In a remote part of Western Australia, on the Burrup peninsula near Karratha, is one of the world’s oldest and most important cultural sites.
It is the world’s largest collection of rock art, dotted over an area covering 42 adjacent islands, and it is under threat from unchecked industrial development.
One nomination to the Australian Heritage Council described it as “an utterly sacred place, and should be so not only to the local Indigenous communities, but also to all Australians and, indeed, all people ... a place of unparalleled artistic, cultural, religious and historical significance, as well as a place of magnificent natural beauty.” Another nomination called the Burrup “the largest ‘art gallery’ in the world”.
The art, which has been etched in stone, depicts people carrying out activities such as hunting or performing ceremonies, as well as many types of animals and fish. The art is so detailed and accurate that individual species can be identified.
The oldest engravings are estimated to have been made up to of 35,000 years ago. Among them are images of the thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian tiger, extinct on mainland Australia for the past 3000 years.
No comprehensive survey has ever been carried out to determine how many pieces of art exist in the region. But estimates put the number of artworks at between 500,000 and 1 million.
The age and beauty of this rock art has been compared to Stonehenge or Egypt’s pyramids, yet most Australians remain unaware that it exists. It is an important site that tells us how Aboriginal people lived tens of thousands of years ago, and how their environment and culture changed over that time.
It’s also an important site for human history. For example, the Australian Heritage Council said it provided “an unusual and outstanding visual record of the Aboriginal responses to the rise of sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age”.
The National Trust has described the Dampier Rock Art Precinct as “one of the world’s pre-eminent sites of recorded human evolution and a prehistoric university”.
In 2007, the federal government placed the Burrup Peninsula on Australia’s Heritage List, but that has not given the area the protection it deserves.
The biggest threat comes from the industrialisation of the area that has been promoted for the past 40 years. Successive Labor and Liberal state governments have encouraged companies to set up operations in the area, through funding infrastructure and direct assistance funds.
An ammonium nitrate plant, a fertiliser plant and natural gas processing infrastructure are situated in the area.
The development of the Burrup has directly led to the removal or destruction of artworks. In 2007, the previous Labor state government gave Woodside Petroleum approval to remove 941 engravings to make way for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant.
The National Trust estimates that 5000, and possibly up to 10,000, pieces of Aboriginal art have been destroyed.
When current WA Premier Colin Barnett was opposition leader in 2006 he said: “It is absolutely unacceptable that Australia destroy any significant amount of this rock art. That’s our heritage.”
But since he took office he has welcomed the development of the area.
Since the discovery of the Pluto gas fields off the coast, Woodside Petroleum, which is also the majority shareholder in the controversial LNG gas hub in Broome, has planned to expand its gas processing plant in the Burrup Peninsula. But on August 23, Woodside said it was putting these plans on hold for at least a year.
With no inventory of what artworks exist and no protection plans in place, the sites are vulnerable to vandalism. Friends of Australian Rock Art (FARA) has called for the government to control access to the Heritage site and to for all employers in the area to induct all their staff in the protocols of using the site. Currently there is no restricted access, signage or fencing in the area.
FARA is pushing for the Burrup to gain UNESCO World Heritage listing. It has called a global day of action called “Stand up for the Burrup” on September 23. It is asking supporters to submit photographs of protesters with the message “Stand up for the Burrup”.
[For more details of the campaign to Save the Burrup click here.]