Indigenous women travel to UN to warn of 'cultural genocide' in Australia

·Environment Editor
·4-min read

Stopping "cultural genocide” is why two Indigenous women say they flew 16 hours from Western Australia to Geneva, to speak before the United Nations this week.

At stake is the future of a “library” etched across over a million rocks on the remote Burrup Peninsula, containing the history of the Murujuga which predates The Bible by at least 48,000 years.

Nominated for UNSECO World Heritage listing, the Earth's largest and oldest collection of Aboriginal rock art is also home to Woodside Energy’s expansive Burrup gas hub.

Raylene Cooper addressed the United Nations in Geneva. Source: Save Our Songlines / United Nations
Raelene Cooper addressed the United Nations in Geneva. Source: Save Our Songlines / United Nations

The area has also been impacted by a salt mine, tourism, and there are plans to build a fertiliser plant on the cultural site.

Ahead of their speeches to the UN, traditional custodians Raelene Cooper and Josie Alec spoke with Yahoo News Australia.

They allege industrial emissions are eroding the rock art, and destroying what is a place of spiritual healing for Indigenous women.

“The patina on the rocks is visibly flaking, the carvings are starting to disintegrate,” Ms Cooper said.

“The ancient history in it is starting to disappear.”

Indigenous women feeling 'urgent need' to protect culture

Feeling ignored by Australian government and industry, Ms Cooper sought out a “global audience” by way of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“It’s where we needed to go to be heard because we’re not being heard in our own country,” she said.

In her speech, Ms Cooper accused authorities of having acquired their land “under duress” and creating “division and chaos” among her people.

“We increasingly feel the urgent need to defend our ancient history, our stories, our culture,” she told the UN.

Is the Murujuga rock art being affected by industry?

Western Australian authorities have recommended a 50-year extension of Woodside's gas project, despite estimates it will release 4.5 billion tonnes of carbon into the air. The company says it can reduce its impact on the environment by cutting emissions or buying carbon credits.

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

Rock art at Murujuga is believed to be between 50,000 and 70,000 years old. Source: Ray Dahlstrom
Rock art at Murujuga is believed to be between 50,000 and 70,000 years old. Source: Ray Dahlstrom
There are over 1 million pieces of rock art at Murujuga. Source: Ray Dahlstrom
There are over 1 million pieces of rock art at Murujuga. Source: Ray Dahlstrom

Woodside supports the UNESCO nomination, and said the corporation has a “world-best-practice program” to monitor the cultural site.

While it notes peer-reviewed research “has not demonstrated any impacts on Burrup rock art from emissions associated with Woodside’s operations”, one expert believes a link between industry and degradation of the site will soon be proven.

Professor John Black from the University of Western Australia revealed there are two studies set to be published in the near future, with one comparing images of rock art since industry began in the region.

“They've become lighter in colour over time. Lighter in colour is what happens when you dissolve out the darker manganese and iron compounds,” he said.

The other study tested rock acidity, finding a thousand-fold increase in rocks adjacent to Woodside operations where Professor Black said characteristic red-brown-black colouring of the rocks is being dissolved.

Indigenous women say they have been sidelined in negotiations

Raelene Cooper left the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation which negotiates with Woodside on cultural issues, due to concerns about lack of consultation with traditional custodians.

In her speech to the UN on Wednesday (European time), she will focus on how industry affects women and their relationship to country.

“Our women’s law and cultural customs have been kept down for so many years, shut out of the negotiations process,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

Woodside's gas hub was constructed on a cultural site on the Burrup Peninsula. Source: Getty
Woodside's gas hub was constructed on a cultural site on the Burrup Peninsula. Source: Getty

She argues negotiations between Indigenous people, government and industry have traditionally been conducted by men, leaving out women’s voices.

“If there was acknowledgment of women’s law and their stories, no one would ever touch the rock art.

“There would be no destruction there and industry would not have a chance.”

Ms Cooper said the rocks connect women with their ancestral history which is archived into the rocks.

“We feel over so many years, we are being oppressed as women in being able to share our knowledge, our stories,” she said.

“Because we are a part of our ancient history. We are the carriers; as our Mother Earth is."

Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation has been contacted for comment.

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