Near a dry, red rock peninsula on Australia’s far western coast, a dusty highway separates two communities with contrasting fortunes tied to an ancient land.
One is home to the small but booming city of Karratha, a regional hub scattered with four-wheel drives that was purpose-built in the 1960s to accommodate a growing army of miners looking to extract the land’s vast stores of iron ore, oil and gas.
The other is Roebourne, a former gold rush town 30 minutes up the highway, where the peninsula’s Indigenous population settled after being driven from their lands by colonialists in the mid-1800s.
For years, news reports painted Roebourne as a “misfit town where everyone drinks, smokes and can’t take care of their kids,” says Josie Alec, a proud descendent of the Kuruma-Marthudunera people, who raised her four kids there.
In reality, she says it’s a deeply resilient community made up of families like her own, whose ancestors have watched over “Murujuga” – the peninsula’s Aboriginal name – for generations, while keeping its vibrant cultural traditions alive.
For Australia’s First Nations people, Murujuga is the birthplace of songs and creation stories explaining the laws of nature, told through more than a million rock carvings scattered across its deserts and nearby islands.
These irreplaceable petroglyphs are 10 times older than the pyramids of Egypt and depict early human civilization, but some of their ancestral guardians fear they could be destroyed by pollution from one of Australia’s largest new fossil fuel developments.
The company behind the project, Woodside Energy, plans to extract millions of tons of gas from the Scarborough field in the Indian Ocean mostly for export to north Asia.
Not only is there widespread concern about the sky high greenhouse gas emissions the project is expected to generate over its lifetime, but there are also fears that industrial pollution from its processing plants could erode Murujuga’s petroglyphs, which show now-extinct animals and plant species, as well as some of the earliest known depictions of the human face.
Woodside argues the impacts of its expansion have been “thoroughly assessed” by environmental regulators and says it supports a program by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) and the state government to assess risks to the rock art, which is due to file its first report next year.
MAC is the legally appointed Aboriginal body tasked with advising government and companies on the cultural implications of development on the peninsula.
While MAC doesn’t receive mining royalties, critics argue its ability to object to Woodside’s plans is limited by longstanding agreements, and its reliance on industry for funding has created frustration and resentment among other members of the community who say it’s not doing enough to protect ancestral treasures.
Murujuga is part of Australia’s Pilbara region, a thinly populated area twice the size of the United Kingdom known for its ancient landscapes, dry red deserts, and vast mineral resources.
To White settlers it’s always been mining country.
The promise of gold and pearl brought colonists to the Pilbara in the 1880s, but today companies are more interested in its stores of iron o