Fertilizer Giant Blocked from Removing Aboriginal Indigenous Rock Art

The Australian federal government has blocked a multinational fertilizer company from removing indigenous rock art from Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula. This UNESCO World Heritage-nominated area recently came under threat after the $4.5 billion (£3.4 billion) fertilizer company, Perdaman, announced plans to construct a new nitrogen plant.

Multinational Threat to Indigenous Rock Art

The new nitrogen plant has been strongly supported by both the Western Australian and federal governments. This means that this vast construction project is actually backed by the government, which has already given the company $255 million (£193 million) to build water and marine infrastructure nearby. Furthermore, the company is already contracted to buy gas used to make the nitrogen fertilizer from Woodside Energy’s Scarborough gas field.

For the new plant to go ahead on the Burrup Peninsula the fertilizer company first has to remove Indigenous rock art from three sites sacred to the aboriginal custodians of the area. However, Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, has instructed Perdaman “not to go ahead” until a review is carried out of the circumstances surrounding the plans.

Indigenous rock art at Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula. (Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation)

Indigenous rock art at Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula. ( Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation )

When 50,000-Year-Old Indigenous Rock Art is Removed for Nitrogen

The Burrup Peninsula in Australia’s Pilbara region is traditionally called Murujuga , which translates to mean “hip bone sticking out” in the aboriginal Ngarluma-Yaburara language. Murujuga includes not just the Burrup Peninsula, but also the Murujuga National Park and 42 islands that form the Dampier Archipelago.

According to The Guardian this vast outdoor rock art gallery displays over “a million examples of Indigenous rock art” with some examples having been made over 50,000 years ago. The Traditional Custodians of Murujuga are known collectively as the Ngurra-ra Ngarli, who are represented by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.

Even though the Murujuga Cultural Landscape was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2018, and added to the World Heritage Tentative List in January 2020, the fertilizer company has been granted permission by the Western Australian government to go ahead with the removal of the indigenous rock art . However, the actual official approval to remove the rock art has not yet been issued.

Raelene Cooper, a Mardudhunera woman and former board member of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, said it’s “astonishing” that the government would support us with the UNESCO World Heritage nomination and “then put a $4.5 billion plant in there and remove that history.”

The Ngajarli Art Viewing Trail opened in August 2020 at Murujuga National Park providing visitors with the chance to view indigenous rock art, carvings and petroglyphs, at the sacred site. (Parks and Wildlife Service, Western Australia)

The Ngajarli Art Viewing Trail opened in August 2020 at Murujuga National Park providing visitors with the chance to view indigenous rock art, carvings and petroglyphs, at the sacred site. ( Parks and Wildlife Service, Western Australia )

The Elders Said Go Ahead. Or Did They?

Perdaman spokespeople are claiming they have the full support of the traditional owners to remove the art. Contrary to this, Raelene Cooper explained that “the elders and members of the community had been misinformed about the nature of the work.”

Cooper added that the elders “had no understanding of what was really going on” and that they never approved this removal of their ancestral indigenous rock art. Cooper and fellow custodian, Josie Alec, petitioned Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, urging her to use emergency powers under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act , to halt the removal of the indigenous rock art.

This rock art at Murujuga is important to its aboriginal custodians because it plays a role in their beliefs and customs, while representing their laws and traditions. “It is a widely-held belief that many Murujuga engravings represent and embody ancestral beings (Marga), while some of the standing stones are thalu sites, critical for the regeneration of key species such as a range of fish, birds and kangaroo, and even sandflies,” highlighted an article in The Conversation which argued why Murujuga and its indigenous rock art should be given World Heritage status.

Nevertheless, back in 2015, the Western Australian government deregistered the area as a sacred site, reported, to make way for industrial development. At the time it was reported by Ancient Origins that “more than 20 percent of the rock art on Murujuga has been destroyed by industrial development.”

A modern ammonia plant sits side by side with ancient rock art at Murujuga National Park. (Marius Fenger / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A modern ammonia plant sits side by side with ancient rock art at Murujuga National Park. (Marius Fenger / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Pollution Destroys Ancient Rock Art: The Rock-Eating Nitrogen Cycle

The federal environment department has halted Perdaman’s plans until a review has been conducted. A spokesperson said that at this time the scheduling of works remains “a matter for the proponent who must meet all conditions including those relating to the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage.”

However, it isn’t just the removal of indigenous rock art that locals are screaming about here. John Black from the University of Western Australia is an honorary research fellow who told The Guardian that air pollution from gas production and other industrial operations “builds up on the rock face.” After some time, it makes the surface more acidic causing the paint to break down.

This pollution problem is enhanced in the Murujuga environment that is known for being extraordinarily deficient in nitrogen. A huge new nitrogen source will be fuel for microbes that produce organic acids, Black said. What this new plant represents is a new supply of various forms of nitrogen which effectively act as pollution.

Nitrogen is important to all life. When it builds up in the atmosphere, or in the soil, a series of complex chemical and biological changes occur and it is consumed by living and non-living materials (including rocks). It then returns back to the soil, or air, in what is known as a continuous nitrogen cycle. This causes problems because the excess nitrogen degrades water quality as nitrates enter the groundwater and wells that provide drinking water, and it also kills land fertility.

Top image: Indigenous rock art at Western Australia’s Murujuga National Park. Source: totajla / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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