The Western Australian Government’s proposal to develop, along with Woodside Petroleum, a $30billion liquefied natural gas plant at Walmadany (James Price Point), north of Broome, is a startling example of how capitalism and colonialism can converge to ensure cultural and ecological destruction. Walmadany is no mere speck on the map. It is certainly no ‘unremarkable stretch of coastline’ as the Premier, Colin Barnett, put it on Four Corners earlier this year. Rather, it is right in the middle of sacred Gularabulu and Jabirrjabirr land. We know it is sacred because one of three major song cycles for the area passes right through it, from north to south. This is exactly why the Gularabulu family, led by Joseph Roe, are so desperate to protect it.
It’s not hard to visit this land either. In fact, each year Roe and his wife, Margie Cox, take a group of whitefellas along the path of this song cycle – the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. For ten days tourists are led across some of the most dramatic stretches of country imaginable: shining plates of aqua blue ocean, blood-red cliffs, clusters of paperbarks shivering in the breeze, fat, rolling sand dunes. The focus is on teaching others about country, and about how to care for it.
The Lurujarri song cycle itself is a collection of poetic fragments that are performed in conjunction with music and dance. It follows a path because the poems don’t all belong to one place. You have to move through country as you sing them. Whitefellas don’t see any of this; it’s strict men’s business that’s too sacred for the tourists to see. Still, if you pay enough attention to what the family tell you, what you can discover about the song cycle is that it is vital to the land’s survival. The deep power of this poetry is ancestral: the first creation beings came from the ocean and sung the land into existence; the words of their songs have been handed down through the generations. To sing them, therefore, is to sing the land into fresh being.
Western readers might think of a poem as a translation of sense and feeling: a conduit between the moment of experience and the moment of reading, so that, if successful, the poem might recreate that experience, or give it a new lease of life in the reader. The direction of the poem is retrospective, in other words, because it is concerned with trying to bring a memory of the past into the present. To understand how the song cycles function, however, we must completely realign our understandings of poetry. These poems don’t speak of the world, always attempting to reach ‘back’ to it; rather, they speak to the world and, importantly, they urge the world to keep going. By singing the song cycle, then, people are injecting new life into the country.
The poetry is the catalyst in a process that ensures the world continues to flourish. The Lurujarri song cycle needs to be sung regularly, therefore, so that this particular part of country remains healthy and strong. If country is healthy then its people will be healthy too, so if the song cycle is strong then it bodes well for the Gularabulu and Jabirrjabirr people. When they sing the cycle, they actively catalyse the following loop:
1. The poems need to be sung to keep the trail intact
2. The trail needs to be intact to be travelled upon
3. The trail needs to be travelled in order to sing the poems
The construction of the gas plant at Walmadany will interrupt and destroy this cycle. It will not be simply a new agent in the system whereby, with time, the system will adjust overall and return, now with the gas plant, to some kind of equilibrium. This is because the gas plant, unlike every other element in the system, will be sucking on a finite resource without injecting any of its own resources back into the system. Consequently, any new system it catalyses will have a limited life-span. An introduction of the gas plant would initiate the following, highly destructive cycle:
1. Gas needs to be extracted to keep the market growing
2. A big market is needed to justify the expense of extracting the gas
3. A place (Walmadany) must be subsumed by the demands of the market (or: many distant places)
The difference between these two cycles is that the former one has a potentially infinite life span, while the other is exothermic and will come to an end once the gas has run out. At this point, everything, along with the gas, will be depleted: Walmadany, the Kimberley coast, the Lurujarri Song Cycle. The life of one place would have been sacrificed for the temporary wellbeing of many others.
On top of all this, it’s important to remember where the name Walmadany came from. The Western Australian Government insist on calling the place James Price Point, as if they want to do whatever it takes to erase its Aboriginal heritage. Erasing an Aboriginal name is one thing, however, but erasing this name is something else entirely. For Walmadany is an important historical figure in the region, like the Kimberley’s version of Pemulwuy. Living in the area at the beginning of the twentieth century, Walmadany was a leader of the Jabirrjabirr and a powerful Maban man (like a shaman). Importantly, he was a fierce protector of his people, of his country’s jila (waterholes), and of his country against strangers – be they invading tribes, or Europeans. To this day, Walmadany and his people’s spirits are said to be looking after this area. So to come along and plonk a gas processing plant on top of James Price Point is not only to say, ‘We don’t care about Walmadany’s country’ but also to say, ‘Walmadany and his people can fight all they like but we are still going to win’. It’s colonisation repeating itself: rights to land mean nothing next to the imperative to expand economies.
It is indeed the case that Aboriginal opinion about the gas plant is mixed. Many of those who don’t have an immediate responsibility for the land feel it might be better to develop a gas plant at Walmadany in order to ensure a measure of economic autonomy for the area, finally granting Indigenous people access to services they should be receiving already. Joseph Roe, however, has a responsibility to uphold the health of his country. He knows that a gas plant might bring in some extra cash for the next few years, but he also knows that once the gas runs out there’ll be nothing left. When will the gas run out, anyway? Not for fifty years, they tell us. But keep in mind that Roe might be thinking about sustaining an occupation that stretches substantially longer than just his own life time. He’s got country to think about, and the law and knowledge within it, and the people who want to keep caring for it long after he’s gone.