Broome airport will be the gateway to the new West Kimberley World Heritage area for international tourists. Coming in to land, they may well see Australia’s biggest gas plant carved into over 1000 hectares of cleared land on the coast, wharves and pipelines.

The federal minister for everything green, Tony Burke, yesterday announced that the “unique environment” of the West Kimberley is to be heritage listed. Well not quite — not all the West Kimberley and not James Price Point, inland of the dinosaur footprints on the coast. (See map.) This is a “Clayton’s heritage listing”, that allows already-approved mining and relies on even weaker legislation under the Commonwealth Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) to evaluate future development approvals.

So how did the land behind the coast at James Price Point miss out on heritage listing?  Comparing the criteria used for the rest of the West Kimberley by the Australian Heritage Council reveals some remarkable inconsistencies.

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The Jabirr Jabirr people’s culture is apparently worth less than that of other Kimberley indigenous people and gets no mention in the Australian Heritage Council recommendations that refer to other tribes by name.

“The Wanjina-Wunggurr native title claim areas, where the painted images on rock and other features in the land, sea and sky, including natural rock formations and man-made stone arrangements, are manifestations of the Wanjina and the Wunggurr snake, are of outstanding heritage value to the nation under criterion (i) because of their importance as part of indigenous tradition.”

Neither the federal nor state government has demonstrated that James Price Point’s ecology is any less unique than the rest of the western Kimberley — beyond loaded “expert opinions” and politicians’ statements. Apparently bilbies are more significant as “endangered species” elsewhere.

The tourism industry is not happy with heritage listing for the West Kimberley either.

Tourism Council WA president Evan Hall said without additional funding, the listing would only make it more difficult for visitors to access or enjoy the region. “Unfortunately, it means we’ve got to go through [approval processes] twice … which means we’ve got to go through the same red tape as if we were doing a huge mining operation,” he said.”It’s a huge burden and makes it very, very difficult for small operators to do something new or to open up a new experience … They need to work with the tourism industry … otherwise what’s the point of heritage listing?”

The WA government’s Northern Development Taskforce Interim Report released in 2008 reveals even more contradictions where it states:

“The concept of the Kimberley as a ‘wilderness’ needs further exploration, as indigenous people assert that they have traditionally interacted with all of the country, and remain culturally connected to the whole Kimberley region.”

Apparently not the Jabirr Jabirr, with others, who are still blockading the site.

WA Premier Colin Barnett said the James Price Point site was identified by the WA government because it was not environmentally significant and did not hold great heritage values. Burke, the federal minister responsible, said it was important to note that the listing “does not prevent development”.  So why list the area at all? Does this set a precedent for other World Heritage areas such as the Great Barrier Reef to be opened up for mining?

Tourists will likely not respond well to walking around a wharf development, with a huge gas processing plant in the background, looking at what is left of the dinosaur footprints — footprints some spin doctor employed by the mining industry childishly describes as “not of museum grade”.

While the minister promotes the heritage listing for West Kimberly tourism, the ongoing internationally publicised opposition to the gas plant development threatens to break our tourism “business plan”.

This is even more amazing given the federal government’s rejection of an industry proposal to process gas offshore on a floating platform.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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