Roaring Journals
Stories Activism Walmadan




Almost a decade ago, a great victory was won in the Kimberley. Today, this ancient, red dirt frontier remains under threat from the gas industry.

Dense cloud cover builds over the coast of the Dampier Peninsula, threatening to break and so replenish rivers and inundate floodplains. Here, in the Kimberley, the northernmost region of Western Australia, the electricity of the tropical monsoon makes the air feel alive.

Amongst jigal trees and saltbush sit Phil Roe and his nephew Errol, elders of the Goolaraboloo people. Phil reflects on the importance of this coastline, which stretches northwards from the iconic pearling town of Broome. As he does, he talks about a special place along it called Walmadan, of which the Goolaraboloo are cultural custodians.

“We would always go up there when we were kids,” he says, as the song of a rainbow bee-eater trills out around him. “Catching fish, camping out and looking after Country. It’s an important place. There are middens up there, cultural sites which we care for.”

On maps, however, Walmadan is marked by its colonial title: James Price Point. A quiet yet spectacular headland renowned for red cliffs that stretch down into the azure blue of the Indian Ocean, it shows few reminders of the environmental battle that raged there a decade ago, when it was controversially chosen as the site of one of the world’s biggest gas hubs.

“It just would have been a disaster for the whole coastline,” says Errol. “I still wonder what it would have been like if they hadn’t been stopped. It took a lot out of us, but we won.”

Indeed, for many people around Australia, like Tasmania’s Franklin River in the 1980s, or the campaign to recognise the ecological significance of Ningaloo Reef with World Heritage status at the turn of the millennium, the fight to keep the Kimberley coast gas free was the conservation battle of a generation. The project proposed at Walmadan was finally abandoned in early 2013 following years of activism fronted by the Goolaraboloo.

“It just would have been a disaster for the whole coastline,” says Errol. “I still wonder what it would have been like if they hadn’t been stopped. It took a lot out of us, but we won.”

Goolaraboloo elder Errol Roe (left) alongside Andrew Dureau and Jason Roe during a protest against Woodside's plans to turn James Price Point into a major gas hub. Photo supplied

As he thinks back on that time, Phil talks of the relief that rushed through the community when it was finally announced that the hub would not proceed. He shakes his head. “It was just surreal,” he says. “I was jumping for joy.”

Errol takes a while to speak as he considers the memory. “Even after almost ten years I still think about that day. It was like a lock and key had been strangling Country. A lock that had been that way for a long time, and when that key was turned everything just flowed, the energy just rushed back into Country. It was free.”

Still a divisive subject in Western Australia, it’s worth remembering what was at stake during those years at Walmadan. In order to access rich natural gas reserves offshore, the Western Australian state government, headed by then-premier, Colin Barnett, accepted a proposal to construct an immense gas processing plant at the site. The project promised untold royalties – billions of dollars, local jobs and potential investment. The trade-off was, however, that culture and environment would be compromised irreversibly.

In justifying the selection of the site, Barnett had described Walmadan as “unremarkable,” neglecting that it housed midden sites, burial grounds and areas of significant cultural heritage that would be inevitably disturbed in order for the project to go through. Acres of monsoon vine thicket, rainforest pockets unique to the Dampier Peninsula, would have been bulldozed, while World Heritage-worthy dinosaur footprints were to be buried under the hub’s tidal breakwall. Not to mention that the shipping traffic accessing the hub was to pass through largest humpback whale nursery in the world, which lies straight off the point.

This compromising of environmental and cultural heritage for financial gain was perhaps destined to ignite people to act. Protest concerts organised around the country fronted by John Butler and Missy Higgins attracted tens of thousands of supporters, while protestors, including then-Greens leader Bob Brown, travelled to Broome to demand that the project be scrapped.

Indeed, the fight for Walmadan sparked a national interest in this remote and largely inaccessible part of Australia that continues to this day.

Those on the east coast who had only vague images of the Kimberley as a place of red sand, spinifex plains and a sunset camel train on the region’s famed Cable Beach were, subsequently, exposed to the natural wonders of the region. Indeed, the fight for Walmadan sparked a national interest in this remote and largely inaccessible part of Australia that continues to this day.

From a conservation standpoint, isolation has largely proven to be the Kimberley’s saving grace. With just under 50,000 residents in an area the same size of California, high operating costs and a lack of serviceable infrastructure has long meant that the region has avoided the most difficult questions of industrial development.

Walmadan – James Price Point – as it was yesterday and as it remains today. Photo Nick Rodway

But now, ten years on from the events at Walmadan, such questions are being raised. And they are coming thick and fast.

Plans are currently being discussed at various levels of government to disrupt the flow of the Fitzroy River – known as Martuwarra to local Traditional Owners – one of the world’s most powerful free-flowing river systems. These centre on irrigation and agricultural ventures.

At the same time, multiple proposals are being assessed to frack the area for petrochemicals, from the Fitzroy River catchment down into the Great Sandy Desert.

Alarmingly for those opponents of the gas hub at Walmadan, even the question of offshore gas is still ever present, with the revelation late last year that the Western Australian government retains a plan to develop a new gas processing plant on the Kimberley coast.

As these projects are considered, it is difficult not to contrast the Kimberley with its vast, southern neighbour, the Pilbara. Both regions are a similar size, have a similar population, and share similar environmental and ecological characteristics.

And yet, while just the mention of the Kimberley invokes images of wilderness and culture, the Pilbara is, for better or for worse, synonymous with industrial development. Australia’s quarry, the Pilbara alone produces more iron ore than any other place in the world.

This focus on mineral extraction has – perhaps inevitably – affected cultural sites in the region irreversibly. In 2020, the world was shocked at the revelation that the Juukan Gorge cave system in the east Pilbara was destroyed, a rock shelter which held over 40,000 years of First Nations history.

But while those responsible for the act have since apologised in the face of global condemnation, there are plans already afoot to expand gas operations on the Murujuga Peninsula in the west Pilbara, which houses the largest known collection of rock petroglyphs in the world. Recent studies have raised concerns that acid gas emissions from these future projects will have an irreversible effect on the quality of this First Nations rock art, while releasing carbon pollution greater than the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland.

In addition to this, the proposed projects would involve dredging and spoil dumping operations in the Dampier Archipelago, the richest area of marine biodiversity yet known in Western Australia.

With these projects in negotiation, it is important to note that the Kimberley is not an untouched landscape – nowhere on earth is. It has established mining operations and agricultural tenements and has previously felt the effects of the push for mineral extraction. However, it is equally important to note that the region houses some of the world’s few relatively pristine coastlines, and is home to the largest, most intact tropical savannah on earth.

Despite its remoteness, the iconic red dirt Kimberley is under increasing development pressure today. Photo Jayden Pearce

Over a decade on from the seminal events that played out at Walmadan, the people of the Kimberley, of Western Australia and the nation as a whole will be forced to consider the future of these natural places, and to what extent industrial projects will be allowed to proceed.

For Errol Roe, the lessons learned from the battle for Walmadan have resulted in a wariness of politicians and corporations who come to regional areas promising industry as an answer to local issues. “It’s difficult to trust these people,” he says. “They have dollar signs behind them, and they look to these places to profit off them. It’s important to consider other, sustainable industries, where we can benefit without harming Country.”

And, explains Errol, in looking after people and place, the same approach needs to be taken for these industries in turn. “Even tourism, when it’s not managed right, can have a negative effect,” he says. “This last year, with people travelling locally around the state, we’ve seen four-wheel drives and quad bikes carving up coastal trails. These are areas where turtles nest. People have left rubbish. These places are our responsibility, and our job is to look after them, to conserve them for our children coming through.”

Image Banner: The vibrancy and environmental value of Western Australia's Kimberley coast was first brought to the attention of many Australians during the landmark campaign to save Walmadan – James Price Point. Photo Jayden Pe

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