Op Ed: Heritage status would protect Murujuga

11 February 2023

The Murujuga Cultural Landscape in Western Australia is a remarkable place. Sitting at the tip of the Pilbara, where the bright blue ocean meets the deep red earth, it’s home to one of the most spectacular collections of rock art on earth. 


Yesterday, I had the great honour of joining the collective Traditional Owners of Murujuga, the Ngarda-Ngarli people, and the West Australian government, in formally nominating this site for World Heritage listing. 


Murujuga contains over one million petroglyphs. This is the densest concentration of rock art anywhere in the world, with more being discovered every year. Still more sit on the ocean floor, evidence of a time when sea levels were more than 100 metres lower, and when dry land extended further west. 


When you visit Murujuga, you see the accumulated knowledge and heritage of the Ngarda-Ngarli people. Here are their stories, engraved into the hard volcanic rock, and passed down through a chain of countless generations. 


These carvings reveal over 50,000 years of human history, as First Nations people lived and cared for their land and sea country. It’s a fascinating story, full of change and adaptation, tracked through the rock art over time. 


During the last ice age, when the coast was further west than it is today, the carvings featured inland animals, like kangaroos and emus and rock wallabies. Amazingly, they even featured the striped Thylacine, from the days when Tassie Tigers still wandered the mainland.


But later, as the coast shifted eastward, the carvings began to express a clear and vibrant marine culture, with turtles and fish and dugongs.


These petroglyphs offer us a priceless insight into the history of our continent. This alone would warrant world heritage recognition, but it would be a mistake to value them simply as history. 


Because Murujuga is more than a museum, or a gallery of our distant past. Murujuga is a site of living heritage; of ongoing, unbroken cultural practice. 


In the words of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, ‘the story of this Ngurra is one that starts at the very dawn of Creation and documents the travels of Ancestral Spirits from when the earth was soft, through thousands of generations of Ngarda-Ngarli living and caring for this country, and the strength and survival of our Law and culture during periods of remarkable change’.   


If we can understand why a cathedral or temple or mosque carries special spiritual meaning, we should be able to understand what Murujuga means to its Traditional Owners. It is a site of timeless and continuing significance. 


This nomination has been widely supported by industry working in the Burrup Peninsula. World Heritage listing would bring a range of benefits to the region, boosting tourism and creating local jobs. 


And it would be the next step in placing Traditional Owners at the heart of managing and protecting the Murujuga Cultural Landscape. 


As the CEO of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, Peter Jeffries, said on Friday, these campaigns are bound together:  ‘For more than two decades, the Ngarda-Ngarli have aspired for World Heritage listing of Murujuga and for our traditional knowledge and lore to be at the centre of decision-making, governance and management of this land and sea country’.  


The federal government shares this vision. That’s why we are supporting the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation with $2 million to progress their new management agreement. 


The truth is, it’s not easy to secure World Heritage status, and the full process can take many years. Sites must show that they have outstanding universal value, as a place to be preserved for the sake of all humanity. 


This nomination is a credit to the Traditional Owners who have led this campaign for decades now, who have worked closely with state and federal governments, who have generously shared their stories with the world, and who have more than shown why Murujuga meets the high bar for global protection.

Published in the West Australian.