(by Kimberly Fraser)
Australia has some of the oldest and most substantial rock art in the world. This rock art provides valuable insight into the rich history of the land before European arrival. The rock art found around the country is also extremely meaningful for Indigenous Australians and its preservation is vitally important for Australian national identity. However, many of these ancient sites are facing threats from mining and extractive developments.
In 2007, Woodside Petroleum received permission from the West Australian Government to destroy a large quantity of the Burrup rock art so that processing facilities could be expanded. The Burrup Peninsula is home to one of the world’s largest collections of rock art, some of which is up to 20,000 years old. After protests, the Burrup was placed on Australia’s National Heritage List. Nonetheless, the then Federal Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, gave Woodside Petroleum permission to destroy 200 rock art panels. Finally, in 2014, the WA Government rescinded the Burrup’s formal status as a sacred site. The Burrup is now listed on the World Monuments Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Places in the World.
More recently, the Queensland Government granted an environmental authority for a gold mine near the Quinkan Aboriginal rock art galleries in Cape York. The art at this location is described by UNESCO as one of the 10 most significant bodies of rock art in the world.
Despite its significance, the Australian Heritage Strategy released in December of last year only briefly mentioned rock art and there has never been a rock art conservation strategy. Part of the issue is classification; rock art sits at the nexus of art, heritage and environment.
Large mining companies, such as Rio Tinto, have worked with heritage professionals to develop their own guidelines on heritage protection. However, heritage sites are still at great risk from smaller companies that are less likely to capture international attention. According to UNESCO, 59 of their 203 protected areas have been identified as being under threat from the mining industry.
Australia is rich with rock art that has been part of the landscape for thousands of years. It is vitally important that these locations that tell a story about the history of this land are not destroyed in the name of mining development.