• The ancient Aboriginal rock art at the Burrup Peninsula is the world's largest and oldest. (APP)Source: APP
The Burrup Peninsula is home to one of Australia’s most sacred sites, boasting more than one million rock art pieces.
Rangi Hirini

26 Mar 2018 - 5:11 PM  UPDATED 26 Mar 2018 - 5:11 PM

The rock art at the Murujuga covers 36,857 hectares. Located five kilometres north-east of Dampier in the Pilbara, Western Australia, the surrounding land contains dreaming sites, ceremonial sites and burial grounds. The area is described as a place of worship, with stories and law written on the rocks.

Aboriginal people through the Pilbara believe that the works are a creation of a spirit being known as Marrga, who formed the rules of social conduct for humans.

Dr Ken Mulvaney, a heritage expert, explains the significance of the location of the Murujuga rock art. 

“Often those images are the dreaming beings, the creator spirits, of that landscape and that is where they reside.

”So if you pluck them out of that landscape and put them somewhere else, not only are you destroying their residency, but you open the risk of those spirits then wandering and becoming malevolent.” 

Also known as Murujuga by Aboriginal people, the peninsula is located near two fertiliser plants owned by Yara Pilbara, as well as the Dampier Port, which ships gas, iron ore, salt and fertiliser, which could potentially threaten the site's preservation.

An inquiry was called in November 2016 to investigate if federal and state government entities and private companies operating in the area were adequately protecting this globally significant site. The inquiry also looked into the impact of industrial pollution on the National Heritage-listed Aboriginal rock art of the Burrup Peninsula.

The report was released on Wednesday, a year to the original due date.

Committee Report Findings

The Senate Committee report found the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) environmental impact research was “inadequate”, according to Dr Ken Mulvaney, a heritage expert who submitted to the inquiry.

Professor John Black, a sustainable development expert who also provided submissions to the inquiry, said the research conducted by the CSIRO was “useless” in understanding the impact of pollution on the rocks at Murujuga.

“[The results] have no relevance to rock art because measurements were made on iron ore and not Burrup rock surfaces,” he said.

The CSIRO defended its use of iron ore samples, saying it “contains similar mineralogical profile to the rock” and claimed they were applying a non-invasive method to test the rock.

Their research was also heavily criticized for their measurement of how the rock art was being impacted.

Professor Black considers that the CSIRO's practise of comparing colour changes from one year to the next was an incorrect method for measuring damage.

“They (CSIRO) said, 'Well, there's no change,' but they did not ever do an analysis from the top to the bottom…they needed to do a thorough statistical analysis and to do it over the whole period,” he said.

Professor Black reanalysed the data collected and found the CSIRO's conclusions were erroneous. 

“[CSIRO] appears to be more concerned about its reputation than the fate of the world significant archaeological heritage of Burrup rock art,” Professor Black said.

Indigenous rangers with no power

Five Aboriginal groups share the land which covers Burrup Peninsula, Ngarluma, Mardudhunera, Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo, Yaburara, and Yindjibarndi.

The rock art collection at Murujuga includes archaeologically remarkable evidence of the changing landscape of that area and the earliest-known human face carved on the rock. The Burrup Peninsula holds Australia's and the world’s largest collection of rock art, with experts estimating the rocks are more than 45,000 years old. 

Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation along with the Murujuga Rangers look after the area.

The Murujuga Rangers are responsible for conducting patrols and collecting environmental and heritage records.

The Committee report found the Indigenous rangers don’t have the same powers at the state rangers when it came to disciplining bad behaviour.

The Murujuga Indigenous Rangers hold no enforcement powers and have to refer matters to the Department of Parks and Wildlife.

Murjuga Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Craig Bonney says this needs to change.

“We got Traditional Owners who are rangers on their own country seeing people do the wrong thing, and they have no power to move them off their own country,” he told the Committee.

Government Reaction 

The government coalition, Labor and the Greens provided feedback on the committee's report. The three parties couldn’t agree on a way to move forward and preserve the area, although they shared some concerns and views.

The coalition said they were concerned over the committee’s lack of regard for the economic value Yara Pilbara brings to the state.

“Burrup Peninsula is the gateway to Australia’s biggest oil and gas operations… the sector is a major contributor to the state and the Australian economy,” the comments read.

The Greens stated it was a “failure” for Burrup Peninsula not to be listed on the World Heritage List, and said it was an “oversight” by the West Australian government for the Indigenous rangers not to have the powers to look after the park.

Labor agreed with the Greens and described the area as a “masterpiece of human creative genius”. They also express concern about Traditional Owners feeling “left out” on the management of the peninsula.

The Greens and Labor both agreed on the recommendation that Murujuga Rangers should to be granted the same powers as state rangers.

The government coalition’s only comment on the matter was that they were “concerned over the lack of engagement”.

However, the coalition frequently and consistently slammed those who opposed the Yara Plants.

"Coalition senators note the majority of claims and statements made by Professor Black and others as to the risk and/or actual degradation of rock art are not supported by scientifically valid evidence," the report states.

The only point all three parties could agree on was that Murujuga should be registered as a World Heritage site.

World Heritage Listing

Traditional Owners are concerned if they were to agree on listing Burrup Peninsula as World Heritage, they would lose control of their sacred land. 

Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation chairperson Raelene Cooper told the committee it had been eight to 10 years since the last discussion had with Traditional Owners about the listing, and most Elders had not participated in the discussions.

“We do not know if there is a downside or possible negative impact which could result. We are also unaware of the process or what resources would [be] required to be fully participative in the process,” she said.

Yara Pilbara fined for breaking conditions

In 2011 both the Commonwealth Government and the West Australian state government gave approval for the proposals of the Yara Pilbara to commence construction at the Dampier Archipelago.

Both governments set conditions which Yara Pilbara needed to comply with as terms of the approval.

The WA government set 27 environmental conditions and the Commonwealth set 15, with some of the conditions amended by the Commonwealth, two years later.

The amended condition was for the monitoring and surveying of rock art within a two-kilometre radius of the Yara Pilbara plant.

The new condition stated the company was required to monitor at six locations within the radius, rather than the whole area.

This was condemned by experts. Professor Black said the amended condition was “on request by the company” who was trying to reduce the surveillance level.

“[It] suggests to the public that short-term financial returns from industry are more important than saving for future generations the priceless, irreplaceable and world significant rock art,” he submitted to the committee.

The Committee report found Yara Pilbara had failed to comply with the set conditions a number of times and given infringement notices, but no discipline was handed down, as it was reported there was “no environmental impact".

Submitters raised concerns over the lack of compliance from Yara Pilbara and the lack of concern from the Commonwealth.

“When YARA is found to not comply with various Commonwealth conditions, the Commonwealth varies the conditions to facilitate compliance,” the Bob Brown Foundation stated.

Dr Mulvaney, a heritage expert, also told the committee he was shocked that conditions had been amended twice.

“The department’s role is to administer the requirements of the at not to facility resource company noncompliance,” he said.

Coalition senators acknowledged Yara Pilbara had received two infringement notices with of a combined total of $23,400 due to breaking some of the conditions set by the governments.

The Burrup Peninsula falls under legislation from both the West Australian government and the Commonwealth.

The two-state legislations put in place to manage and preserve the area are the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) and the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA).

The area is also protected by the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conversation Act 1999 as well as the National Environment Protection Council Act 1994.

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