Secret men's business threatens $30 billion gas bonanza
December 5, 2011Sydney Morning Herald
Aboriginal Traditional Owners at James Price Point in the Kimberley while protesting the proposed development of a gas hub on their land. Photo: Julia Rau
A PROPOSED $30 billion gas hub at James Price Point on Western Australia's Kimberley coast would disturb sites used for secret Aboriginal ''men's business'', lawyers say.
Documents seen by the Herald show a song cycle, a path sacred to the Goolarabooloo and other people of the Dampier Peninsula, which runs through the James Price Point site, 60 kilometres north of Broome. Woodside plans to build a liquefied natural gas terminal there to process gas from its Browse field. Late last month Chalk and Fitzgerald, lawyers for a traditional custodian, Joseph Roe, wrote to Woodside and its joint venture partners in the Browse development - Chevron, Shell, BHP and BP - requesting that site clearing works be suspended as they may be in breach of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Andrew Chalk of Chalk and Fitzgerald expects shortly to commence legal proceedings to require the WA Registrar of Aboriginal Sites to include the song cycle on the sites register, as was determined in 1991.
Goolarabooloo traditional custodians Phillip Roe, Richard Hunter and Joseph Roe say the proposed gas hub poses a heritage risk. Photo: Damian Kelly
Mr Chalk said the registrar had ''not explained why the song cycle was not listed in accordance with the standard procedures nor why the office has not taken the usual approach to protecting the site that was notified in July this year, which is to treat it as a site until investigations are carried out to determine otherwise".
The Premier, Colin Barnett, has described James Price Point as an "unremarkable beach" but in 1989 a report by the WA Department of Aboriginal Sites identified James Price Point, also known as Walmadany, as an area of "major" heritage significance, the highest category, with archaeological integrity and dense material over extensive areas including hearths and bone remains.
In 1991 the WA Mining Warden rejected an application for a mining exploration licence by Terrex Resources, based on objections from the Goolarabooloo Aboriginal Corporation and recommendations of an all-male subgroup of the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee, established under the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Warden John Howard then heard evidence from official anthropologist Nicholas Green, who had been commissioned to document the song cycle, that the song cycle was of ''critical'' significance to the Aboriginal people of the West Kimberley because it was part of the initiation of young men into Aboriginal law.
"The essence of that law has been placed in the ground," said Mr Green. "Not only at the name places but at all points between those name places."
Mr Green said he had personal knowledge of the song cycle having "attended a ceremony a
number of years ago and witnessed for myself the actual songs". He had recorded a lot of information on audio tapes, which had been transcribed, but the evidence was not provided to the court because of its "extreme, sacred nature".
Woodside said yesterday it had obtained all necessary regulatory approvals and consents required to conduct land clearing and geotechnical studies at James Price Point.
''Woodside engaged senior traditional owners to complete detailed anthropological and archaeological surveys and received the appropriate cultural directions in order to conduct our work within this area,'' the company said. ''We have taken this approach to ensure that our work program does not interfere with any potential heritage sites. Traditional owners are providing ongoing assistance to our contractors by monitoring our approved site activities.''
But Mr Chalk said Woodside's ''approach to the song cycle was one of recklessness, given its significance and of which they have been on notice for many years. It is arguably also illegal.''
Mr Roe's challenge recalls the Hindmarsh Island controversy in South Australia in the mid-1990s, which led to a royal commission into allegations that Aboriginal opponents of a proposed bridge to the island had fabricated claims that the project would interfere with ''secret women's business''.
On Tuesday Chief Justice Wayne Martin in the WA Supreme Court will hand down judgment on a separate challenge by Mr Roe's brother Phillip, and Jabbir Jabbir man Neil McKenzie, to the validity of the WA government's notice of compulsory acquisition of the site at James Price Point.
The threat of compulsory acquisition was used by Mr Barnett, who supports the gas hub, to pressure traditional owners to surrender their native title rights over the James Price Point site and accept a $1.5 billion deal, championed by the Kimberley Land Council, allowing the Woodside project to go ahead.