Claim 40,000-year-old Indigenous site desecrated prompts Plibersek investigation

·Environment Editor
·2-min read

An independent investigator will assess the threat of ongoing development at a 40,000-year-old Indigenous rock art site in Western Australia.

The cultural items at the remote 37,000-hectare Burrup Peninsula have been recommended for UNESCO World Heritage listing, but researchers warn they are being degraded by emissions from industrial projects.

In August, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek paved the way for a contentious new development, rejecting calls to stop a fertiliser plant being built on a site significant to local Indigenous people.

Tanya Plibersek has approved a Section 10 for the Burrup Peninsular cultural site. Source: AAP / Getty
Tanya Plibersek has approved a Section 10 for the Burrup Peninsular cultural site. Source: AAP / Getty

Murujuga traditional custodians had asked her to grant a Section 9 emergency declaration to prevent multinational Perdaman being permitted to dismantle and remove cultural items from the site.

The region is already home to Woodside’s gas hub and the Yara Pilbara fertiliser plant.

What’s at the rock art site?

Indigenous custodians have described the Burrup Peninsular’s rock art as a “library” etched across more than a million rocks, which predates the Bible by tens of thousands of years.

In July, two Mardudhunera women travelled to the United Nations in Geneva, warning ongoing development around the site was akin to "cultural genocide”.

While historically industrial development has caused significant damage across the area, energy company Woodside says its approach has “matured” during 40 years of operations there.

What happens at the Indigenous cultural site now?

Minister Plibersek has approved the assessment under Section 10 of the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

This will result in an independent reporter investigating claims Indigenous sites are being threatened by development.

“The consultant will take as long as is needed to prepare the report. There is no statutory timeframe,” a spokesperson for Minister Plibersek said.

How have Indigenous campaigners reacted?

The Section 10 has been welcomed by its applicant, Mardudhunera woman Raelene Cooper, however she remains concerned “damage and desecration” at the site could still occur.

The Burrup Peninsula is home to more than 1 million cultural items. Source: Getty
The Burrup Peninsula is home to more than 1 million cultural items. Source: Getty

Because the Section 9 was not approved, she worries Perdaman's development could damage cultural sites before the Section 10 assessment is concluded.

“The community will be outraged if this failure from the government to ensure cultural safety allows for another Juukan Gorge while the Section 10 assessment is still ongoing,” Ms Cooper said.

“The whole community needs to band together to protect (the site) because this is about our human rights and basic equality under the law and our lore.”

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