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Aboriginal rock art stands to be damaged by planned fertilizer plant

A multi-billion dollar fertilizer plant in the Pilbara region in Australia could damage sacred ancient Aboriginal rock art

Indigenous Australian art

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Australia has approved a multi-billion dollar fertilizer plant in the Pilbara region after the project received the green light from the area’s local Indigenous corporation, despite concerns it will damage sacred Aboriginal ancient rock art located nearby.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said on Tuesday the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, representing the five traditional owners of the land in Western Australia, had agreed a number of rock carvings could be moved safely to an adjacent site. The corporation had allowed the development of a A$4.5 billion ($3.1 billion) project by Perdaman Chemicals and Fertlizers Ltd.

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The Perth-based company had stopped work on the urea plant for months, after facing opposition from traditional custodians wanting to protect the millions of Indigenous petroglyphs on Western Australia’s Burrup peninsula—an area that’s been nominated for a World Heritage listing.

“It does mean that work can soon commence on this,” Plibersek said in a radio interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. She noted that only “a couple” of rock carvings and grinding stones, as well as an arrangement of stones, were at risk in the proposed site.

Perdaman has already secured gas supplies from Woodside Energy Group’s Scarborough field, and received A$255 million in February from the federal government’s Northern Australian Infrastructure Fund to build water and port facilities in the area.

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The decision is a blow to Save Our Songlines, a separate Aboriginal activist group which had applied for a one-month pause on construction under Section 9 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. While Plibersek struck down the appeal, she said that she was still considering an application that would secure longer-term protection of the area.

“The minister suggests the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation is legally constituted to speak for traditional custodians but its own members and elders say they are gagged and cannot oppose or object to projects,” Murujuga traditional custodians and Save our Songlines spokeswomen Raelene Cooper and Josie Alec said in a post on Twitter. “Elders repeatedly expressed opposition to relocating rock art.”

The move spurred a backlash from some First Nations groups. Speaking in a separate interview with the ABC on Tuesday, Greens Senator Dorinda Cox called the Perdaman project a “Juukan 2.0”—a reference to Rio Tinto’s destruction in 2020 of a 40,000 year-old ancient Aboriginal heritage site in the Pilbara. 

That event sparked national outrage at the time and eventually led to the resignation of a number of the company’s senior executives, including then-Chief Executive Officer Jean-Sebastien Jacques.

“The movement of that rock art will be its destruction,” Senator Cox said about the fertilizer project.

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