Traditional Owners and conservationists say that a decision by the Federal Government to intervene over a controversial urea plant, proposed for sacred Aboriginal sites, shows that the cultural heritage approvals process is unfit for purpose.
The department for the Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, has issued a request to Perdaman – the developer behind a $4.5 billion fertiliser export plant in WA’s North West – to cease works while it considers concerns from Traditional Owners about damage to UNESCO shortlisted rock art and other culturally sensitive sites.
The move is not legally binding, but according to reports yesterday, it will be the first real test of whether the much publicised ‘lessons’ learned from the destruction of sacred sites at Juukan Gorge in 2020 will be heeded by government and industry proponents.
The Burrup Peninsula – which is known as Murujuga by Indigenous Australians – contains what is widely considered the world’s oldest and largest art gallery, comprising more than one million pieces of rock art, carved into the rock over the course of approximately 40,000 years.
The rock art has been found to be highly sensitive to the emissions produced by heavy industry and independent scientific studies have already established an ongoing pattern of degradation of the surface rock, into which the many images are carved.
Traditional Owners from Murujuga wrote to Ms Ley earlier this year, requesting the use of emergency powers to protect the rock art and other sacred sites from further encroachment by heavy industry.
Further to the Perdaman development, serious concerns have been raised about the impact of the highly controversial Scarborough Gas project - currently being proposed by Woodside Petroleum – which will produce 1.6 billion tonnes of additional carbon pollution over the next 25 years.
Perdaman will be a significant buyer of Scarborough gas and the projects are widely considered to be interlinked as part of a significant escalation of heavy industry on the Burrup Peninsula.
Mardudhunera custodian Raelene Cooper said: “A pause on this destructive plant is long overdue. Our community has been crying out for our voices and concerns to be taken seriously. It should not have taken this much time and this much effort for the people in power to listen to us.
“This should be an opportunity for all the politicians to think again and ask themselves how this situation got so out of hand. How was this plant allowed to get to this stage when they knew the destruction it would bring to Ngurra (Country), to our rock art, to our sacred places?
“The same applies to Woodside and the Scarborough gas project. The government needs to take a long look at the situation and reconsider. If they can put the brakes on Perdaman, they can do the same for Scarborough too.
“We are grateful to Sussan Ley for this positive step forward. We want to share our concerns and address these issues collaboratively. We hope this will lead to a meaningful conversation with the whole community. We are used to not being listened to. Whether it’s the government, or Perdaman, or Woodside or anyone else; they send their people for a few days - maybe even only a few hours – and they do a lot of talking but not much listening. Even when we tell them that we don’t want them building here, they just go back to Perth and do it anyway.
“What we need are independent – really independent – scientists and cultural heritage experts, not the people we have now, who are funded by the same companies who want to build here.
“The same mistakes and problems which led to the destruction at Juukan Gorge are happening again, here. The government made promises that something like that would never be allowed to happen again. They need to put those promises into action.
Raelene also questioned the wisdom of using public money – via the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) to fund more highly polluting industry at a time when the need to decarbonise was increasingly apparent in events taking place across Australia.
“We are disappointed that the government has put $255 million into supporting the Perdaman project”, she said, “especially given the chaos we are seeing over east and the problems in our health systems.
“That money could be so much better spent to help people across the country. Rather than supporting these projects, the government should be using its money to address climate change. We have seen what is happening with the flooding. Mother earth is speaking.”
Maggie Wood, Executive Director of the Conservation Council of WA, said: “The very fact that it took an application of this kind from Traditional Owners to make our governments sit up and pay attention to the destruction of globally significant heritage shows that our cultural heritage laws are broken. They are simply not fit for purpose.
“This is only a short respite for the Traditional Owners and community which has had to contend with powerful industrial players operating with relative impunity on their country for decades. Something needs to change.
“Both Woodside and Perdaman have painted a picture of a harmonious relationship with the communities surrounding their proposed developments, allowing them to sail through the cultural heritage approvals process. What is clear is that there never was any widespread agreement from Traditional Owners and questions need to be asked as to why our government regulators were told otherwise.
“There needs to be a complete reset of relations between heavy industry and the First Nations community in our North West. Too often, what passes for community consultation is really a very superficial exercise when what is really needed is genuine, open dialogue with the people for whom these sites are of the upmost cultural importance.”
Anthony Collins, Say No to Scarborough Gas campaigner, said: “Perdaman is just one element of a raft of interconnected, highly polluting industry proposals, with Woodside’s Scarborough and Pluto expansion at its head.
“Perdaman plans to be a future Scarborough customer, using the gas to produce fertiliser which would then be sold off overseas in a purely for-profit exercise. Not only does Perdaman need Scarborough; Scarborough also needs Perdaman as a stable, return customer and a source of revenue.
“Earlier this year, the Federal Government was asked several probing questions about the ties between Woodside and the $255 million in public money which was freed up for Perdaman to build its private export facility. Namely, did Woodside ever contact NAIF to secure support for Perdaman?
“As of yet, no satisfactory answer to those questions has been given – sparking more concerns about the influence and power of the gas industry at the highest levels of government in Australia.”
MEDIA INFORMATION: The Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) is the state’s foremost non-profit, non-government conservation organisation representing more than 100 environmental organisations across Western Australia.
For more information, visit: ccwa.org.au.
CONTACT: For any enquiries relating to this release, please contact Robert Davies
08 9420 7291 / 0412 272 570 or by email, [email protected]