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Pilbara elder says industry given free rein over sensitive sites on Burrup Peninsula

A prominent elder from Western Australia's north is urging a federal inquiry to ignore the official Aboriginal corporation that she represents, as it considers potential damage to Indigenous heritage in the region. 

Yindjibarndi elder Tootsie Daniel is from the Pilbara, where an independent federal reporter is looking into claims that significant Aboriginal sites on the Burrup Peninsula near Karratha are threatened by industry.

Ms Daniel said she would tell the inquiry that heritage values have been ignored in favour of major industry in the area.

"It holds so much cultural significance, not to be touched, not be moved. That place is very much alive," she said.

"I'll tell them to stay away."

The peninsula is the site of more than a million pieces of sacred rock art, but concerns have been raised that emissions from companies such as Woodside and Yara are causing significant damage to heritage sites.

A fertiliser plant proposed by Perdaman would also see some pieces of art moved off the Burrup, which is called Murujuga in local language.

Traditional custodians are officially represented by the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), but the government's assessment was launched after a campaign by the separate Save Our Songlines group.

MAC operates under the Burrup and Maitland Industrial Estates Agreement (BMIEA), an agreement signed with the WA government in 2003.

It includes a controversial "no objections" clause that stops traditional custodians from lodging opposition to development proposals in the area's industrial zone.

This has been called a "gag clause" by Save Our Songlines, but this is disputed by the state government.

Ms Daniel is a member of the Murujuga Circle of Elders, which provides "governance and advice" on cultural knowledge, according to MAC.

This did not stop her from saying heritage decisions had been made without the consent of Aboriginal people and she urged independent federal reporter Alison Stone to consult with people outside MAC.

"She should listen to us because we know more," Ms Daniel said.

"I don't want to talk to her with the corporation."

'Gags have no place'

Robin Chapple is a former Greens politician for the vast northern electorate Mining and Pastoral and was in parliament when the BMIEA was signed.

He said "gag clauses" were common practice at the time but were not fit for purpose in the modern era.

"There are a number of clauses in there that can be classified as no-objection or gag clauses. Gag clauses have no place," he said.

"Virtually none of the traditional owners at the time were involved. They were working without the input of traditional owners in establishing the agreement."

Government told to ban gags

This comes after the federal government said it would legislate new Indigenous heritage protections, following recommendations from a separate parliamentary inquiry into Rio Tinto's destruction of a sacred rock shelter at Juukan Gorge in 2020.

One of the recommendations accepted by the government is a review of the Native Title Act.

The report stated the review should consider the prohibition of "clauses restricting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's access to Commonwealth heritage protections".

Ms Stone has met with Save Our Songlines, and the assessment is open to public submissions.

A federal government spokesperson said the assessment would examine claimed threats to heritage such as "restrictions on traditional owners, including ... the BMIEA".

A WA Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation spokeswoman said the BMIEA did not prevent MAC or the public from raising concerns about a project's impact on the environment or cultural heritage.

MAC chief executive Peter Jeffries said the Circle of Elders were the recognised cultural knowledge holders who represented Murujuga, "who speak together with one voice" to provide advice on culture.

"The Circle of Elders is pivotal to all major decisions by providing invaluable cultural knowledge to MAC and our rangers," he said.

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