Indigenous owners 'left out' of rock art site's world heritage listing talks

Inquiry finds Burrup peninsula discussions did not properly consult traditional owners

Traditional owners of Australia’s largest and most significant rock art site have been “left out” of discussions around the management and potential world heritage listing of the site, a Senate inquiry has found.

The Burrup peninsula, or Murujuga, near Karratha in north-west Western Australia, is a nationally listed heritage site containing more than 1m petroglyphs, or rock carvings, across 36,857ha of the peninsula and surrounding Dampier archipelago.

It is located on Ngarluma country and under the custodianship of Ngarluma people and four other traditional owners groups: the Mardudhunera, the Yaburara, the Yindjibarndi and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.

The groups form the Murujuga Aboriginal Council (MAC), which has joint management of the Murujuga national park, which covers areas of the peninsula.

The final report of the Senate committee, which was ordered in late 2016 to examine potential damage to the site by a nearby industrial estate, was delayed eight times before being released on Wednesday.

Spokespeople from MAC told the committee that both the organisation and its council of elders had not been substantially consulted on the idea of pursuing a world heritage listing of the site for close to a decade, despite the former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett committing in early 2017 to pursuing the listing.

The MAC chair, Raelene Cooper, told the committee last year that traditional owners were “sceptical” about the benefit of world heritage listing because they do not know if it would lessen protections or Aboriginal control over the area.

Cooper also said they had been “left out” of discussions around potential damage to the site from emissions by nearby Yara Pilbara liquid ammonia plant and the proposed Orica-owned technical ammonium nitrate plant.

The committee diverged on whether emissions from the plant had damaged the site, with Liberal committee members saying air quality monitoring reports produced by the CSIRO had been adequate and showed “no credible evidence” rock art had been adversely affected.

Studies showed a colour change of 13% over 13 years at test sites within 2km of the ammonium plant but the Liberal senators Dean Smith and Jonathon Duniam said that was not statistically different to colour change at control sites outside of the 2km radius.

A joint response by five Labor senators, including the WA senator Pat Dodson, said the evidence of colour change was “statistically significant”; expressed concerns about “major flaws” in the monitoring program; criticised Yara for failure to comply with conditions under the EPBC Act by submitting monitoring reports late; and criticised the failure to immediately adopt the recommendations of an independent report on air quality monitoring.

Labor also called for Murujuga Indigenous rangers to be given enforcement powers similar to those held by ordinary parks and wildlife officers, after the committee heard rangers had no power to order those abusing the park to stop or move on.

It said that any push for world heritage listing must be led by MAC, following extensive consultation and proper resourcing.

The Western Australian environment minister, Stephen Dawson, said the government was in the process of training Murujuga rangers to be accredited as “authorised officers” and was contemplating giving them statutory enforcement powers.

The premier, Mark McGowan, and three ministers, including Dawson, have visited MAC on country in the 12 months since winning government.

Dawson said the Senate committee report would be included in the finalisation of the Burrup rock art strategy, which will include a stakeholder reference group with membership from the MAC.

“I consider the future development and implementation of the Burrup rock art strategy, and the proposed role of the MAC in this process, to be fundamental to the protection of the priceless rock art on the Burrup peninsula,” he said.

Dodson said both MAC and Murujuga elders should be formally consulted before any further decisions around management of the site are taken.

New monitoring protocols were included in the WA government’s draft Burrup rock art strategy, which is still in development.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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