Rock Art Riches: The Devastating Cost of Australia’s Mining Boom
By Debra JopsonMarch 8, 2013
Rich-lister Gina Rinehart, one of the world’s biggest uranium companies, and countless other prospectors are all lining up to mine landscapes holding the planet’s most ancient artworks.
Tucked away in the sandstone ridges of the rugged tropics near Australia’s north-eastern tip, the ochre “bullymen” with their big penises and staring eyes still cling to the rock.
These are secret paintings, made by Aboriginal men who were driven from their lowlands by colonials hungry for gold, and who were then harassed in the hills by the Native Mounted Police, both black troopers and their white officers.
The locals painted the police, or “bullymen”, onto the rock, in the belief that these works would conquer the enemy through sorcery, as Tommy George, a descendant of the “black trackers” now in his 80s (and the last surviving speaker of Agu Alaya, or Taipan Snake language) has explained to archaeologist Noelene Cole.
The Aboriginal fugitives believed that the paintings were a weapon that gave them power over the armed lawmen, George explained.
“It was so deeply embedded in culture that they could use the rock paintings to kill people – that’s how powerful the art was.
“The paintings were there to kill the police.
“It shows the power of that visual culture. They thought it was as strong as guns,” Cole said.
But now these poignant paintings, along with hundreds of other Aboriginal works in this remote Queensland gallery, which United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has recognised as one of the great rock-art precincts of the globe, are under a new threat from another power source: mining.
Prospectors have targeted the land beneath and around the art because it is rich in exploitable resources. These paintings are emblematic of the perils befalling rock art throughout Australia, where the resources sector has been booming for more than a decade, fuelled by China’s insatiable energy needs.
This is a recurring Australian story, as mining, industry and urbanisation surge across a landscape which harbours millions of images at more than 100,000 rock-art sites. State and territory heritage laws have proved weak in protecting the works, under governments keen to cash in on the mining bonanza.
THIS PARTICULAR FRONTIER CLASH, in Queensland’s “Quinkan country” – named after the spirit figures whose long limbs and startled expressions frolic in ochre over the sandstone – has it all: a state hungry for mining dollars; prospectors including Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, clamouring to explore for minerals and coal (Jacaranda Minerals, a company controlled by her Hancock Prospecting was among the hungry applicants); and the Aboriginal heirs to a 30,000-year-old heritage, whose custodial burden just got heavier.
Six months of dogged research by Cole and fellow archaeologist Alice Buhrich has revealed that applications for coal and mineral exploration cover almost an entire rock-art precinct at the base of Cape York Peninsula.
The region is edging toward World Heritage listing. Yet Cole and Buhrich found that the Queensland Government has already granted some mineral and coal exploration permits in areas meant to be protected as special Aboriginal places.
“It is astounding, internationally speaking, that a region like this would be considered for mining,” said Cole, an adjunct research fellow in archaeology with James Cook University. “It would be like the French mining the Lascaux caves and the Dordogne, which is World Heritage listed.”
Queensland’s Mines Minister Andrew Cripps confirmed to The Global Mail that Jacaranda Minerals had submitted two applications to explore for minerals over parts of Cape York.
These were this week being assessed, subject to four Acts governing native title, Aboriginal cultural heritage, mineral resources and environmental protection, he said.
The nugget of information about Rinehart’s involvement emerged at the end of February, when federal Environment Minister Tony Burke dropped in by helicopter during rainy season for a quick tour of Quinkan rock art. At that point, the company expressed surprise at the cultural riches involved; it has now said it will withdraw the applications.
But there is much more to tell. The Quinkan area, covering more than 230,000 hectares around Laura, which is home to 80 souls and a famous biennial indigenous dance festival, is experiencing “unprecedented pressures from tourism and mining”, Cole and Buhrich warned in the December issue of Australian Archaeology.
The earliest known engravings in the region have been dated at a minimum 13,000 years of age and, according to Tommy’s son, Thomas George, the indigenous custodian of the Laura art, Aboriginal people are still rediscovering other long-lost artworks.
The Quinkan region rock art was once on the Register of the National Estate. But in 2004 that register was replaced by the National Heritage List and the rock art lost its federal statutory protection, as it was left up to the states to transfer places of importance onto the List.
The current Queensland heritage laws are of questionable use in protecting rock art, Cole has found.
In the land of the Quinkans, the rock art is almost wholly contained in an area marked on maps as DLA 002, a “Designated Landscape Area”, which by Queensland state law limits entry to certain people, including the Aboriginal custodians. The DLA status is meant to protect an area’s Aboriginal heritage, including its rock-art sites.
Nevertheless, mine prospectors have targeted the area because of its rich gold and coal deposits. In fact, Cole discovered that state permission for minerals exploration had been granted over the whole of DLA 002.
Cripps’s office has confirmed that a significant portion of the areas Jacaranda Minerals had applied to explore fell within DLA 002. The office has said that exploration is not allowed within the parts which are marked out as environmentally sensitive; there is a ban on use of machinery within 500 metres of the boundary of these sensitive areas.
However, Cole said that once companies are granted exploration licences, their activities in the protected areas are not independently policed – the companies are expected to monitor their own compliance with Queensland’s Code of Environmental Compliance for Minerals Development.
“The granting of a permit for exploration still doesn’t mean permission to go ahead [with mining],” Cole said, “but exploration involves damage to the country, setting up camps, bringing in four wheel drives. It is a remote area and there is no-one there to check.”
Thomas George feels bewildered and powerless against the interests that would plunder the area. And there are plenty of others besides Rinehart. He wants to try to stop any thought of mining in the area right now, at application and exploration stage.
“If they start drilling or blasting around there, it will collapse because it’s all soft sandstone,” he said.
THE UNEVEN TUSSLE CREATED when an ongoing colonisation process – just a couple of centuries old with an insatiable thirst for natural resources – meets the art of 30 millennia is playing out in remote places, away from the public gaze.
In the Wellington Range of Arnhem Land, at least three-and-a-half centuries ago, an Aboriginal man climbed onto a boulder and delicately daubed yellow ochre onto a high wall, creating a masterful image of a boat — it is Australia’s oldest known “contact” rock artwork, referring to contact with non-indigenous people.
The unknown artist was 30 kilometres from the northern Australian coastline yet the accuracy with which he depicted the prau, a type of boat with rectangular sails, still in use in southeast Asia today, stuns Professor Paul Taçon, an archaeologist who dates the work somewhere between 1517 and 1664.
“The whole thing was made by a very skilled artist with a great visual memory,” said Professor Taçon, who holds the chair in Rock Art Research at Griffith University.
Now a uranium mine looms as a possibility in the hills where this faint ochre boat and thousands of other images adorn rows of stone galleries in one of the planet’s most precious rock art precincts.
One of the world’s biggest uranium miners, Cameco, has found a significant deposit, The Global Mail can reveal.
Toronto-based Cameco made its find in remote Northern Territory hills so rich in rock art that one gallery complex alone, Djulirri, has 3,000 images.
It is home to the planet’s only known indigenous rock-art stencils depicting whole birds, silhouetted against the cave wall.
Its galleries hold paintings of the dog-like carnivore, the thylacine (which disappeared from mainland Australia at least 2,000 years ago), as well as depictions of rainbow serpents, fish, reptiles, animals, people, boats, ceremonial objects and spirit figures.
The oldest artwork has been dated to about 15,000 years and the range of art styles is breathtaking — from the X-ray art, stencils, beeswax reliefs and ochres there amount to more than 3,000 images.
“The importance of this art site is that it’s like a library. It tells a story of what happened and the first contact of the people who contacted northwest Arnhem Land,” the Aboriginal custodian of the Djulirri gallery, Ronald Lamilami, told The Global Mail.
But for Cameco, the uranium company which has been exploring for years in remote Australia in an attempt to strike a find as good as those in its Canadian homeland, western Arnhem Land has become a special place, too.
One industry source, quoted in the online publication ProEdgeWire in November last year, said that Cameco “came to Australia to try to duplicate their grades in the Athabasca Basin of Canada [which supplies about 20 per cent of the world’s uranium] – with success at last”.
Both the Northern Territory Government and Cameco Australia have confirmed the uranium find from tests at a drill hole at nearby Angularli.
A company geologist, Mark King, told a Northern Territory mining conference last year that Angularli “and parallel structures will remain a focus in Arnhem Land for Cameco through the foreseeable future”.
Lamilami, who owns the land containing the great galleries, said that he and fellow traditional owners are not anti-development, but the resources boom has made it apparent that mining will impact both the people and the country. Rio Tinto appears to be moving toward bauxite mining in the area, too, he said.
“It’s spreading like a wart,” he said.
Members of the clan groups around the uranium find will meet soon to discuss it, he said, but Lamilami wants to be ready if any mine gets the go-ahead.
“It’s a huge deposit. They’ll have to bitumise the road and the bitumen will have an impact,” he said.
Dust and more visitors will all affect the art, said Taçon.
Minister Burke’s office said Cameco had not yet submitted a proposal to his Government for any uranium project in the Wellington Range, but any such plan would need clearance if it were likely to have significant environmental impact.
Cameco Australia managing director Brian Reilly said that the company would work with all stakeholders to protect the area’s environment, culture and heritage.
Traditional owners review any exploration work by the company, which conducts heritage surveys to ensure these areas are protected, he said.
Lamilami wants a detailed conservation and management plan in place before any large developments proceed.
“In other parts of Australia it has been the other way around,” Taçon said.
Elsewhere, the plan has come after a hue and cry from Aborigines and others, after development has already impacted on the rock art, he said.
Taçon knows that Cameco has explored close to Djulirri, slap-bang in the middle of the range under which the uranium lies. Lamilami is also custodian of two other major nearby galleries, Malarrak and Bald Rock, and there is plenty more art out there, he said.
“There are rock art sites throughout the Wellington Range, but most of the area still has not been adequately surveyed,” said Taçon.
The Wellington Range has more known ‘contact art’ – the record Aborigines made of invaders and visitors – than any other region. At Djulirri, older art includes x-ray images of kangaroos, the Rainbow Serpent and Lightning Man, but about one quarter of the images are ‘contact’ work. These depict European missionaries, a bicycle, a biplane, a buggy, Roman numerals, and a steamship bearing eight passengers with their hands on their hips.
At nearby Malarrak and Bald Rock galleries, there are images of rifles, a coffee mug, an ocean cruiser, a biplane and three stencils of a tobacco tin.
EVERY DAY, THE LIST OF APPLICATIONS to Australian state and territory mining departments grows, in a nation which has never compiled a proper register of its rock art.
Those in the know are the amateur enthusiasts, professional archaeologists and indigenous custodians who have rediscovered, recorded and managed the magnificent art made on every suitable rock, from the ethereal Bradshaw space figures of the Kimberley in Western Australia to the carved concentric circles of Central Australia.
In the Wellington Range, Taçon is concerned that the federal government – whether of Coalition or Labor stripe after the September federal election – will allow uranium mining to go ahead, with the support of the Country Liberal Party now in power in the Territory.
The federal Coalition – now in Opposition but polling suggests the likely victor in the national elections set for Sept. 14 – recently floated a draft discussion paper which supported a new push for industrial expansion in the Top End. The paper was based on arguments made by a group whose most prominent member is miner Gina Rinehart. While Coalition leader Tony Abbott played down the implications of the paper, it is out there without a countering argument for heritage conservation.
In light of the immediate threats from mining prospectors in north Queensland and Arnhem Land, Taçon intends to organise a new campaign to focus on protecting Australia’s Top End rock art.
This would be an extension of the campaign he began in 2011, which centred on a video in which actor Jack Thompson narrated a tour of some of the works, and passionately pleaded that Australians should act to preserve the national rock-art estate, from north to south.
The related website, Protect Australia’s Spirit, warned that within 50 years, half of Australia’s rock art could be gone forever, while some more than 15,000 years old were at immediate risk.
Now, Taçon says, the urgency is about protecting northern Australia. “[That is] where most of the rock-art sites are, and it is where the oldest rock-art sites are, and the oldest contact art and some of the most spectacular rock art in the world.”
Any campaign aimed at protecting rock art is likely to be up against it in an economic environment in which northern states seem to be competing for development dollars and the wealth that can flow from mining.
The Northern Territory operates under the motto “Bringing Forward Discovery” — backed by $25.8 million to attract resources exploration.
One of the first acts of the new conservative Queensland Government last year was its “greentape reduction”, designed to fast-track applications by resources companies.
And the West Australian Government has an exploration incentive scheme with a kitty of $80 million.
BOTH COLE AND THOMAS GEORGE say it is vital to act now rather than to try to fight mining activity after it has been approved.
It is far better to stop mining which threatens valuable rock art at the stage before exploration permits are granted than to wait for companies to decide they want to mine a site, they contend.
“In Australia we learnt the hard way. The Burrup Dampier thing has been a disaster,” she said, referring to the smashing of the rock art of the Burrup peninsula and the Dampier archipelago in Western Australia.
The peninsula’s 114 square kilometres were once home to between 1.5 million and two million petroglyphs; of these, about 10,000 carvings covering 12 square kilometres have already been lost through iron-ore and gas development, and through expansion of Dampier port and township, according to WA state Greens parliamentarian Robin Chapple.
The president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations, Robert Bednarik, said this set “a world record in destruction”.
But campaigners across the world fought to halt development which could damage the one million-plus petroglyphs with estimated ages of between 200 and 30,000 years, in a rock art precinct which some say is the most precious on the globe.
It seemed in January that there was a victory. WA Premier Colin Barnett announced that a sizeable portion of the Burrup peninsula will be corralled in a national park run by the Aboriginal traditional owners; but industry will get its chunk, too.
Bednarik told The Global Mail that he hammered out the deal with Premier Barnett himself.
“This was the biggest rock-art-protection campaign in history. It concerned some $30 billion of [industrial development] investment. I am proud to say I [was able to] drive away 18 big companies,” Bednarik said.
“It’s obviously a blueprint for other sites. If we can get a similar arrangement to work in other places, where the Aboriginal people safeguard the protection of the rock art by having a national park, and if it reverts to their ownership, it is the best guarantee [of protection of the art] you can get,” he said.
But the deal isn’t quite good enough, because about 6,400 hectares has been left unprotected and available for industrial development, according to Chapple, who is campaigning for World Heritage listing for the Burrup region.
In order to keep that 6,400 hectares available for development, the Aboriginal people are being handed not the 60 per cent of the peninsula thought they were getting in their new Murujuga National Park, but only 44 per cent, he said.
The peninsula, with the highest concentration of engravings of any known site in the world, is protected through a National Heritage Listing and the park agreement, a spokeswoman for Environment Minister Bill Marmion said.
The WA Government “is committed to ensuring protection of Aboriginal rock art on the Burrup Peninsula and ensuring environmentally responsible development”, she said.
However, WA Greens federal Senator Scott Ludlam said, “In Western Australia in particular, the Aboriginal Heritage Act is just a machine for documenting what you are about to put bulldozers to.”
Jo McDonald, the University of WA’s Rio Tinto Chair of Rock Art said: “There’s not enough heritage protection for heritage, full stop.”
Recent changes to heritage legislation in Western Australia have downgraded the protection of Aboriginal cultural remains, she said.
There have been some wins of sorts for those seeking heritage protection of rock art this year.
Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke saved some rock art on the Tarkine coast of Tasmania by specifying that “indigenous values” are to be protected there, but environmentalists say that he only saved four per cent of the landscape that should be corralled from development.
And the federal Government moved to finally end the threat of further uranium mining in Kakadu’s World Heritage Area, home to possibly Australia’s most famous rock art.
“Australia has become increasingly aware of the significance of indigenous heritage, but we have a long way to go,” said University of Western Australia archaeologist Alistair Paterson.
“Our job is to make sure people understand it is an extraordinary continent, colonised for 50,000 years. There is an amazing human story there, that goes from the Ice Ages to the present,” he said.
Senator Ludlam, who has campaigned for a national heritage strategy, believes that the main difficulty in safeguarding rock art is that there is no single piece of federal legislation designed to protect it.
“The moves I am aware of are in the opposite direction. COAG [Council of Australian Governments] spent a lot of time last year arguing whether the national government would devolve its heritage protection back to the states and territories. The federal Government seems to find its national heritage protection arduous and would like to get rid of it,” he said.
Senator Ludlam is pessimistic about being able to achieve effective protection, predicting that by the time any national strategy is in place, it will be meaningless because the department responsible for enforcing it has had its funding dramatically reduced.
Meanwhile, in many states, including WA and New South Wales, historians, indigenous people and archaeologists lament that heritage-protection standards have taken a dive.
TONY BURKE MADE THE RIGHT NOISES about wanting to protect Quinkan art after he dropped in on it by helicopter.
“It’s beyond belief that anyone could see these rocks and start a conversation about mining. Yet somehow that’s the perverse outcome of recent applications before the Queensland Government,” he said.
He said that if traditional owners wanted World Heritage protection, he would back it.
But one of the barriers Thomas George finds in seeking to protect the Quinkan art is this: although he wants the listing, for complicated reasons, other Aboriginal elders do not.
According to Taçon, it could take 10 years to actually achieve World Heritage listing anyway.
And then, even if the Quinkan country is declared a World Heritage site, Cole does not foresee that the exploration licences already criss-crossing it will be terminated.
Cripps said that he and his fellow ministers responsible for the region would address any of the concerns that Cape York communities have during the consideration of exploration applications.
Right now, this remote Aboriginal landscape is more pristine than nearly anywhere else in Australia, said Cole. “I have walked those areas and it’s like the Aboriginal people left yesterday,” she told The Global Mail.
The ochre the old painters used is still sitting in the rock shelters where the art was made, where the artists left it. Pull a rock apart and the ochre is clumped inside, like an egg in a yolk, said Thomas George.
He welcomes Swedish, French and German tourists who head out to Country, inspired by seeing the Quinkan artwork, including his own, which adorns Cairns Airport.
“They advertise our paintings and want to mine on them,” he said. “What’s going on?”