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Traditional Owners raise concerns over proposed gas hub’s impact on ancient rock art

Callan Morse -

Larrakia Traditional Owners have raised significant concerns about the impact of a Darwin harbour development on Indigenous rock art in the region.

The ancient petroglyphs, which are located near the proposed Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct site, are the city's only known remaining Indigenous rock art.

As reported by Guardian Australia, Traditional Owners say the petroglyphs are a "priceless" representation of the region's Indigenous history, and are threatened by the proposed gas hub development.

"(This is) pretty much the only Larrakia rock art to have survived colonisation," Nigel Brown, chief executive of the Larrakia Development Corporation told Guardian Australia.

"For our mob it's priceless and for everyone it should be considered a priceless part of our history."

The proposed Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct covers approximately 1,500 hectares of land bordering Darwin harbour.

Nigel Brown says insufficient consultation has occurred between government and Larrakia Traditional Owners. (Image: Mitchell Abram/ABC News)

The precinct's plans include a major gas manufacturing hub as well as petrochemicals, hydrogen and minerals facilities designed to support the planned large-scale expansion of the Northern Territory gas sector.

The federal government has allocated $1.5 billion toward the project for new port infrastructure construction, with an additional $400 million allocated for associated logistics hubs in regional centres.

Although both Northern Territory and federal government planning guidelines advise engagement with Traditional Owners about development proposals on Country, Larrakia people say this has not occurred in relation to the proposed middle arm hub development.

"The process for consultation should have commenced before the project was announced and it should have ensured consultation with all Larrakia family groups." Mr Brown said.

The proposed Larrakia advisory group, which met informally once in October of last year, comprised of three Larrakia members even though there are nine Larrakia family groups in the Darwin area.

Mr Brown said the advisory group's Larrakia members requested the government conduct additional cultural surveys lead by Traditional Owners as a "bare minimum".

The proposed Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct. (Image: Northern Territory government)

"They wanted to call it the Larrakia advisory committee, which went down like a lead balloon because if you call it that it really suggests it's a Larrakia-led process and (that) we support it – and none of those things at this stage can be said," Mr Brown said.

Guardian Australia reported a leaked draft of a report commissioned by the Northern Territory Government stated it was unable to make findings of the potential cultural impacts of the proposed precinct due to inadequate consultation with Larrakia and Tiwi peoples.

Speaking on behalf of multiple family groups, Larrakia Elder Bill risk said the development was not supported by Traditional Owners.

"We do not want to see this hub, whatever you want to call it, go ahead," Mr Risk said.

"We do not want to see the industrialisation of Middle Arm."

"You want to talk about free, prior and informed consent? There isn't any.

One of the petroglyphs near the proposed Middle Arm site. (Image: Mike Bowers/The Guardian)

"We haven't been spoken to. We would say quite clearly we do not want it. They haven't reached out. They haven't spoken to us."

A Northern Territory government spokesperson said the the government would take a "collaborative approach with community, cultural groups, and industry through the life of the project", suggesting the government was committed to working closely alongside Larrakia Traditional Owners.

"Engagement with Larrakia organisations is ongoing and it is envisaged the cultural consultative committee could provide on-Country consideration of the cultural and heritage values at Middle Arm," the NT government spokesperson said.

A spokesperson federal minister for the environment and water Tanya Plibersek said Traditional Owners perspectives ought to be considered during project planning and approval, " particularly on matters relating to cultural heritage".

Whilst federal infrastructure minister Catherine King said a commitment had been made by the Northern Territory government to work with Larrakia Traditional Owners in relation to the proposed project.

"The Australian Government understands that engagement with the Larrakia community has been ongoing and we welcome the establishment of a cultural consultative committee to provide consideration of the cultural and heritage values at Middle Arm," Ms King's spokesperson said.

More to come.

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