by Tory Crabtree
Environmentalists and Indigenous communities in the Kimberley region of Australia have won a rare victory against the West Australian Government and a mighty oil consortium.
In April 2013. the Browse Basin consortium – headed by Woodside Petroleum and including Shell and BP – announced it would not develop its planned LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) plant at James Price Point, 52 kilometres north of Broome. Instead, the gas will be processed offshore in an innovative floating gas factory.
Back in July 2012, former Greens leader Bob Brown described the proposed LPG project as, “another Franklin dam, a furore over natural and cultural heritage threatened by political hubris…”
Just over a year later, Glen Klatosvsky, of the Wilderness Society, agrees with this statement, though he feels it does not go deep enough.
“In some ways, James Price Point was bigger and more complex than the Franklin, because it was not just about the Government, it was about industry and it really demonstrated the conflict that now exists in remote Australia between the interests of Indigenous Australians, the massive global mining boom and the environment.”
Mr Klatovsky became involved in the movement against development in 2010. A veteran of the mining industry and an environmental activist for many years, he had intimate knowledge of the difficulties facing those trying to stop a project he describes as, “backed by the State and Federal Governments and … companies with balance sheets bigger than many countries.”
In 2010, the Wilderness Society was invited to Broome to help in the fight against the project. Glen Klatovsky travelled there regularly from his home in Sydney to assess whether it was appropriate for the Wilderness Society to become involved. The Kimberley is a beautiful, unspoiled area but the same cannot be said for the conditions of many of the Indigenous families who live there. Poverty and the evils it brings are rife.
“In one week I was up there earlier this year, seven young people committed suicide in a population of less than 20,000,” Mr Klatovsky says.
At first he was wary about becoming involved in the project. The amount of money and jobs the LPG plant could bring would be a boon to the local community. He strongly felt that he had no place supporting a move against a project which could benefit so many.
However, this changed when the Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, began proceedings to overturn the Native Title of the area with compulsory acquisition legislation.
The Kimberley Land Council held a vote. If members voted ‘yes’ then it would sell James Price Point to the Browse consortium and receive $1.3 billion. If they voted ‘no’ then the land would not be handed over. A ‘no’ vote also meant that the land would be compulsorily acquired, and the community would receive no money. The vote was Yes: 60 per cent, No: 40 per cent.
Nonetheless, there were several powerful reasons for the strength of the ‘no’ vote. James Price Point is a very sacred site in Aboriginal culture. A song cycle emanates from there, and would be damaged by the development which would affect all the song lines in Australia. Dinosaur tracks that had become part of local legends are scattered across the area.
And the reasons were not just cultural. Community members had seen how few benefits flowed into the Aboriginal communities from the similar Karratha Gas plant, which had been operating in the nearby Pilbara region since 1984. They also felt that they shouldn’t have to sell their land for $1.3 billion to support their own community when the Government was cutting back on funding for local schools and hospitals. The community felt it was entitled to the same government support as anywhere else in Australia.
Seeing that these sentiments were widely held, Mr Klatovsky and the Wilderness Society decided it was appropriate to support opposition to the project. They began lobbying State and Federal Governments, stirred up public opinion across Australia, got high profile Australians involved, and even held a free concert in Melbourne.
These tactics put James Price Point into the minds of many Australians, but it was the actions of local community members that really stopped the project. Their unrelenting opposition saw a $30 billion project quickly escalate to $47 billion and beyond. The Browse consortium couldn’t ignore the costs or the public relations disaster that had landed in its lap.
Mr Klatovsky recalls the turning point in the saga. “I was in Parliament House in Canberra with four Aboriginal people from the Kimberley and we were trying to have meetings with politicians and then the images came in of the police dragging black grandmothers into paddy wagons. They’d been sitting for a month on the road to stop Woodside’s machinery. It’s amazing how many doors opened that day and how many politicians wanted to talk.”
In April 2013, the Browse consortium announced that the James Price Point project was not a viable option due to high costs, and that they would be mining the gas using a floating gas processing platform. Colin Barnett was widely quoted as saying he’d failed the people of Western Australia, and vowing to make it difficult for the consortium to change the various agreements it had with the State Government. However, following the lead of the Federal Government, the changes at state level went through uncontested in early August.
So the battle was won. It is a victory that has given hope to other Indigenous communities facing conflict with huge mining companies but it has left an impoverished community divided. Enduring some of the worst living conditions in Australia, they are trying to find a way forward, past the deep hurts and shattered dreams of what might have been, but probably never was.