Tanya Plibersek paves way for fertiliser plant on Indigenous cultural site
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has paved the way for a multinational company to proceed with a planned fertiliser project on a sacred Aboriginal site in Western Australia.
Work on the $4.5 billion project had been paused while the Minister attended the remote Burrup Peninsula to speak with the developers and Indigenous custodians.
On Tuesday, Minister Plibersek announced she had decided not to support a request for an emergency halt to the project, under Section 9 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.
Section 9 can be declared when an environment minister is satisfied a significant Aboriginal area is under serious and immediate threat.
Minister Plibersek is now considering a separate request for a Section 10 cultural heritage assessment, which allows for a broad scale cultural heritage assessment.
“I have taken time to seriously consider this decision. I have visited the sites in question and met with all parties involved in, and directly affected by, my decision,” she said.
“I have decided not to make a Section 9 declaration.”
Perdaman confirms it will proceed with fertiliser plan
In an email, the developer Perdaman confirmed it would now move ahead with project planning. This could include the removal of sacred cultural items from the site, which form part of the cultural songlines that stretch across Australia.
The wider Burrup Peninsula has been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Listing and is believed to contain the oldest rock art in the world.
Despite its cultural significance, roughly 46 per cent of the Burrup Peninsula has been zoned as industrial. Already operating on the site are Woodside’s Karratha Gas Plant and the Yara Pilbara Fertiliser plant.
Although the Perdaman development will take up just 1.3 per cent of the industrial zone, there have been concerns raised about its emissions.
Researchers have warned fumes from existing developments operating at the site are already dissolving the region’s rock art.
Indigenous opponents of fertiliser plan ‘disappointed’
Despite the controversy surrounding the fertiliser project, it has been supported by the elected Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) and the McGowan Labor government.
Minister Plibersek made her decision after being satisfied MAC did not support the Section 9 and it is the “legally constituted and democratically elected group that safeguards First Nations culture in the Burrup area”.
The plan is opposed by Indigenous custodian Raelene Cooper who left MAC in 2021, citing concerns about a lack of consultation or consent by industries operating on Aboriginal land.
She now works with Mardudhunera woman Josie Alec on the Save Our Songlines campaign which requested Minister Plibersek issue the Section 9.
In a joint statement, they called Minister Plibersek’s decision to decline their request “disappointing”.
In June, the pair travelled to Geneva, telling the United Nations that Australia was committing “cultural genocide” for allowing industry to erode the history of the Murujuga people, which is etched on over 1 million rocks on the Burrup Peninsula.
They have compared their sacred site’s removal and destruction to Rio Tinto blowing up sacred Indigenous caves at Juukan Gorge which contained evidence of continuous human occupation for over 46,000 years.
“The community, the country and the whole world will be outraged if this leads to another Juukan Gorge because the federal government would not stand up to industry and protect sacred Aboriginal sites from further destruction,” they said in a joint statement.
In July, Minister Plibersek described Juukan Gorge’s destruction as “one of the most shameful chapters in Australian history".
MAC responds to Plibersek's fertiliser decision
Following publication of this article, MAC CEO Peter Jeffries issued a statement saying he "acknowledged" Minister Plibersek's decision to reject the Section 9 application.
"MAC is a key stakeholder representing the traditional owners and custodians of the land and has contributed to this process at the request of the Commonwealth," he said.
"MAC has no role in the approval of the project and the support of an Aboriginal corporation is not a requirement for any development to proceed.
"MAC’s only role is to provide advice and recommendations regarding any heritage or cultural values that may be impacted by the proposed works."
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