Australia - Raiders Of The Rock Art


By Debra Jopson, The Global Mail –

Date of publication: 
13 September 2013

Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting has a greenlight to explore a huge swath of Cape York, home to ancient Aboriginal rock art – and minerals. The indigenous custodians are not happy.

“I feel I’ve been kicked in the guts,” says Stephen Doughboy, as he meets with more than 30 fellow Aboriginal clan members in the tiny remote Queensland town of Laura. The group is discussing how it might fend off the interest shown by Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, in mining their land.

Doughboy’s Banjo clan is the custodian of an area which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has named as one of the world’s great rock-art precincts.

As home to the ethereal Quinkan figures, along with ancient images of animals and birds and of newcomers from colonial times (including a horse), this remote part of Queensland attracts tourists from all over the globe. The region is currently being considered for World Heritage nomination.

In June, Rinehart’s mining subsidiary Jacaranda Minerals was given permission by the Queensland Government to explore the region for minerals. Prospecting has not yet begun. Hancock Prospecting pleaded ignorance of the rock art [saying] the state mining department’s website provided no advice of any restrictions, including the existence of such sites.

The clan members had no idea that the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines had granted Rinehart’s company two mineral exploration permits, until The Global Mail found record of them during an online search in early September and contacted the local custodians of the land for a response.

In the area around Laura, the department has given Jacaranda the go-ahead to explore 12,000 hectares on one tenement, and 26,400 hectares on another – a total of 384 square kilometres, or an area equal to the size of the Isle of Wight.

“This is the start of something big. It’s step-over tactics,” says Doughboy, whose mob now hopes it can overcome family conflicts and create a traditional owners’ corporation to negotiate with the state government and the miners.

Their task as custodians is to protect artworks dated to at least 13,000 years old, in a landscape their ancestors have occupied for an estimated 34,000 years. They also want to preserve the river, from which they catch fish to feed themselves, from disturbances by the miners who are targeting the coal, gold and other minerals believed to lie under these lands.

This at a time when the Queensland Government is fast-tracking new mines and exploration; and a federal Coalition Government pledged to develop northern Australia and to cutting so-called “green tape” has just been elected.

Says Doughboy, “We love it the way it is. This is our bread and butter. We work off this land. It’s the only thing we have left. Our grandmothers and grandfathers are gone.”

The traditional owners thought that the mining threat to their area had been averted in March this year. Following an outcry over the news that Jacaranda had applied for two mineral-exploration permits covering most of Quinkan country, the company, which is half-owned by Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting, said then that it was, “willing to reduce the application to avoid any rock art of significance”.

The company’s original, blanket application had encompassed the iconic art sites of Split Rock Quinkan, Giant Horse and Early Man, and a large area earmarked by the Queensland Government as a Designated Landscape Area (DLA), which denotes that it is environmentally sensitive.

When news of the application became public, Hancock Prospecting pleaded ignorance of the rock art. It issued a media statement in March saying that when it lodged its two applications in 2011, the state mining department’s website provided no advice of any restrictions; there was no notification of the existence of such sites. It said that neither state nor federal governments had informed the company “of any difficulties with the applications”.

Jacaranda subsequently withdrew applications covering 65 sub-blocks (17,500 hectares) of Quinkan country. Hancock Prospecting’s chief development officer John Klepec told The Global Mail: “This was not in response to the incorrect media reports. We acted accordingly when the Department duly advised.”

Klepec also told The Global Mail that, “The areas of sandstone are of no interest to us.”

This may allay some locals’ fears, although they argue that the sandstone is so fragile, vibrations from distant explosions, drilling or even helicopter movements could damage it.

Whether there is prospecting or mining, says Doughboy, “The country which is sandstone, with the stories [painted in the rock], it will crumble before our eyes. You won’t have anything to write about and I won’t have anything to look at.”

Sue Marsh, a project officer with South Cape York Catchment Group, says that Rinehart’s company still has permission to explore in an area so remote that its sites have not yet been documented.

“It appears to me a lot of people misread that she [Rinehart] was withdrawing completely,” says Marsh, who assists the Laura Aboriginal rangers whose job is to care for country and manage tourists.

According to Doughboy, the exploration area is likely to be rich in as yet undiscovered rock art, but local people and archaeologists are only part-way through the task of surveying the paintings they have inherited in this great open-air gallery.

“The famous Quinkans are all over every site we find,” he says.

Archaeologist Noelene Cole and her colleague Alice Buhrich last year conducted a six-month database investigation which revealed that coal and mineral applications covered almost every rock-art site in southern Cape York. Cole says the entire region forms a cultural landscape in need of protection.

“The Quinkan region is vast and you can’t just pick out sites and say, ‘We’ll save one or two.’”

She says that would be like picking out the Lascaux caves in France and not protecting the scores of other sites in the surrounding landscape.

In these pristine Australian regions, exploration itself is invasive, says Cole; four-wheel drives carve out their own tracks and prospectors clear campsites for their operations.

Through a bureaucratic fumble, this area lost its federal heritage protection nine years ago. And while Queensland laws require miners to consult traditional owners before drilling or digging, Aboriginal custodians don’t have the resources they need to deal with big companies, Cole says.

Hence the bewilderment at the clan meeting in Laura, where a group without the buttress of a successful native title claim (which would give them the official standing to formally negotiate with the mining company) was thrashing around for a strategy.

While Jacaranda follows the necessary legal processes, Doughboy is aggrieved that, as he sees it, Rinehart, a “big shot” outsider with a lot of money, has not observed the protocols of Aboriginal law.

“There’s not channels being followed here. She’s jumping the gun … Come and talk to us, before you walk on our land,” he says. He understands her formidable power, compared to that of his people.

“She’s a woman who can put her money where her mouth is,” he adds.

Rinehart’s spokesman, Klepec, says that Jacaranda is very early in the process of consulting with traditional owners. “There are at least four indigenous groups that claim to be involved in the area. However, there is no registered claimant group and no native title claim,” he says.

Any potential ground-disturbance exploration requires adherence to the Aboriginal Heritage Act, under which traditional owners must be involved in identifying significant sites, says Klepec. He also adds that the company could not begin to explore inside the DLA area without Queensland Government permission and compliance with its heritage laws.

A spokesman for the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, Paul Lynch, says that, according to its records, Jacaranda completed native title procedures under the Native Title Act, which would have included addressing cultural-heritage issues.

Under the Act, an advertisement notifying potential native title holders of an application for exploration must be placed. The Queensland Government did this in relation to these two tenements on Boxing Day last year.

If there is no native claim over the area, the application can be processed under expedited procedures.

“All applications for mining tenure, including exploration permits, are subject to a rigorous assessment process to ensure they first meet Commonwealth native title requirements and Queensland Government requirements for the protection of indigenous cultural heritage,” Lynch says.

“Companies that hold granted exploration permits in Queensland are required to be aware of cultural heritage issues within the permit land and report any cultural heritage finds to local traditional owners. They are also required to take all reasonable steps during any exploration activities to preserve and protect cultural heritage.”

But Professor Paul Tacon, who holds the chair in Rock Art Research at Griffith University, says that the protections are not formulated strongly enough, nationally or in Queensland, to stop Australia from trashing its priceless heritage for a fast buck.

“Cultural heritage gets in the way of progress – indigenous cultural heritage especially. If we don’t act now, soon more and more rock art sites will be missing in action,” says Tacon.

While the law provides for a mining company such as Rinehart’s to speak to traditional owners, in this region and others, it is possible for the whole process to fail Aboriginal people when they lack the cohesiveness and legal savvy to fight for their cultural rights.

Thomas George, the Laura elder who has previously spoken out for the Quinkan rock art, is unwell. Doughboy, his tribal younger brother, predicts a battle ahead for his clan group.

Cole, the archaeologist, says, “This whole mining thing is appalling because these people have been fighting since the 1960s and now they can lose what little they’ve gained.”

“It’s a small, remote community. It’s almost impossible for them. They’ve got no resources. People up there can’t even afford a mobile phone … Mining companies can just sail in and the bigger and better equipped they are, the easier it is for them,” she says.

“Public pressure is the only thing that is likely to have some impact.”

The Global Mail has checked with NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker as to whether the neglected rock-art site Twin Shelters, in the Blue Mountains, has been assessed for conservation “by mid-year”, as she had pledged.

As previously reported, this site is disintegrating. Its ancient hearths are being eroded by visitors who unknowingly clamber over them, and its rock art has been defaced with graffiti.

Parker’s spokesman says the assessment will now be completed by the end of September.

He also says that the NSW Roads and Maritime Services Department has advised the Minister that another Blue Mountains rock art site will not be affected when the NSW Government begins its $43 million upgrade of the Bells Line of Road. He says works will avoid Emu Cave, which hovers on the edge of the highway earmarked for widening.