Dampier petroglyph

Stylised face image from Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), Western Australia. To be destroyed this century.

The Dampier Archipelago is located off the north-western coast of Australia. It 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. Attracted by the overabundant iron reserves, miners established huge open-cut mines in the 1960s, several railway lines were built, and a series of towns grew in this vast wilderness.

To ship the ore to the hungry furnaces of the world, deep harbours had to be built and in the early 1960s it was proposed to construct a deepwater 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 during the mid-1960s. 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, and it is significant to note that this was the result of a deliberate cover-up. After the discovery of substantial natural gas deposits offshore a massive gas treatment plant and further loading facilities were installed in the 1980s, and about 30% of the main island, Murujuga (Burrup) is presently (2002) occupied by industrial, residential and infrastructure development. In the process between 20-25% of the rock art has been destroyed since 1964.

Legally the Western Australian government is responsible for the protection and preservation of the state’s cultural heritage. In relation to the petroglyphs of the Dampier Archipelago, it has consistently abrogated its responsibility and has asked various mining and other companies operating at Dampier to take responsibility for the rock art. To place this into its proper perspective it must be appreciated that:

A. With hundreds of thousands of figures (more than a million, according to some archaeologists) the Dampier corpus of rock art is the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the world.
B. The islands also comprise Australia’s largest number of standing stones and other stone arrangements.
C. The Dampier corpus is the largest non-European cultural heritage property of Australia.

I have opposed the destruction of rock art at Dampier since the 1960s, and in subsequent decades several other rock art researchers and archaeologists have added their voices to my demands, which were:

1. Nomination of the peninsula to World Heritage status.
2. The return of all untenanted land to the surviving Aboriginal communities, perhaps with a proviso that they lease part of it as a National Park to the Commonwealth.
3. The permanent installation of a rock art ranger, who should have full jurisdiction over any rock art on leased land, besides assisting the managers of the conservation zone and liaising with traditional custodians.
4. That the perpetual conservation and cultural integrity of this enormous cultural asset be safeguarded and supervised by a federal government agency of scientific repute.

No action has been taken by any government of Western Australia to address any one of these requests. There exists no management plan for Dampier, and no form of protection for any of the rock art, be it on company land or unoccupied land. No study had 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, until the government was prodded into a study commenced in 2004. The government has never attempted to compile an inventory of the rock art, we only have quantitative estimates 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.

Currently (2002) the government of Western Australia promotes plans that will:

a. Increase the atmospheric pollution emissions by roughly 300%. This amounts to an increase for the whole state, which is four times the size of Texas, of 27%. Emissions are currently already so high that they damage the rock art.
b. The built-up land area of Murujuga (Burrup) will be increased to fully 42% (advice of WA Premier).

The government continues to attract massive industrial investments to Dampier and intends to expand the development dramatically, still unperturbed by the effects on the area’s most important resource, its cultural monuments. It now intends to add a multi-billion dollar petrochemical complex to the existing industries. There is absolutely 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, south-west 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 Murujuga massacres (17 February 1868 to May 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, including its coral reefs, agree wholeheartedly, as does every other stakeholder in the issue. Even most of the the companies involved in the industrial development of the Pilbara prefer alternative sites, and nearly all of the initial dozen or so proponents for the government’s plan at Dampier have withdrawn in 2003 and 2004. There are considerable logistic difficulties on the islands, higher construction costs, and much of the flat land at Dampier is subject to occasional surge tides. Moreover, the idea of creating a potential powderkeg by placing so many major LNG plants within close proximity is itself perverse.

The Maitland Estate will be developed in any case because there is very limited room on the islands for development. They are mostly covered by huge boulder piles and very narrow valleys, entirely unsuitable for any form of construction. The cost of the Maitland infrastructure is $300 million (160 square kilometres), the cost of the planned Murujuga (Burrup) infrastructure is $221 million (10 square kilometres), total cost $521 million. But the development of Maitland, where the supply of land is almost unlimited, eliminates the need to first develop the unsuitable Murujuga sites. In other words, the government of Western Australia is prepared to waste $221 million of public funds just so that it can avoid admitting that it has made a mistake.

We know from the examples of the Coa and Guadiana valleys in Portugal how costly mistakes can be when the protection of rock art is involved. The International Federation of Rock Art Organisations (IFRAO) which has led the campaigns in these cases is opposed to the senseless destruction of rock art. On 14 February 2002, upon realising that there was no satisfactory solution to be expected from the State Government, IFRAO advised the Premier, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, the Minister of for the Environment and Heritage, the Minister for State Development and Tourism, the Minister for Local Government and Regional Development and the Department of Mineral and Petroleum Resources that these plans would be opposed and defeated.

Supported by the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA), the campaign commenced in early 2002 has secured the support also of numerous international and national organisations as well as many Australian politicians. In the course of the following years there has been much dialogue with the recalcitrant state government, the campaign has been very successful in blocking the aspirations of the cultural vandals, but the threat remains as great as it was in 2002. We seek the support of all who value the heritage of humanity to save this magnificent monument 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.
(First established in 2002, last updated November 2006)

Robert G. Bednarik
President and Convener of IFRAO