Culture Clash: National Heritage Values, Native Title, and the GDP

From the Series: The Pilbara Crisis: Resource Frontiers in Western Australia

Photo by David Caloren, licensed under CC BY NC.

Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” was a forceful anthem in the 1960s: adopted by both the civil rights and feminist movements in the United States. Forty years later, RESPECT is the acronym embraced by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation in proclaiming their aspirations for heritage management of the place called Murujuga. Traditional custodians have articulated seven values as integral to all interactions between humans and this place: rock art, environment, sea country, people, earth, culture, and truth (RESPECT). The motto of the corporation’s Land and Sea Ranger program is Ngayintharri Gumawwarni Ngurrangga [We all come together for Country], a statement that reflects local Aboriginal people’s desire to protect this place and transmit cultural knowledge across the generations in a landscape that became orphan country through the actions of the colonial West.

Murujuga, as the Dampier Archipelago National Heritage Listed (NHL) place that includes the Burrup Peninsula has become known, is on the Pilbara coast of Western Australia. It is a land- and seascape with some of the world’s most abundant and diverse rock art. On Australia’s National Heritage List since 2007, Murujuga is widely recognized for its cultural and scientific values (McDonald and Veth 2009). It is renowned for having over one million petroglyphs (individual pieces of engraved art), which demonstrate both the first use of this arid landscape by people arriving over 45,000 years ago and the bountiful lifestyle of hunter-fisher-gatherers along this coastline before the arrival of explorers, pastoralists, pearlers and miners (McDonald 2014). This landscape is of great cultural significance to the Ngarda-Ngarli—people speaking the Ngarluma, Injabarndi, Mardudunhera, Yaburara, and Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo languages. As a result of the Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estates Agreement (BMIEA), the Murujaga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) is the representative group for the local Aboriginal communities in this country.

The Burrup liquid natural gas plant and industrial estate, with petroglyphs in foreground. Photo by Jo McDonald.

Located at the heart of the resource frontier, the Dampier Archipelago is also home to Dampier township, a liquid natural gas processing plant (Woodside’s Pluto B), Rio Tinto Iron Ore’s leases and railhead, the Dampier Port Authority, shipping facilities for gas, iron ore, and salt export. Other occupants include Dampier Salt, a liquid ammonia plant, the Maitland Strategic Industrial area, the Holcrim Quarry, and a further fifteen square kilometers of as-yet-undeveloped land that has been zoned for industrial use within the NHL place. This concentration of resources infrastructure sits in stark contrast to the majestic beauty of the dark red Pilbara landscape as it juts into aquamarine seas. The Pluto B plant’s flares rise like the Towers of Mordor, and can be seen as one approaches from both the broader Abydos Plain and the sea. Much as in J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe, the flares provide a constant reminder of the human quest for truth and beauty in the face of adversity: here, the desire of people to protect their heritage in the face of a brutal history of contact (e.g., Gara 1983) and burgeoning industrialization. The diverse interests in Murujuga wrestle with the key challenges of balancing recognition of Aboriginal people and their culture with exploitation of rich mineral resources.

The signing of the BMIEA represented a compulsory acquisition of any native title rights and interests in land on the Burrup Peninsula and pre-empted the Federal Court’s native title determination in relation to the Dampier Archipelago. Although they gained representative status for their traditional country, Ngarla-Ngarla people ceded their native title rights and interests in this land. In July 2003, the Federal Court found that nonexclusive native title rights still existed over the majority of the Ngarluma Yindjabarndi claim area, but that native title no longer existed over the Burrup Peninsula and adjoining waters. It has been argued that the community benefits resulting from the BMIEA were intended to endure, regardless of the Federal Court’s determination about native title. One is left wondering, however, whether the state government’s overwhelming desire for Pilbara mining development and dollars, and the contribution that these make to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the region, contributed to its desire to acquire the native title rights for the Burrup Peninsula in advance of the legal determination of those rights. This frontier mentality certainly affected the planning choices made when Dampier was selected for industrialization in the 1960s and 1970s—when its heritage values were effectively unknown (Vinnicombe 2002)—and it continues to play a part in the current state government’s aversion to World Heritage listing of the archipelago, despite its acknowledged meeting of UNESCO’s outstanding universal values criteria (Australian Heritage Council 2012).

The Murujuga National Park was established in 2013. Conceived by the BMIEA Agreement, it is comanaged by the MAC and the Western Australia Department of Parks and Wildlife, the first such arrangement in Western Australia. The national park covers just part of the NHL place, and no other management regime has been implemented to manage the NHL place as a whole. Thus, the site is caught between two legislative provisions: the state’s Heritage Act and the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. An interpretation center is now being scoped and will be funded by the BMIEA and a conservation agreement with Woodside.

So what are the consequences for heritage and Aboriginal self-determination in the face of this particular Western Australian frontier? And how can a nascent Aboriginal corporation—with the absolute support of the broader Ngarda-Ngarli peoples, but with minimal heritage expertise and limited financial resources—manage one of Australia’s largest cultural estates?

The Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation is developing a cultural management plan and training initiatives with the Department of Parks and Wildlife and the help of private consultants. The MAC is working with industry (particularly Woodside and RTIO, through their respective conservation agreements) to develop training programs and management strategies; it is building collaborative agreements with universities and individual researchers to establish the value of the rock art and stone structures; and, it continues to negotiate with the state government to ensure that the benefits that the BMIEA was supposed to guarantee do, in fact, materialize. Cultural protocols are being developed to ensure that knowledge of traditional law remains at the foundation of all human interactions across this environment, including the seven values brought together under the acronym RESPECT.

Such self-determination will require ongoing support for the MAC from their partners, as the quest for the mining dollar continues to exert pressure in the wild northwest. It will require the government to acknowledge that while heritage can coexist with development, both ore and heritage are nonrenewable resources.


Australian Heritage Council. 2012. “The Potential Outstanding Universal Value of the Dampier Archipelago Site and Threats to that Site.” A report to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Gara, Tom. 1983. “The Flying Foam Massacre: An Incident on the North-west Frontier.” In Archaeology at ANZAAS 1983, edited by Moya Smith. Perth: Western Australian Museum.

McDonald, Jo. 2014.“I Must Go Down to the Seas Again; or, What Happens When the Sea Comes to You? Murujuga Rock Art as an Environmental Indicator for Australia’s North-West.” Quaternary International 385: 124–35.

_____, and Peter Veth. 2009. “Dampier Archipelago Petroglyphs: Archaeology, Scientific Values and National Heritage Listing.” Archaeology in Oceania 44, S1: 49–69.

Vinnicombe, Patricia. 2002. “Petroglyphs of the Dampier Archipelago: Background to Development and Descriptive Analysis.” Rock Art Research 19, no. 1: 3–27.