Traditional owners in northern WA demand the removal of ‘gag clauses’ to help them protect ancient rock art

Traditional owners in Western Australia’s Pilbara region are calling on the state government to remove a ‘gag clause’ so they can speak freely about industry developments near the world’s largest collection of ancient rock art in the world.

In an open letter, 27 wardens have written to the WA government with concerns about an agreement which they say prevents them from criticizing developments on the Burrup Peninsula.

Murujuga National Park is home to over a million rock art carvings and is often described as the oldest and largest art gallery in the world.

The area is also the site of intensive mining, shipping and industrial processing – which traditional owners and conservation groups fear is contributing to the degradation of nearby rock art .

Nearly 20 years ago, the state government and local language groups signed the Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estates Agreement (BMIEA), which contains a controversial “No Objections” clause.

The clause stated that contracting parties could not “file or cause to be filed any objection to development proposals intended to occur on land” in the area.

Patrick Churnside, traditional custodian of Ngarluma and former cultural adviser to the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), said it was a “gag clause” and that indigenous people should be able to speak freely about their culture and their heritage.

The traditional owners of Pilbara have written an open letter, calling on the state government to remove a “gag clause” from the BMIEA agreement.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Mr Churnside said that if the gag clause was removed from the BIMEA agreement, traditional owners would have more “power and control” to stop industry developments that could contribute to the destruction of ancient rock art from 50,000 years old.

“Some of our representatives in the state government believe that [mining and gas] is essential to the country’s economy and our rock art and petroglyphs are not.

“[Removing the gag clause] will give Murujuga and its traditional owners a chance to better consult with wider communities throughout the Pilbara region where we believe some of these songs, stories and cultural connections still exist today,” said Mr. Churnside.

A kangaroo stands among a collection of the world's oldest rock art
Traditional owners fear a proposed urea plant in the Pilbara region of WA could damage the world’s largest rock art collections.(ABC Pilbara: Amelia Searson)

A WA government spokesman said the government was committed to working with traditional owners to protect Murujuga, while supporting job-creating projects.

Concerns about “gag clauses” were also raised in a report on the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto in May 2020.

The report recommended that they be banned to “address bargaining inequities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

A WA government spokesman said nothing in the BMIEA agreement prevented MAC, contracting parties or individual members of these groups from providing bids to protect the cultural and heritage values ​​of Murujuga.

Mining projects at dusk, with red rocks in the foreground
Industrial developments are well established on the Burrup Peninsula.(ABC Pilbara: Samantha Goerling)

Demands the energy giant stop the gas project

The custodians’ letter also demanded that the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), which represents five language groups in the region, be funded independently so that it can manage cultural heritage without relying on support from mining and gas companies.

The group also asked Woodside to suspend investment in any project in Murujuga, “until the free, prior and informed consent of the traditional owners of Murujuga is obtained.”

A Woodside spokesperson said the company has been engaging with traditional owners on the Scarborough and Pluto 2 Train projects since 2019.

“Our consultation to date has responded to traditional owners’ requests for further information and inquiries,” they said.

Large building in Woodside with an Aboriginal, WA and Australian flag in the foreground.
A spokesperson for Woodside said peer-reviewed research has shown no impact on rock art at Burrup from emissions associated with its operations.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

The spokesperson denied claims that emissions from these projects would degrade rock art.

“The extensive archaeological and ethnographic studies that Woodside has undertaken with the traditional owners have confirmed that the Scarborough project will have no impact on land areas outside of our current industrial footprint and will have no impact on rock art” , they said.

Benjamin Smith is Professor of Global Rock Art at the University of Western Australia. He has conducted extensive research on the effects of industrial pollution on the Murjuga petroglyphs.

He said Woodside’s statement about emissions not impacting rock art was “factually incorrect”.

Professor Smith officially published a peer-reviewed scientific journal on Monday, which found that acid pollution was already damaging rock art.

“We have clear, strong and quick evidence. There are a number of other documents that show direct evidence,” he said.

A medium shot of a man wearing glasses with a worried look on his face
World rock art expert Benjamin Smith said urgent action was needed to stop emissions from nearby projects destroying the world’s oldest rock art.(ABC News: Keane Bourke.)

He said industry and government needed to come together to help preserve the rock art.

“Industry could work responsibly in this landscape. They could reduce industrial emissions to the point where this rock art would not be at such great risk. And that’s what we need to see happen.”

A WA government spokesperson said it was a priority for the many export industries near Murujuga to “coexist harmoniously” with the surrounding cultural heritage.

About William J. Harris

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