By Amelia Searson and Tom Robinson
The federal government has nominated the culturally rich Burrup peninsula and surroundings areas, home to the world’s largest collection of rock art, for United Nations’ World Heritage listing.
- The federal government has nominated Murujuga National Park for World Heritage listing
- If accepted by UNESCO, Murujuga would become the second site in Australia listed for World Heritage for Aboriginal cultural heritage
- Traditional custodian Raelene Cooper says it’s been a “long time coming”
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek made the announcement today from the peninsula, called Murujuga in local language, and said she was delighted to formally nominate the site for global recognition based on its Aboriginal cultural heritage.
“Murujuga is a natural wonder of the world – a place for all Australians to reflect on years of continuous living culture,” she said.
“Our government is strongly committed to working with traditional owners and custodians to properly protect the history of the oldest living civilisation in the world.”
Murujuga is in the Pilbara region and has a unique landscape of ancient red rocks, spinifex and blue ocean, dense with history and cultural significance.
There is evidence dating back at least 50,000 years of traditional culture and practices in the area, including millions of a type of rock carving called petroglyphs.
If accepted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Murujuga would be the second site in Australia listed for World Heritage Status for Aboriginal cultural heritage.
Budj Bim, a dormant volcano located in south-western Victoria, was the first Australian site to be included on the heritage list exclusively for its Indigenous cultural heritage values.
The nomination was prepared by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) alongside the state government and with support from the federal government and technical experts.
MAC CEO Peter Jeffries said the five traditional owner groups of Murujuga had aspired for the area to be given World Heritage listing for more than two decades.
He said the groups worked to ensure traditional knowledge and lore were at the centre of decision making.
“We see inscription on the World Heritage List as a mechanism to support what we have always done – share knowledge, protect our sacred places and ensure that we are in the best position to respond to the needs of Country.”
In a statement, the federal government said a proposed World Heritage boundary of nearly 100,000 hectares across land and sea had been “comprehensively negotiated”.
The protection afforded by World Heritage status would ensure that traditional owners manage and protect Murujuga alongside all levels of government.
UNESCO’s assessment process will take at least 18 months and the earliest the nomination is likely to be considered by the World Heritage Committee is mid-2024.
Fears for rock art persist
The region’s rock art has been the focus of a campaign from breakaway traditional owner group Save Our Songlines (SOS) which was adamant nearby industrial emissions were damaging the art.
The peninsula is also home to massive Woodside operations, Yara Pilbara’s fertiliser plant and further development has been approved by government.
The SOS campaign has centred on successfully lobbying Ms Plibersek to appoint an independent reporter, who was conducting an ongoing probe into whether the rock art was at risk.
The government’s world heritage announcement came after days of speculation.
Speaking ahead of the official announcement, SOS leader and Mardudhunera woman Raelene Cooper congratulated MAC and said it was an “overwhelming” moment for Aboriginal people with connections to Murujuga.
“Definitely and certainly so excited about it, it’s been a long time coming,” Ms Cooper said.
She called for a pause on all heavy industry on the Burrup until after the federal probe was completed.
“Outlandish statements like culture and industry can work hand in hand. No, it cannot,” she said.
“It never has and never will, given industry and the emissions and the pollution that’s spewing out of these developments and projects are affecting and impacting our rock art.”
Christine Milne previously worked for the council of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which provides UNESCO with technical evaluations of natural heritage properties.
Ms Milne, who also led the federal Greens, said the continued industrial works on Murujuga could “jeopardise” the approval for Murujuga to receive World Heritage listing.
“UNESCO has to be confident that if an area is listed for its outstanding values to humankind, both natural and cultural, that those values can be protected,” Ms Milne said.
“If a government intends to allow production to proceed … there’s simply no way that they can protect the outstanding universal values of the petroglyphs from the industrial emissions that will come from those industries.
“You can’t have it both ways.”
In the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area, the world is brilliantly alive. Darlots Creek has burst its banks, swans cruise in the distance, a pair of brolgas has recently taken flight, and a koala and her joey navigate their way through the thin branches of a tree, poised above the water. It’s a living landscape in every sense, but no more so than culturally.
Tyrendarra is one piece of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, Australia’s newest UNESCO World Heritage site (inscribed in 2019) and the first site listed purely for its Indigenous cultural value. Here, among the volcanic terrain of Victoria’s south-west, Gunditjmara people started altering the landscape almost 7000 years ago, cutting channels in the lava flow from nearby Budj Bim volcano to divert streams and direct short-finned eels, or kooyang, into woven traps.
“This is one of the oldest aquaculture systems in the world,” says Indigenous ranger Ben Church. “The people knew the hydrology of the land so well that they could manipulate the land.”
Three Indigenous Protected Areas – Tyrendarra, Kurtonitj and Lake Condah – form the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape along the edge of Budj Bim National Park. I’ve come to Tyrendarra with tour company Hedonistic Hiking, where we meet Church beside the overflowing waters of Darlots Creek.
Surrounded by the high reeds of the wetlands, the Gunditjmara man, who has spent most of his life on Country, welcomes us in a simple smoking ceremony, burning leaves of native pine, manna gum and the black wattle that, when flowering, has long told the Gunditjmara that the eels are migrating.
With Church, we drive 10 minutes to Kurtonitj, a former grazing property veined with waterways and eel channels, along with foundations of the circular stone dwellings in which the Gunditjmara lived for millennia.
From a large installation of a calendar outlining the six Gunditjmara seasons, steel-mesh walkways head out across the streams to two channels flowing between basalt stones placed thousands of years ago to direct the water flow.
Such channels were up to 1400 metres in length and one metre in depth, designed with narrow constrictions into which woven basket traps would be placed.
Under his arm, Church carries an eel trap woven in the traditional form by one of the Aunties a couple of years ago, demonstrating its ingenuity as he dips it into a channel. A wide opening narrows to a point where the trapped eels couldn’t turn around and swim out, while a small hole at the end allowed juvenile eels to swim straight through while ensnaring the adults.
“Traditionally the mob would smoke the eels, and they’d do it in the hollows of manna gums,” Church says as we pass a large eucalypt that’s thought to have been one such smokehouse from nature. “We think this one was a smoking tree, though it’s now fallen in.” Tests have found traces of oil from the eels in samples from around the tree.
There are eel channels scattered across Kurtonitj, but the most complex systems are at Lake Condah, as were the bulk of the stone dwellings, reflecting the bounty of food at the lake.
On Lake Condah’s shore sits the beautifully designed Tae Rak Aquaculture Centre, opened in August 2022 as a tourism hub for Budj Bim. The centre was designed so that it faces the Budj Bim volcano, as the stone dwellings did, looking over the lake where swans and cygnets sail about, and swallows swoop after insects. It features an eel holding tank on the shaded deck, as well as a buck tucker cafe, serving the likes of smoked eel arancini. It’s also the starting point for guided cultural walks.
The walks begin beside the eel tank, where guide Shannon Gaita details the life of the kooyang and their migration – tagged eels have been found to migrate as far as New Caledonia, a journey of around 5000 kilometres.
The tour is a casual stroll, out along a metal walkway over the lake and then beside the shores to the lake’s outlet and into the lava flow that made this cultural landscape possible. Beyond these stone rises known as blisters, in the lower wetlands, there’s another eel channel, while atop them are the foundations of another stone hut of the sort that has challenged beliefs about Indigenous nomadic existence. So abundant were the resources around Budj Bim that the Gunditjmara built these permanent dwellings.
“We were never nomads,” Shannon says.