Murujuga Rock Art Imperiled in Australia
By Robert G. Bednarik
History and Background
The Dampier Archipelago, which comprises Murujuga or Burrup, is located off the northwestern coast of Australia on the shore of the Indian Ocean. The archipelago is named after William Dampier, an English buccaneer who sailed there and named one of its islands Rosemary Island. The largest island was called Murujuga for thousands of years, but it was renamed Burrup, by the government of Western Austalia in 1979. Murujuga means "hipbone sticking out" in the language of Yaburara, the indigenous people of the region; it is a reference to the ragged skyline of the island's huge boulder piles.
The region belongs to the Pilbara, a huge region of semi-arid mountains and plains that contains immense mineral deposits, especially of iron ore. It is rightly regarded as one of the world's most stunning sceneries, a remote land of natural beauty and ruggedness. Murujuga is also a major international heritage site because it has the world's largest concentration of petroglyphs. The area also possesses a major corpus of standing stones, similar to megalithic monuments in Europe, the largest such occurrence in Australia. This outstanding body of Aboriginal rock art is considered to be the greatest non-European cultural heritage property in Australia, the only surviving patrimony of the Yaburara who were subjected to genocide by the government of Western Australia in 1868.
Yet, despite the area's cultural importance, by the 1960s overabundant iron reserves attracted miners interested in development. They established huge open-cut mines, built several railway lines, and a series of towns grew in this vast wilderness. Vast harbors were built to ship the ore to the hungry furnaces of the world and a proposal was made for a deep-water port for loading iron ore on Depuch Island. The Western Australian Museum conducted an Impact Study of the island, finding a large body of petroglyphs. The recommendations of the Museum's team effectively led to the abandonment of the plan, and to developing instead the loading facilities at Dampier. The developers conveniently overlooked the fact that there was much more rock art in the vicinity of the Dampier facilities than on Depuch.
From this time on, the preservation of the Dampier petroglyphs became the subject of policies driven by developers rather than public authorities. In 1971, there was discovery of substantial natural gas deposits offshore. This led to the construction of a massive gas treatment plant and additional loading facilities during the 1980s. Archaeologists working for the developers routinely "studied" the rock during this period, however, their goal was to facilitate industrial development. Woodside Offshore Petroleum even employed archaeologists to supervise the large-scale removal of rock art. Nearly 2000 engraved boulders were moved and deposited in a fence enclosed "temporary" storage area. The traditional Aboriginal owners were never consulted about this relocation of their cultural heritage.
It is now estimated that almost twenty percent of the Archipelago's main island, Murujuga (Burrup), is occupied by industrial, residential and infrastructure development. In the process between twenty to twenty-five percent of the rock art has been destroyed since 1964.Current Issues
Currently, there are plans before the government of Western Australia that will increase the atmospheric pollution emissions by roughly 300%. This amounts to an increase of 27% for the whole state, which is four times the size of Texas. Emissions are currently already so high that they damage the rock art. The built-up land area of Murujuga (Burrup) will also be increased 38%.
The government has recently attracted massive industrial investments and intends to expand the development dramatically, still unperturbed by the effects on the area's most important resource, its cultural heritage. It now intends to add a multi-billion dollar petrochemical complex to the existing industries. There is no practical reason why this development could not be in the nearby coastal plains of the Pilbara, which are entirely unoccupied and of no environmental significance. Indeed, a large estate called Maitland has been earmarked for many years on the mainland, southwest of Dampier, and this is where most stakeholders would prefer the new industry to be established. This is where the Aborigines, who owned the Dampier land before the infamous White Foam Massacre of 1868, want the development to be. This is where the local shire council and most local residents want it to go. The conservationists wanting to protect the natural environment of the Dampier Archipelago agree wholeheartedly, as does every other stakeholder in the issue. Even one of the companies involved in these plans prefers Maitland because of the considerable logistic difficulties on the islands.
The Maitland Estate will be developed in any case because there is very limited room on the islands for development. Huge boulder piles and very narrow valleys, entirely unsuitable for any form of construction, mostly cover them. The cost of the Maitland infrastructure is $300 million; the cost of the planned Murujuga (Burrup) infrastructure is $221 million, making a total cost of $521 million. The development of Maitland, however, where the supply of land is practically unlimited, eliminates the need to first develop the unsuitable Murujuga sites. The government of Western Australia, in other words, is prepared to waste $221 million of public funds just so that it can avoid admitting that it has made a mistake.
The author of this article led opposition to the destruction of rock art at Dampier, and since the sixties, archaeologists, rock art researchers and groups like the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, have added their voices. The following demands have been made: nomination of the Dampier Peninsula to UNESCO World Heritage status; the return of all untenanted land to the surviving Aboriginal communities, with a proviso that they lease part of it as a National Park as at Kakadu and Uluru; the permanent installation of a rock art conservator-ranger, who should have full jurisdiction over any rock art on leased land, besides assisting the managers of the conservation zone and acting as a liaison with traditional custodians; and that the perpetual conservation and cultural integrity of this enormous cultural asset be safeguarded and supervised by a federal government agency of scientific repute, preferably the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Moreover, the Dampier rock art must have international standing to satisfy UNESCO agencies like ICOMOS (International Council Of Monuments and Sites).
No action has been taken by any government of Western Australia to address any one of these requests. As of December 2002, no management plan existed for Dampier, and there was no form of protection for any of the rock art, on either company land or on unoccupied land. No study has ever been attempted by the authorities to establish the effects of development on the rock art and other cultural heritage material, especially from acid rain. The government has never attempted to compile an inventory of the rock art. Only quantitative estimates exist of the corpus and some detailed work in specific areas marked for destruction. No land has ever been repatriated to the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land who continue to live nearby and who wish to have the rock art returned to them.Public Pressure
The results of two major scientific studies of the Murujuga (Burrup) rock art were published, in May of 2002, in the prestigious international journal, Rock Art Research . Dr. Patricia Vinnicombe (W.A. Museum) reports the 40-year history of bungled endeavors to preserve the rock art and the continuing lack of a management plan for the Dampier Archipelago. Her analysis amounts to a comprehensive reprimand of government reluctance to protect the heritage property as required by legislation. The second paper, by Robert G. Bednarik of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations, presents empirical data on the condition of the rock art, based on records from 1967 to the present time. Besides reporting that between 20% and 25% of Murujuga rock art was destroyed since the 1960s, the paper demonstrates that there has been marked and quantifiable deterioration of the rest since the late 1980s. It is attributable to increased acidity of the rainwater, which gradually dissolves the natural dark-brown coating of the rock surfaces into which the petroglyphs were hammered.
These papers were followed by an effective media campaign and both articles were often quoted in parliament where Green MP, R. Chapple MLC, repeatedly petitioned the government on behalf of the Murujuga rock art and its traditional Aboriginal owners. Subsequent media attention reported on the deterioration of the 2000 boulders that had been moved in the 1980s. The growing public outcry led to demonstrations demanding that industrial development be located to Maitland. The government could no longer ignore the issue so they established an expert panel to assess the claims made in Rock Art Research . Methanex Pty Ltd., one of the leading industrial companies in the area, also produced a Scientific Impact Report. This report not only agreed with the claims of Vinnicombe and Bednarik, it conceded even more severe findings. The government eventually announced that it would conduct a four-year study of the deterioration of the rock art.
Along the way, Aboriginal groups were offered a compensation package for the irreparable loss of heritage sites. They were even given an ultimatum to decide for or against the deal in only one-month's time. Three different native groups entered into negotiations with the government only to be pitted against each other in a series of heavy-handed maneuvers. By November of 2002, The National Native Title Tribunal, which is Australia's legal court deciding matters of indigenous rights, made an unprecedented ruling in the case of the Dampier rock art. Based on a submission by the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations, it ruled that the public interest was not taken adequately into account in the case of the Aboriginal custodians versus the State. The Tribunal ruled that further submissions from the public were necessary to determine whether the government had the right to acquire the land from the Aboriginal owners.
The National Trust of Australia, after years of attention to the cultural patrimony of the region, finally placed Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula) on its list of Endangered Sites in August of 2002. The Dampier rock art was also nominated in October of 2002, to be listed on the World Monuments Fund (WMF) 100 Most Threatened Monuments; currently, there are no Australian sites on the list. The Australian Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage encouraged the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations to pursue nomination of the petroglyphs and standing stones to the UNESCO World Heritage List and to nominate the area for listing on the Australia National Heritage List.
Despite all the hopeful signs for the official preservation of the Dampier Rock Art, development of the region continues. In the summer of 2002, a twenty-five year contract was granted to Woodside, the principal operator of the Northwest Shelf gas deposits, to supply 3.3 million tons of liquified natural gas to China. This contract is valued between 18 and 25 billion dollars. It is the largest single export contract in Australia's history involving the creation of 80,000 new jobs.
It can only be hoped that international organizations like UNESCO and the WMF will move quickly to give the Dampier Rock Art the official status needed to protect this precious cultural heritage from further destruction.
It appears that every possible avenue to resolve this matter by petition or appeal has been explored. We now seek the support of all who value the heritage of humanity to save this magnificent rock art from the entirely needless destruction by an uncaring government. This issue is not a confrontation between pro- and anti-development parties: nobody is opposed to the industrial development as such. All parties are merely opposed to the unnecessary siting of the largest polluter in the country at the same location as the largest petroglyph concentration in the world.How You Can Help
Letters of Protest may be sent to the Premier of Western Australia. Please write your letter on official letterhead, when appropriate, addressing it to:
Dr. Geoff Gallop MLA
197 St. George's Terrace
You can also sign an on-line petition: http://mc2.vicnet.net.au/users/dampier/index.html
Robert G. Bednarik is President and Convener of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations, a federation of thirty-nine national and regional organizations promoting the study of rock art, palaeoart and cognitive archaeology.
Photos: Robert Bednarik