Tiwi Elders call on Tanya Plibersek to protect sea Country from Santos

October 24, 2023
Jikilaruwu elder Molly Munkara, who is one of five elders calling on the Minister to urgently act. Photo: Tymunna Clements

Senior Jikilaruwu Elder Molly Munkara is among five Elders who have asked federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek to urgently intervene to stop Santos from destroying Tiwi cultural heritage.

Munkara said her sea Country is at immediate risk from the oil and gas giant’s pipeline construction for its Barossa Gas Project.

“I speak for this Sea Country. I hold the stories of my people. They have been passed down from our ancestors since time began and were told to me by my great grandparents,” Munkara said on October 24.

“The seabed is part of the Country that I must speak for and protect. If Santos puts that pipeline where it has said, it will destroy our sacred sites and our ancient burial grounds. This will impact our spirituality and destroy our health, our home and our lives.”

Santos has announced it intends to begin work on the pipeline as soon as October 25.

This is despite National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, the offshore regulator, having stopped work on the pipeline in January until Santos had completed an underwater cultural heritage assessment.

The Elders’ application to Plibersek is being made under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection (ATSIHP) Act.

It is requesting the Minister make a special declaration to prevent serious and immediate harm to significant underwater cultural sites in the Timor Sea where Santos wants to develop the Barossa Gas Project.

Alina Leikin, Special Counsel, Environmental Defenders Office said: “Tiwi Elders have sought emergency protection for an area that they consider holds cultural significance and which they fear is under serious and immediate threat.

“They have asked the Minister to make a special declaration under cultural heritage laws, to protect their cultural heritage. This is a step our clients take very seriously, but given the importance of the cultural heritage at risk, it is a step they feel they must take to protect and preserve their precious cultural heritage.”

Tiwi Elders found out only last week that Santos was preparing to start work. The pipeline route will cross an area of the sea floor where Tiwi people say it will cause significant harm to ancient Tiwi burial grounds, Songlines and other sacred ancestral sites.

Under the ATSIHP Act, the Minister can make such as declaration which would prevent Santos from contravening the decision.

Tiwi Islanders have been in a long-running battle to protect sea Country. The Federal Court travelled to the Tiwi Islands in August last year to take evidence from Traditional Owners for a judicial review challenge of Santos’ lack of consultation.  It invalidated Santos’ approval to drill for gas in September last year.

The same court dismissed Santos’ second appeal, last December, against the finding that it had failed to consult Traditional Owners on the Barossa gas project in the Timor Sea.

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