Standing in front of a sacred rock site, Clinton Walker shouted acknowledgment to her ancestors in the language of the Ngarluma people.
In the early morning it was quiet except for his voice and the chirping of birds. Surrounded by mountains of rock carvings and arrangements denoting tens of thousands of years of continuous Aboriginal heritage, he could feel the land vibrating with the spirit of his ancestors.
But beneath it all, there was a dull buzz – the endless, inescapable buzz of industry across the peninsula.
“This place, you feel it. It’s alive,” he said. “But this mob is trying to kill him.”
The Burrup Peninsula on the northwest coast of Australia is home to one million petroglyphs believed to be up to 50,000 years old. They document extinct animals and include some of the oldest depictions of the human face.
The peninsula, called Murujuga by Aborigines, is also what the state government calls the “gateway to Australia’s biggest oil and gas operations”. A major liquefied natural gas project underway is expected to boost offshore drilling and plants will be built to process it.
Some traditional land keepers say the projects threaten a place they hold deeply sacred.
The fight to protect Murujuga is the latest in a series of high-profile controversies involving Aboriginal heritage that have embroiled mining and resource companies and exposed the mechanics of what experts and indigenous peoples describe as a deeply unequal relationship between people who traditionally belong to the land, and those who derive billions of dollars of profit from it.
“We don’t have the voice to say no,” said Mr. Walker, a traditional or indigenous landowner who works as a tour guide and teaches visitors about the importance of Murujuga. “Legally, we don’t.”
Australia’s mining and resources industry has faced a toll since 2020, when mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the archaeologically significant Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia without the consent of traditional owners, but with government approval of State.
The resulting global outcry “brought attention to something that was business as usual,” said Kado Muir, the head of the National Native Title Council.
The episode prompted inquiries, promises and changes. Western Australia has overhauled its Aboriginal heritage protection laws and last month the federal government pledged to draft better national laws.
But indigenous leaders and experts say that in a country where mining is king, the fight for Murujuga shows that the balance still tips against indigenous peoples who seek to protect their heritage.
At the center of this struggle are two Aboriginal groups: the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, the recognized body responsible for protecting the peninsula’s Aboriginal heritage, and Save Our Songlines, a splinter group which claims the former is crippled by agreements of long standing with the government and by its dependence on the financing of the same companies now threatens this heritage.
Save Our Songlines fears that industrial pollution on the peninsula is eroding the petroglyphs – a concern supported by some scientists who say there is evidence that acid rain, resulting from nitrous oxide in plant emissions, is wearing down the thin layer of varnish used to create the works.
“Once the artwork is gone, we cannot get it back,” said Raelene Cooper, co-founder of Save Our Songlines and former board member of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.
The industry’s footprint is set to grow. Last year, Woodside Energy Group received permission to drill gas from the Scarborough field off the coast of Western Australia and to expand its liquefied natural gas processing plant on the peninsula. The project will be one of the dirtiest developments in Australia, according to progressive research institutes and experts, estimating that it will release between 1.5 and nearly 1.8 billion tonnes of additional emissions over the course of its lifespan.
Murujuga is the site of some of the earliest creation stories in Indigenous culture, Ms. Cooper said, and the root of many songs — intangible spiritual paths that criss-cross the country, passed down through song and transmitting important cultural knowledge. Each petroglyph tells a story and documents a direct connection to ancestors who lived tens of thousands of years ago, she said. If the artwork is eroded, “the meaning of this story is lost”.
Woodside Energy says there is no reliable research to show that the emissions are affecting the rock art at Murujuga. “Peer-reviewed research has demonstrated no impact on Burrup rock art from emissions associated with Woodside operations,” a company spokesperson said in a statement, referring to previous studies funded by industry.
But some scientists have questioned the data behind the research, which they say has not been collected consistently or in a way to track the effects of pollution.
“At this point we don’t know the answer,” said Jo McDonald, director of the University of Western Australia’s Center for Rock Art Research and Management. “And it’s a shame we don’t know that, because obviously people have been asking this question for 15 years, but the early studies weren’t the right ones.”
Save Our Songlines has another, more immediate concern: a new urea plant will be built by the multinational Perdaman Industries to process the gas extracted by Woodside. This will require moving some sacred rock sites – a process Ms Cooper has compared to “cutting your neck”.
“There is marnda, or rock art,” she says, and “once you moved that rock, the spiritual energy inside that marnda disappeared. It dissipates, it’s disconnected.
The group asked the federal government to stop construction of the plant, but was refused. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the petition was not supported by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.
The company stressed that it has no approval authority over the urea plant and only acts as an advisory body.
Responding to emailed questions, Peter Jeffries, president of the society, said that after extensive consultation with Perdaman regarding the sacred rock sites, “it was ultimately determined that a number of sites could not be avoided by the proposed development and it was the strong preference of the Circle of Elders that if development were to go ahead, these sites should be moved to an area outside of the development footprint.
Perdaman did not respond to calls and emails for comment.
The Western Australian government says its new heritage laws, which come into force next year, focus on ‘deal-making’ between businesses and Aboriginal organizations and put ‘traditional owners at the heart of decision-making”. But critics argue the legislation fails to address the key problem, namely that in the event of disagreement, the final say rests with the Minister of State for Indigenous Affairs, not the traditional owners.
“We still don’t allow traditional owners to say ‘no’ or veto a project,” said Kristen Lyons, a professor of sociology at the University of Queensland, whose research focuses on mining and indigenous rights. Instead, she said, they are “negotiating the terms of a ‘yes’ that the destruction or mining of their country will continue”.
For this reason, indigenous organizations will often choose to comply with mining companies, she said, aware that it “can be very risky financially to seek to veto a project, as it may prevent you from get paid if the project goes ahead. ”
Financial considerations may be particularly relevant in rural areas where many developments are taking place.
Ms. Cooper and Save Our Songlines have filed a request with the federal government to investigate threats to Murujuga and determine if she should be granted protection. Their chances are slim; out of 500 applications over the past 40 years, only seven have been granted long-term protection.
But Ms Cooper remains optimistic. She must keep fighting, she said. “It is our obligation. It is our lineage and our blood to this country.