The story about the foundation of the first colony in Australia is well known; it was about water. None being available at Botany Bay, the First Fleet sailed north, and in a little cove halfway down Port Jackson they saw what was to become known as the Tank Stream. Its original name is now forgotten.
It had its source near the present Hyde Park and tumbled down through the picturesque bush, to cross the beach on the western edge of the cove. This original beauty has been built over and destroyed, but tourists still rave about the how attractive the harbour city is.
And so on. Australia has been progressively settled and developed, and at many sites there was controversy and resistance, starting, of course, with the original inhabitants whose spiritual kinship with country obliged them to protect it from desecration and over-exploitation.
The current struggle over Woodside Petroleum’s proposal to develop Walmadany (James Price Point) north of Broome is no different in essence. The proposed Liquified Natural Gas plant is no Opera House, but it has the support of the WA Government and the Kimberley Land Council on the grounds that development will be good for everyone.
A balanced ecosystem, with the beauty that supports the current tourism industry to the region will be sacrificed, along with the Jabirrjabirr heritage embedded in the sites, in return for jobs for workers, royalties for the KLC to distribute, and the creation of an industrial beachhead into a region with further unexploited mineral wealth.
Holding out against this proposal is traditional owner Joseph Roe. I worked with his grandfather, the famous Paddy Roe, recording the stories of that country, including how the Jabirrjabirr people entrusted him with custodianship of that country, through his daughters who were conceived there. So what right does Joseph have to stop this progress, the same kind of progress that has made all Australians relatively wealthy?
Roe’s countrymen, lead by the KLC, want to take the cash option and use money to develop the kind of infrastructures that would protect indigenous people in the Kimberley from the precarious existence they have suffered ever since colonisation in the late 19th century. It might be they are forced into this position, a kind of economic autonomy, by failure of government to provide proper infrastructure in ‘remote’ Australia.
But Joseph Roe says, ‘If you want to be an Aboriginal person, stand up and be one.’ For him, basic identity is at stake. If you play the corporate game, you might get a salary, but you pay with your heritage and identity, and when it is gone, it is gone forever. Activist Gary Foley drives home the point by asserting that the genocide will be complete in 2050. Is this small numbers of people resisting the greater good?
Outspoken mining bosses like Fortescue chief Andrew Forrest are lobbying hard to establish the consensus that only mining money can help Indigenous communities. This lets government off the financial hook perhaps, but can one privatise policy and morality? Do mining companies really have any interest in the fact that this was Aboriginal country for millennia before the whites muscled in only 130 years ago? They still think that there is ‘nothing there’, unlike the sacred sites where the white people live and which could never be mined.
Developing James Price Point will proceed in a different fashion to Sydney. It will not start with a few tents. The impact will be sudden, dirty and ugly. The precedent is there for all to see down the coast at Karratha, which is where the gas could in fact go if resistance to the Walmadany site succeeds. The industrialisation of that area has increased the population and the number of jobs, but has arguably not improved the lot of the Indigenous people of the area.
These are the people who are historically pushed aside and to the bottom of the social heap. If they resist, their leaders are paid off and given a brass plate to hang around their neck calling them kings. Warriors have fought and died, and sometimes their memory is celebrated, like Tjandamarra (‘Pigeon’) in the Kimberley. These tactics and struggles are not trivial. Capital needs its resources cheaply and it will fight for them, just as the squatters fought for cheap land in the early days.
The Roe family’s argument is about people. They never express their indigenous sovereignty as an exclusive right, ‘keep off our land’. Rather they have created a small business that puts into practice an ethic of sharing country, the Lurrijarra Heritage Trail that runs every July and attracts people from all over the world to rave reviews. James Price Point is one of its camping spots, so this business is one that will go under with the gas proposal. Aboriginal cultures are not dying out and they are the mainstay of Australia’s biggest services export industry, tourism, something the 1950s assimilationists didn’t foresee. Cultures can last forever, but gas runs out.
Industry creates jobs, not people. The Indigenous cultures of places like the Kimberly are institutions. They are responsible for educating kinds of people who know how to respect other living things and the country that sustains them. Woodside is good at the rhetoric of claiming to support the Aboriginal community, but that is really last on the list of things to be done. ‘We’ve got to get that plant built,’ was the first thing Don Voelte, CEO of Woodside, told Four Corners earlier this year.
An integrated plan could be created that could build the future of the Kimberly with imagination. It wouldn’t start with a monstrous factory. It would start by looking after the water sources and the people who use them, it would remember the names of creeks, and the names of the people who know the stories that go with them. It would reverse colonial violence by genuinely supporting the Indigenous institutions that hold the laws of the country. Maybe then a place could be found for a factory.