The Kimberley Coast, a pristine wilderness extending north from the beautiful beaches of Broome through hundreds of kilometers of mangroves, forests, red hills and bays teeming with life fed by the massive tides. Or is it? Intricately built into this environment is a culture tens of thousands of years old and still living, from the ancient rock art and burial sites to native title and the modern expressions of connection to Country, this land is far from devoid of people, rather since before history, people and land are so intricately connected as to make them inseparable.
But things have changed. Over 100 years following invasion led to the internment and execution of leaders, deliberate dissociation from Country by moving people from their traditional lands, and attempts to force ancient societies into a European Christian mould. Aboriginal people maintain a strong connection to Country in the Kimberley, and a strong culture, but problems created by history and the debate about future directions are a big part of life.
Now the Kimberley is more complex than ever before and no issue makes this more apparent than the debate over Woodside’s gas hub at James Price point. The partial recognition of Aboriginal connection to Country through Native Title has empowered an entity, The Kimberley Land Council, to negotiate on behalf of those deemed to be Traditional Owners of the land. The KLC does more than a normal native title body and is an invaluable body bringing a level of coordination and order to the many Traditional Owner groups of the Kimberley and representing their legal rights on a number of issues.
However, under this structure set up within the limits of the Native Title act, that provides only limited land rights to Traditional Owners – the right to negotiate – is the history and politics of the Kimberley. It is a politics as complex as any, but with the added layer of the desperation of a people at massive social disadvantage and a clash between ancient traditional decision making and the imperatives of modern politics and media.
For the hub decision this is manifesting in two increasingly divided camps – those for development and those against it.
Environmentalists and an increasing number of Traditional Owners from the proposed development site wish to see the Kimberley protected due to its rightful place as a cultural and environmental wonder of the world. There are also a number of other Aboriginal people living in the area, their ancestors brought in from all over the Kimberley to the Beagle Bay mission. This camp argues that the multimillion dollars offered by Woodside and the Government can never compensate for the loss of the environment. Traditional Owners argue, for a simplified example, that being poor and able to catch a fish is better than being poor with no fish. They also point out that elsewhere in Australia, despite efforts in recent years, the overwhelming experience of mining development has been that money has enhanced entrenched social ills and that the mining and construction jobs on offer have been difficult to obtain for people with the most need – those with little education and working experience, or just plain unwanted.
Supporting development a number of business groups, the State Government and parts of the Federal Government – and the Kimberley Land Council under the strong leadership of Wayne Bergman. Sitting on the fence for a long time and fighting hard for a process of informed consent decision making, the KLC’s hand was swayed when WA Premier Colin Barnett held a metaphorical gun to their head, threatening compulsory acquisition of the land for the gas hub if Aboriginal people did not negotiate for development.
Wayne is an Aboriginal person from the Kimberley himself, he believes with tough negotiation and the right conditions, development can be the answer to the social, educational and health problems of the Kimberley. He believes self determination can come from managing development to improve the lot of Kimberley people. He has certainly demonstrated his ability to stand tough in the face of pressure from State and Federal Governments, and multinational companies, but it remains to be seen what happens if the juggernaut of development comes to the land.
Beyond the Traditional Owners, the Kimberley is also a land of pioneering types. The environmental campaign to protect the Kimberley coast and the calving grounds of the humpack whales that sit just off the proposed gas hub site is being waged not just by traditional environmental groups, but also by a group of locals under the banner of Save the Kimberley.
The founders of this group are photographers and fishing/tourism camp owners who have made this coast their home. Coming from all over Australia, the rugged beauty of the place has captured these people and held them. In some instances, these people have better knowledge of parts of the coast than the Aboriginal groups who no longer live in some areas. Not campaigners by nature, the threat of oil development ruining the place that has captured their imaginations and lives has been enough to drive them to fight. And they have found powerful allies, as evidenced by the recent book released by former Federal court judge Murray Wilcox QC. He believes that Aboriginals should not have to exchange their land to get the basic rights that other Australians enjoy.
Today it was announced that the other joint venture partners, massive multinational companies like Shell, BHP and Chevron, have supported the business case for James Price Point – another huge step forward for development and one likely to have been influenced by pressure on their exploration leases from Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson. With groups like the Wilderness Society, Save the Kimberley, Environs Kimberley, The Conservation Council of WA and at least half the local Traditional Owners lining up against the hub, this is shaping up to be a massive show down.
The Kimberley Coast should be world heritage. Its coral reefs are proving to be as diverse as the Great Barrier Reef, its massive tides and incredible biodiversity are interlinked with a culture far older than history. With respect to Wayne Bergman and the KLC, the Squid believes the case ways up against development.
This hub is a massive industrial facility – involving land clearing, dredging in the whale sanctuary and building massive ocean walls plus pollution and an influx of new people who may not care for the nature of the Kimberley.
But protecting this place cannot come without protecting its people. Critics of the environmental campaign are saying that environmentalists just want to stop all development, and have no answers for the Aboriginal people. Half of that isn’t true, it is not about stopping all development of any kind, but large scale industrialization and mining projects risk sacrificing what makes the Kimberley unique and special in an increasingly overdeveloped world, and needs to be opposed.
But the second question of what to do about the health and welfare of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley is a far more difficult question and one that no one has a complete answer too, let alone environmentalists struggling to mount a campaign against massive odds. These groups bring some options for answers to the mix, in the form of ecotourism and payment for land management services through ranger programs, but the whole solution will be much larger than that. It also needs to be led by Aboriginal people with the support of others, a great principle, but with so much at stake, there is little chance of the people of the Kimberley being left alone to decide their future in isolation.
When the dust settles, we need not only to have saved the Kimberley environment, but also found a way to bring all groups together to find a way to advance the cause of its people. The challenge is immense, made harder by the now inevitable conflict, but for anyone who has had the rare privilege to visit the Kimberley coast – to see its beauty and have the time to feel the raw energy of the place, the reward is well worth the effort.