areas, and work to reverse damage and minimise future threat to these areas.

On 3 June 2007, it was reported in The Age, the National Indigenous Times and the West Australian newspaper that former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser also supported this global campaign to protect the rock art at the Burrup Peninsula. Mr Fraser stated that if the rock art is not protected, then Australia’s reputation as the defender of world heritage will be “severely damaged”. Mr Fraser reinforced that it would be a mistake to allow Woodside to build its Pluto LNG site on the Burrup Peninsula.

Another organisation supporting the Burrup campaign is the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations with its convener, Robert Bednarik, launching the ‘Stand Up for the Burrup Campaign’ in Melbourne on 3 June 2007. Mr Bednarik emphasized that the only reason for this “cultural vandalism” was the refusal of the Western Australian government to relocate Woodside’s plant to another site.

“GetUp”, an Australian community campaigning group, has been heavily involved in lobbying the WA Government to re-negotiate the lease with Woodside to an alternative site, and the Federal Government to heritage-list the site. GetUp not only mobilised thousands of its members to contribute to submissions and various petitions, but also sent a representative to Woodside’s AGM this year to ensure that the full spectrum of messages and concerns were heard at the meeting. Given the relative obscurity of the plight to save the Burrup Peninsula, groups like GetUp, which are vocal and organised in their contribution to the cause, prove invaluable as a means of ensuring that more and more people are aware of the issue, and that all interest groups are given a voice.

Calls by various lobby groups for revision of the plans for the area continue, specifically that the extraction of liquified natural gas from offshore does not take place and that suitable sites a short distance down the coast from Burrup are considered as alternative, long-term, development possibilities. Given the unexpected revision of both the governments’ and the oil company’s position on the protection of the Burrup Peninsula so far, it is not unreasonable to hope that with the continued efforts of lobby groups, and increased domestic and international awareness of the issue, the Burrup Peninsula will not only become a heritage listed site but will also be allowed to exist as it deserves, free of the threat of damaging industrial development.

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