Indigenous Heritage: Case Studies in Western Australia

One of the common tactics used by both corporations and governments to gain the consent of Indigenous people to the destruction of their heritage is to “divide and conquer”, as the Fortescue Mining Group has done to the Yindjibarndi people of Roebourne and the W.A government has done in the Kimberley. 

In 2003, a united group of 10 Yindjibarndi elders put a Native Title claim on behalf of their people for a large area of their traditional Karijini land in the Pilbara. Some five years later, the Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) lodged applications for mining leases in the middle of the claim and began negotiations through the representative body, the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), who rejected the initial offer of compensation from the company.

Under Native Title law miners cannot commence mining unless they reach agreement with traditional owners or have negotiated in “good faith”.  When the negotiations broke down in this case, FMG requested arbitration from the Native Title Tribunal which, as it almost always does, ruled in the miner’s favour. Further appeals from the YAC followed but, before their completion, the State Government issued licences for the company to proceed and the company re-started negotiations with – and funded – a breakaway local group. They also provided funds for legal advice to the group to enable them to apply to remove some of the original native title claimants from the claim, since the law requires that the company should negotiate with all the claimants. Community division and distress of the elders unable to protect their country has been the result.

The company has also sought to evade even those few ministerial conditions originally placed on the project and the W.A. government eventually allowed FMG’s request to delete Aboriginal heritage conditions on its mining leases relating to the need to avoid burial sites and consult with local people about heritage sites. The YAC have also been prevented from entering the area in question in breach of the mining lease, which requires that use of and access to the land by the Yindjibarndi people should not be restricted except for safety reasons.

Like many other groups, the Yinjibarndi people have been asked to trade off their heritage for economic benefits and employment; while they would undoubtedly welcome improvement in their living conditions and life chances for their children, many of them are very uneasy about the fact that this may mean the destruction of important heritage sites and the destruction of their capacity to exercise their responsibilities to care for the land and make sure that the language and the culture are passed on. Mr Woodley, chair of the YAC has said, “We are deeply angered that fundamental human rights standards spelled out in United Nations covenants are being blatantly violated in this state. The Minister’s decision steals from our people what is at the centre of our world, the cultural heritage that lies at the heart of our identity, our confidence, our right to exist as Yindjibarndi.”

Given this sort of experience – and there are many such stories – it’s not surprising that a survey of traditional Aboriginal owners which asked what they wanted to do with their land found that less than 13 per cent listed economic development as a first priority, while more than one-third highlighted access, residence, land and sea management and cultural heritage (Balsamo and Calma 2007).[1] As researcher Jon Altman points out[2], “there is considerable empirical evidence that Indigenous people rarely benefit equitably when major extractive activities occur on their customary land—indeed it is far more common for such activities to impact negatively on the livelihoods and cultures of Indigenous communities” (p 3).

While many hoped that this would not be the case for the proposed Woodside gas hub at James Price Point in the Kimberley, the signs are not good. Anyone fortunate enough to have visited the area will agree that the West Kimberley, listed by the Australian Heritage Council in 2010, is an extraordinary place by any measure. It has a fascinating and unique wildlife, a magnificent coastline, spectacular gorges and waterfalls, ancient and ongoing Indigenous culture and a distinctive pastoral and pearling heritage. Not only is it recognised as one of the most ecologically diverse parts of the world, but scientists discover new species almost every time they visit. Some have argued that it deserves UNESCO World Heritage Status as a “site of outstanding cultural and natural importance to the common heritage of humanity.”

The whole area is marked by many overlapping stories, principally those of the Aboriginal people who have occupied the land for over 40,000 years. This is the traditional and spiritual home to 13 traditional owner groups who speak more than 30 different Indigenous languages, some unique to the region. It is home, too, to their ancestors and the many creation beings held by Traditional Owners to have shaped and occupied the ranges and plains, rivers and waterholes, seas and islands.  Powerful creation beings such as the Wanjina are seen in many different forms; in the rock art, river systems, tidal movements, stone arrangements, geographic formations, animal and plant species and in the stars and planets.

What has come to be known as the “Dreaming” or “Dreamtime” is for Aboriginal people the Law, transmitted through traditional narratives, images, song and dance, weaving together the elements of their social world – their entitlements, responsibilities and obligations. As one Bardi women said, “they are living stories; they are the spirit of us”[3]. The many Wanjina paintings of large eyed, mouthless, anthropomorphic beings with halo like rings encircling heads and the elegant human-like painted images (the Gwion/Gwion) have attracted a lot of international interest. They form what is considered one of the longest lasting and most complex rock art sequences anywhere on the planet. However, to the aboriginal people, this is not art in the western aesthetic sense but places where creation beings have placed themselves in rock.

There is no doubt the Kimberley will be permanently altered by plans to exploit oil and gas off the coast and to establish a gas hub at James Price Point. And that will almost certainly not be the end of the story; a great many mining projects await the green light for development. What is in contemplation is not a small footprint but a very large and complex piece of infrastructure, which will almost certainly expand over time; witness the LNG complex to the south, on the Burrup rock art precinct, which is now an industrial estate. And the company, Woodside, has explicitly sought approval to destroy Indigenous sites in order to build the pipes they need to bring the gas onshore.

Despite the fact that some of the local aboriginal people, represented by the Kimberley Land Council, initially approved the proposal, even they are now threatening to withdraw that approval if a proper social and cultural impact assessment is not undertaken,[4] citing evidence that “aspects of the project would cause “significant disturbance” to indigenous heritage values.” Other local Goolarabooloo people have steadfastly opposed the development because it will destroy important sites crucial to aboriginal law and culture. Just this weekend, evidence emerged[5] that, at the request of Woodside, the West Australian government withdrew letters from the Department of Indigenous Affairs to Woodside, advising that their proposed work site at James Price Point overlapped with significant sites integral to Aboriginal men’s song cycles. Apart from the potential impropriety of this action, the message is clear; aboriginal heritage can be sacrificed without public knowledge and without penalty.

In a recent interview, 43 year-old South Australian aboriginal man, Aaron Stuart, who has worked for many years to try to reduce suicide amongst his people, attributed the high rates of suicide in some indigenous communities to people “grieving from loss of culture and identity”[6]. There is some indirect evidence to back him up: looking at the benefits of maintaining contact with country, Garnett and Sithole (2007) found that time spent on traditional lands engaged in traditional activities appeared to reduce excess morbidity and mortality.[7] It seems clear that unless we re-weight the balance between economic activity and heritage and culture, priceless human assets will be lost forever and the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians – and of all of us – further compromised by the pressure to develop at any price.

This is part 3 in a series: Part 1 can be found hereand Part 2 here.

[2] Altman, J. (2009) Contestations over Development, In Altman, J & Martin, D. (Eds) Power, Culture, Economy: Indigenous Australians and Mining. CAEPR (ANU) Research Monograph 30.

[3] Australian Heritage Council’s final assessment of the national heritage values of the West Kimberley

[4] Prior, F (2012) Aboriginal blow to gas hub deal, The West Australian, September 5

[5] Lloyd, G. (2012) Gas giant silences advice on songlines, Weekend Australian ,8 Sept.

[6] Horowitz, K (2011) Stolen Lives: Crusader saving lives by promoting identity, February 17.

[7] Garnett, S. & Sithole, B (2007) Sustainable Northern Landscapes and the Nexus with Indigenous Health: Healthy Country, Healthy People, Land and Water Australia, Australian Government, 2007.