Beware the stingray: Indigenous heritage and WA’s gas plans

Understanding the stingray’s significance can help us understand opposition to James Price Point gas plans. Joy VanBuhler

For overwhelming economic, social, cultural and environmental reasons the LNG precinct proposed for Walmadany (James Price Point) should not be built…In sum, such a project is against the national interest.

This is what I concluded in my recent report, Law Below the Top Soil. But behind my report on the proposed LNG precinct at Walmadany/James Price Point near Broome is a story of what we in the European world might call synchronicity and stingrays.

It was through Professor Stephen Muecke that I first heard about the remarkable Paddy Roe, OAM, now deceased. Mr Roe collaborated with Stephen on two outstanding and remarkable books, Goolaburu and Reading the Country.

Mr Roe wrote the history of his country - particularly the 80 kilometre stretch of Broome coastline from Bindingankuny in the north to Roebuck Bay Caravan Park in the south - so it could be understood and preserved across cultures and for coming generations.

Little did I know that 30 years after meeting Stephen I would come to know the community and the remarkable country that Mr Roe worked so hard to preserve.

I gained an understanding of the significance of Mr Roe’s work as the National Secretary of the Indigenous Stock Exchange (ISX), where I met many significant national Aboriginal elders and leaders. It threw me into the complex issues around mining, Aboriginal economic development and prosperity.

In Arnhem Land I was adopted into a Yolngu clan group. Two years before I was invited to write Law Below the Top Soil by the old families of Broome, I was sitting with my adopted relatives at Mata Mata, about six hours drive from Nhulunbuy on the Arafura Sea, when I learned about the extraordinary significance of the stingray.

Stingrays are very sacred creatures. Bambarrarr Marawili

My relatives and I had a meal of stingray fit for kings and queens, cooked in a pot, served on corrugated iron, with dogs on hand for the titbits. It was a meal that I will never forget.

Stingrays entered my consciousness in a big way after that meal. I was astounded at the quality and delicacy of the meat, at the meticulous preparation, and at the importance of stingrays for my relatives. Tetsuya Wakuda could not have prepared a dish as delicate or as good for you, as the legendary Mata Mata leader, Batambil, and her sons, prepared that day.

Three months before I was asked to come to Broome to write the report I had an extraordinary experience. One evening I was walking on the beach at Wilsons Promontory, talking about the stingray meal I enjoyed at Mata Mata. I looked down into a rock pool and there was a giant stingray, trapped by the tide and looking up at me. It had an extraordinary face and eyes. It calmly flapped its giant wings, showing its underside, almost presenting itself to me. It was something I will never forget.

One of the things that Batambil said to me as we were eating stingray was: “If the miners want to come and mine my land here. Sure they can. But they will have to put a 303 bullet here”, pointing to her temple, “and my backbone will be buried in this earth. They will have to shoot me and dig up my backbone.”

I then at least partially understood the significance of Aboriginal land and culture and stingrays.

I re-read Stephen and Paddy’s work Goolaburu: Stories from the West Kimberley. I learned that it was after spearing a fat stingray that Paddy, as a Nyigina man, gained custodianship of the Goolabaroo law of the Walmadany/James Point area. Paddy’s daughter Teresa and her children are the children of the stingray of the Walmadany/James Price area.

Stingray are very sacred creatures. The holes in the floor of the sea bed that you often see in the shallows are made by stingrays. They bite down into the sea and filter the mud for their food. They create clouds in the water; these are related to the cumulo-nimbus clouds that come with the storms of the wet season and cleanse the earth.

Stingrays are serene creatures. They glide through the water. They bury themselves in the sand. They bury themselves below the top soil.

But don’t be fooled by their serenity: sting rays are very dangerous. If you step on them, their poison will cause great pain. And as we know in the case of Steve Irwin, stingrays can even cause death.

Developing the LNG project disregards Aboriginal customary law. AAP

Stingrays symbolise knowledge of the law beneath the top surface of the earth. We may find such thinking poetic, metaphoric and symbolic. But in the Aboriginal traditional knowledge this is a fundamental truth and law that no-one can deny. The way in which Mr Roe and his children and grandchildren came to know the stingray, mean that they were significant leaders who have strong power and knowledge of their country. For they, like the stingray, know of its deep qualities and what is beneath the surface of the land.

Woodside, Premier Barnett and their supporters have messed with the stingrays of Walmadany/James Price Point. Mr Roe, along with many others, had ensured that this site was perhaps the most documented sacred site of the Broome area and perhaps of Australia.

The process through which Barnett and Woodside ended up with this as the site for a giant multi-billion dollar LNG precinct was blundering and foolish and indicative of desperate men. The voluminous documentation of the whole development of the LNG project is an exercise that completely disregards the significant Aboriginal customary law that lies with Mr Roe’s family and their relatives.

Of course, I might also mention that the economics of the project are not sound, that there are other superior alternatives to the LNG precinct for harvesting the reserves of Browse Basin Gas that lie off the Kimberley coast. The environmental, cultural and social effects of the project are undesirable and severe.

But Mr Roe would no doubt have said that all this is obvious: if you mess with stingrays, you end up with poison barbs in your leg.