Australian Indigenous group steps up campaign to protect sacred rock art


SYDNEY, March 2 (Reuters) - An Australian Indigenous group on Thursday stepped up its campaign against industrial development in Western Australia's Burrup Peninsula, a key gas export hub, saying in a protest in Sydney that planned projects would damage ancient rock art.

A government-appointed investigator has been assessing the impact of development in the Burrup Peninsula since last year in response to a request from two indigenous women representing a group called Save our Songlines. The protest in Australia's largest city, about 5,000 km from the peninsula, brought the issue to the doorstep of Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.

"It is up to us to keep our culture and our history alive," said Indigenous woman Raelene Cooper of Save our Songlines, who applied for the review under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.

Protecting heritage sites has been a contentious issue since the destruction of 46,000 year-old sacred rock shelters by Rio Tinto (RIO.L) in 2020 that cost the jobs of the mining giant's then-chief executive and three other senior leaders.

The Burrup Peninsula already houses several industrial plants amid more than a million rock carvings, some more than 40,000 years old, which have been nominated for a UNESCO World Heritage listing.

There are two liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants run by Woodside Energy Group (WDS.AX) and fertiliser and explosives plants run by Norway's Yara International (YAR.OL) in the industrial zone.

"We take the necessary steps to manage our impacts, including in response to credible new information," a Woodside spokesperson said, adding that research to date on the impact of emissions on rock art has not been conclusive.

A spokesperson for Yara Pilbara, the Australian unit of Yara International, said that as a company, "we acknowledge and respect the cultural significance of Murujuga" and that Yara is working with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to preserve cultural heritage.

Australia last month formally nominated the Murujuga Indigenous cultural landscape for a UNESCO World Heritage listing. read more

Woodside, Yara and Perdaman, which plans to build a urea plant on the peninsula, all said they supported the World Heritage listing and were working with the traditional custodians to protect their heritage.

The Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, the traditional owners' representative, led the preparation of the World Heritage nomination.

Save our Songlines has disagreed with the group over the industrial development and has raised doubts that a World Heritage listing would protect the ancient landscape from industrial damage.

Reporting by Praveen Menon. Editing by Gerry Doyle

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Praveen leads a team of reporters covering companies and financial news in Australia and New Zealand. Before moving to Sydney he was the New Zealand Bureau Chief, where he reported on the leadership of former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the coronavirus pandemic, the terrorist attack in Christchurch and several natural disasters. Prior to New Zealand, he was Bureau Chief for Malaysia and Brunei leading a team of reporters covering the missing MH370 airliner, the 1MDB scandal and the country's political turmoil in 2018, which won him an journalism award from the Society of Publishers in Asia. He has previously worked as a correspondent in the UAE, Afghanistan and India.