Kimberley coast songlines at risk
Before Australia's east coast had ever heard of James Price Point, even before the Broome township realised the high stakes, Goolarabooloo senior law man Phil Roe fought a guerilla-like battle against resources giant Woodside. It was Roe, a few mates and, of all things, a camel.
For four years Roe camped on his traditional land, a stretch of Kimberley coast earmarked for one of the biggest gas plants Australia had ever seen. He stood sentry, scanning the scrubby horizon for puffs of dust: a telltale sign of a Woodside contractor turning up for security or survey work. In the daytime, Roe lectured the contractors on the land's importance, but under the cover of darkness the secret weapon would be led into position.
The contractors, sleeping in their mosquito-proof domes, would wake in fright to find a large and hairy camel face only centimetres from their own. "They never seen a devil in their life until they met the camel," says Roe now, standing on the red sandy cliffs that were his home before the campaign to save James Price Point went national.
In April Woodside abandoned the point in favour of a floating gas factory. The decision was simply commercial, the company said, nothing to do with the fierce campaign to save the environmentally delicate area and its Aboriginal burial grounds. The world moved on, but the Goolarabooloo still nervously stand watch over their land against a state premier seemingly hell-bent on developing it.
Last week, West Australian Premier Colin Barnett compulsorily acquired James Price Point hoping to convince Woodside to build a $2 billion supply base to its Browse Basin floating factory. Failing that, he said, the land can still be a processing hub for the Kimberley's other "world-class" gas fields. In September, in an attempt to persuade Woodside to build the supply base at the point, Barnett threatened to withhold the state-owned parts of the Browse gas fields, worth between 5 and 15 per cent of the $40 billion project.
And as all this plays out, the Goolarabooloo are spotting many more threats on the Kimberley horizon. With fresh exploration licences for mineral sands and coal, the prospect of widespread fracking and the oil and gas industry excited about onshore shale gas, the Kimberley is at a crossroads: will it, fuelled by Barnett's ambitions, become another mining hub like the Pilbara or will it retain the wildness that makes it such a tourist magnet? For Roe, the choice is pretty clear and after the Woodside experience, he's ready to go again.
"The battle's been won, but we didn't win the war yet," says Roe. "I fought this campaign because I really believe (Barnett) is not going to destroy my culture, my heritage ... I don't care what he throws at me again, I will stand up and fight him ... It doesn't matter who he brings in."
The stoush produced unforeseeable consequences, good and bad. For the past 20 years, the Goolarabooloo have led family and the public on an 84-kilometre coastal walk north from Broome called the Lurujarri Trail. The walk goes through James Price Point and follows traditional songlines (stories about the proper way to be in country, physical landmarks and the creation of the landscape and its people). The Goolarabooloo normally run one trail annually; this year, because of the interest in the landscape sparked by the anti-Woodside campaign, they ran four.
During the campaign, scientists - both amateur and professional - came to James Price Point (or Walmadan as it is known by its indigenous name) and found more migratory whales, more nesting turtles and more world-class dinosaur footprints on the beach than had previously been recorded.
But back in Broome, the indigenous community is still healing from a bitter fallout. "The old families of Broome are pretty serious churchgoers," says former shire president and businessman Kevin Fong. "Now they sit in church and don't even look at each other. They don't shake hands. It's that deep."
Like many indigenous communities caught up in Australia's mining boom, the traditional owners split over the gas hub against the backdrop of an extraordinary amount of money: $1.5 billion in benefits to the indigenous communities over 30 years. In what was to be one of the nation's most lucrative native title deals, almost $26 million was handed over, but, after its decision to move offshore, Woodside said it would no longer pay the rest of the $1.5 billion. Barnett's acquisition of the land comes with a $30 million payment, but it will be frozen in a trust until a native dispute is settled.
The Goolarabooloo and the Jabirr Jabirr are the two groups with the strongest claim over the land, but the gas hub proponents attacked the Goolarabooloo because of the unusual way in which they came to learn its songlines. In the 1930s, the late Goolarabooloo patriarch Paddy Roe left his own land further south having taken up with an already-taken woman.
The couple came to the area near James Price Point and met the remaining elders who, because of the stolen generations, had no younger people to pass on their stories. So Roe became their appointed custodian of the songlines and law and passed these on to his family.
While some traditional owners wanted to take the money, the Goolarabooloo were adamant it would not bring the life-changing benefits Barnett and Woodside promised.
"Things like health and education are already in place, we don't have to be selling our land for that. We've got enough holes in the earth, I think," says Janine Roe, another Paddy Roe descendant.
The $1.5 billion deal was struck by former Kimberley Land Council boss Wayne Bergmann, who oversaw a disputed meeting in which traditional owners voted in favour of the proposal. He recently attacked Woodside for not paying the money, but also criticised the high-profile east-coast environmentalists such as businessman Geoffrey Cousins who, he says, are "sitting back in their beautiful houses in Sydney while our people continue to suffer the worst living conditions in Australia".
Bergmann, who now runs an Aboriginal consultancy business, refused to be interviewed by Fairfax Media. In a statement provided by email, he said: "Aboriginal people right across in the Kimberley remain deeply disappointed and betrayed by recent events surrounding James Price Point.
"I ask this: Where are the jobs? Where are the opportunities for young people who continue to take their own lives in record numbers? Where are the training and educational programs for the many disadvantaged indigenous people of the Kimberley?
"I welcome people coming on a holiday to Broome but in the whole scheme of things it does very little to alleviate the suffering and lost opportunities for our people."
A spokeswoman for Barnett confirmed he would continue to pressure Woodside over building the supply base, which will need a port. She denied the claims of environmentalists who accuse Barnett of trying to industrialise the entire Kimberley; James Price Point was about trying to confine development to one site, she said.
But Environs Kimberley executive director Martin Pritchard said Barnett's dreams of a supply base were unfounded.
"Oil and gas companies are not going to fork out $2 billion to build a new port and run the gauntlet of environmental assessments, new court cases and another full-scale international campaign to protect this place again." A supply base at James Price Point, he said, would cause enormous damage to threatened ecosystems such as the reefs and seagrass beds and species such as the humpback whales.
Woodside and its partner, Royal Dutch Shell, are working on the design process, which will be finished some time next year. It is understood the massive floating liquefied natural gas (FLNG) facility will require some sort of onshore base, but this can be located in a number of places, not necessarily James Price Point.
Meanwhile, back on the piece of land Barnett called "unremarkable" the Goolarabooloo are training the next generation to tell the songline stories to the tourists and Broome locals who join them on the nine-day Lurujarri Trail.
Terry Hunter, 33, Paddy Roe's great-great-grandson, sits on the coastal red rock with ancient dinosaur prints at his feet. "I am so proud of this coastline and being just, Aboriginal, I guess - knowing that we are connected to the land. I love my law and I love my culture, I love everything about it. Yep. I love everything about being Australian. So the land means everything to me."