Rock Art – Australia’s Threatened Heritage


Australia's rock art, which is one of the oldest known continuously practised art forms in the world, is at great risk of widespread destruction as a result of unconstrained industrial development.  These works, which consist of carved and painted depictions of Indigenous history and spirituality, have provided important clues regarding the development of art specifically and human evolution generally.  Because there is no single identifiable artist and the works date back thousands of years, far beyond the stipulated duration limits, rock art does not fit comfortably in the traditional frameworks of intellectual property law. 

Cultural heritage laws have become the primary recourse, but these are insufficient to protect even the most prolific sites, such as the Burrup Peninsula.  This outdoor rock engraving site in Western Australia is the world's largest and among its most important.  In spite of its listing on the National Heritage List, it remains on the World Monument Fund's 100 Most Endangered Places in the World List.  Debate continues to rage in the government, at both the state and national level, as to whether and to what extent there should be intervention in industrial development in the area.  Natural gas production and refinement near the site has not only been a boon to the national economy, but to the world; Australia's massive business in exporting natural gas has the potential to significantly cut down the global levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

There are conflicting reports with regard to the damage inflicted by industry on rock art.  Studies conducted by the Burrup Rock Art Monitoring Management Committee concluded that the rock art on the Peninsula is not being affected by industrial emissions.[1]  However, the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations disagrees.  President Robert Bendarik claims his studies show industry activities are increasing the acidity in the atmosphere and the subsequent acid rain is destroying the iron coating upon which the rock art depends.[2]  In addition to the threats from industry, these sites are recurring victims of vandalism.  Increased human traffic and ignorance to the importance of these rocks are significant threats to the continuing preservation of rock art. 

The solutions devised by the Australian government are a substantial step in the right direction, but more is needed.  According to the Protect Australia's Spirit campaign, only about 30% of known sites of rock art are listed in government registers.[3]  Though many had hoped simply placing sites such as the Burrup on the National Heritage List would have provided the solution, this has unfortunately not turned out to be the case.  Damage is still being done to valuable sites.  In February 2010, for example, Holcim Australia was forced to pay $280,000 after it damaged art on the Burrup Peninsula in the course of its quarry operations. 

The Arts Law Centre is calling for a change in approach.

·  Increase awareness of Aboriginal rock art.  There should be collaboration with Indigenous communities to establish a central archive listing as many known sites as possible.  Existing documentation is far from comprehensive and making this information easily accessible to members of both academia and industry will allow for better monitoring while decreasing search costs.  Increasing awareness will also address the vandalism problems.  People will be less likely to vandalise the area if they are informed of its international and cultural importance.  These benefits of an exhaustive list must be balanced, however, with the privacy and cultural interests of Indigenous communities.

· Increase costs and consequences of violations to individuals and industry.  Most industrial corporations have recognized the importance of preserving rock art and have moved out of these precious areas.  Woodside, however, not only currently operates an oil and gas exploration and production company close to many protected rock art sites on the Burrup, it has plans to build new processing facilities.  Whilst the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act provides a promising framework, there should be a higher threshold for initial approval of activities that risk significantly impacting rock art and the fines should be sizeable enough to push businesses to be careful, or better yet, to perform risky activities elsewhere.  To decrease vandalism, larger fines for individuals should be embraced, as should the development of an on-site ranger program.

· Encourage communication between industry and Indigenous communities.  The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) required Holcim Australia, following their violation, to develop a cultural management plan, appoint an Indigenous relations officer, carry out archaeological and ethnographic surveys of the area, and most importantly, enter into cultural heritage agreements with the Aboriginal groups in the area.  A 2010 DEWHA media release noted that these enforceable undertakings provide the community with employment opportunities and input into the operational aspects of projects that affect their cultural heritage.[4]  This sort of communication should be a requirement before industrial activities begin, as opposed to in response to damage that cannot be undone.  Western Australia already requires a cultural heritage management plan as a condition of receiving approvals for major projects under the state's Aboriginal Heritage Act.  This, among the other steps described above, should be the national standard because it provides for the efficient allocation of resources and a cost-effective alternative to litigation.


For further information

· National Trust's The Dampier Rock Art Precinct pamphlet

· Information provided by the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and Art (DEWHA):

o   About the EPBC Act

o   EPBC Act — Environment Assessment Process

To get involved

·  Stand Up for the Burrup

·  Protect Australia's Spirit

Stacy Adelman is an intern from Columbia Law School   ts

[1]See the Department of Environment and Conservation’s website.

[2]See Heather Catchpole’s article in the Australian Geographic “Risks to major rock art site debated.”  See also the International Federation of Rock Art Organisation’s website.

[3]See the Protect Australia’s Spirit campaign website.

[4]See the DEWHA media release “Company pays out over rock art damage.”

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