Songline Ethics: Murujuga (The Burrup Peninsula)


The Burrup Peninsula* of the Pilbara region of North West WA has the Aboriginal name of Murujuga (hip bone sticking out). The human and environmental history of Murujuga perfectly illustrates what happens when a value system dominated by instrumental (use) values trumps one based on intrinsic (inherent) value.

The original people of Murujuga, the Yaburara, occupied the Pilbara area for possibly 30,000 years. However, in 1868, after a series of massacres inflicted on them by government-backed forces, the Yaburara ceased to exist as an integrated tribe occupying their own territory.

Murujuga (BP) is now internationally famous as home to hundreds of thousands of individual works of rock art, or petroglyphs (Bednarik 2006, National Trust n/d). The petroglyphs accurately represent the animals of Australia, including the now extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger and also capture the dreaming stories and totems within the songlines (Australian Heritage Commission 2011).

The famous cave paintings of animals in Lascaux, France, are reputed to be 20,000 years old; some Murujuga (BP) rock art has been dated at 30,000 years (Donaldson 2009). It is worth noting that the cave paintings of Lascaux were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1979.

Despite the efforts of individuals, Indigenous bodies representing the Native Title of people now living in the Pilbara and Murujuga (BP), national and international rock art experts, conservationists and in recent times, well organised campaigns to get the whole Murujuga (BP) area declared National Heritage and World Heritage#, the rock art of the area remains at risk from a massive gas and petrochemical dominated industrial precinct.

State and Federal governments of Australia have participated in the expansion of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry and other industries that feed off the by-products of fossil fuels such as chemical fertilisers (ammonia) and more recently, an explosives factory almost adjacent to a major rock art site. In 2019 the Orica explosives plant was put into liquidation due to poor performance and industrial relations issues.

The chemical fertiliser and explosives industries worldwide have experienced major explosions, most recently in West, Texas USA in April 2013. Their proximity to each other and to an LNG plant at Murujuga (BP) could conceivably produce an explosion that would vaporise the whole of the industrial precinct along with all of the rock art. The regional LNG industry experienced a major explosion in 2008 at Varanus Island just north of Murujuga (BP) and there have been many other well documented cases of major explosions at other LNG facilities throughout the world.

In addition, chemical fallout from the existing plants is implicated in the possible chemical attack and premature degradation of the petroglyphs (Donaldson 2009). Any further chemical industry located in the vicinity will only heighten that risk, and no serious consideration has been given to applying the precautionary principle as a way of eliminating the ethics of such risk imposition.

While further industrial development of Murujuga (BP) is ethically problematic at the scale of regional and global heritage considerations, consideration must be given to the intra- and inter-generational impacts of global warming as knowledge of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change accumulates.

At Murujuga (BP) there is a powerful history of conflict and death that needs sensitive acknowledgement and reconciliation, a rock art heritage site of world significance and an archipelago landscape with unique biophysical features when compared and contrasted to the rest of the coast of WA. That various governments, supposedly independent assessment agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and formal impact assessments conducted by corporation-paid consultants, could not identify the need to conserve this special place indicates that despotic values have prevailed over songline ethics, stewardship ethics and all forms of sustainability ethics … from the perspective of ethics, Murujuga (BP) should be de-industrialised and declared World Heritage. An elder, Robert G. Bednarik, from the colonial culture has expressed his own opinion on what has happened at Murujuga (BP):

The gradual destruction since 1964 of the Dampier Cultural Precinct, Australia’s largest cultural monument, is unquestionably the planet’s most serious case of state vandalism in recent history. It exceeds the extent of cultural destruction caused by the former Taliban regime of Afghanistan. (Bednarik, in National Trust, no date)

A traditional owner of Murujuga (BP), Churnside, has indicated in a statement known as ‘The Murujuga Declaration’ (Churnside 2007) that “my people say that once a piece of rock art left by our ancestors is removed, our song line, our sacred site, is destroyed forever.” Clearly, songline ethics, along with all other ethical perspectives covered above, apply to the determination of the future of the rock art.


* In 1979 the area was re-named the ‘Burrup Peninsula’ after Henry Thomas Wood Burrup, a 23 year old English bank clerk who was murdered in Roebourne in 1885.

#In January 2020, the Australian government lodged a submission for the Murujuga cultural landscape to be included in the World Heritage Tentative List.

Edited extract from:

Albrecht, G.A. and Ellis, N. (2014) The Ethics of Resource Extraction and Processing: Two Western Australian Case Studies, in Brueckner, M., Durey, A., Mayes., and Pforr, C., (eds)  Resource Curse or Cure? On the Sustainability of Development in Western Australia. Heidelberg, Springer, pp. 43-58.


Images by author.

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