“When the world was soft”: Reviewing a mighty tome of Mike Donaldson’s magnificent photographs of Murujuga’s (the Burrup Peninsular) extraordinary petroglyphs, I was introduced to that beautiful phrase as the words of the Yaburara people who’d created that extraordinary ancient rock gallery. They were used to describe their Dreaming.

At last, the Australian government has nominated the Murujuga Cultural Landscape for inscription on the World Heritage List. The nomination, announced last Friday, was actually submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in late January.

If accepted, Murujuga would be only the second site in Australia listed for World Heritage Status for First Nations cultural heritage. The first was for Budj Bim, the ancient fish traps in western Victoria, which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2019.

The Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) prepared the nomination in partnership with the Western Australian government, with support and advice from the Australian government and technical experts.

The landscape in the north-west of WA is of massive cultural and spiritual significance and contains evidence of continuous traditional culture and practice in the area over for more than 50,000 years. Its “Outstanding Universal Value” is demonstrated through the extensive petroglyph collection, living cultural traditions, and the deep time histories of land and sea use.

Murujuga is home to at least a million images inscibed on rock surfaces in an area of more than 100,000 hectares, across land and sea country.

It has the densest known concentration of hunter-gatherer petroglyphs anywhere in the world, and the art works demonstrate “an extraordinary diversity of style, theme, mode of production and aesthetic repertoire”, according to the Australian government. UNESCO’s assessment process will take at least 18 months and the earliest the nomination is likely to be considered by the World Heritage Committee is mid-2024.

Federal Minister for the Environment, Tanya Plibersek described Murujuga as “a site of great significance to Traditional Owners, where culture, customs and beliefs have been passed on for thousands of generations. Murujuga is a natural wonder of the world – a place for all Australians to reflect on years of continuous living culture. The cultural attributes attest to a long and continuing presence, and rich cultural connections between people, beliefs, and landscape,” she said.

“Our government is strongly committed to working with Traditional Owners and Custodians to properly protect the history of the oldest living civilisation in the world. This includes developing new national standalone legislation to protect First Nations cultural heritage”.

Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Peter Jeffries said the Corporation is proud to have led the preparation of the nomination, on behalf of the Traditional Owners and Custodians for Murujuga, and in partnership with WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions.

“For more than two decades, the Ngarda-Ngarli have aspired for World Heritage listing of Murujuga and for our traditional knowledge and lore to be at the centre of decision-making, governance and management of this land and sea country,” he said. Preparing the dossier took more than four years of knowledge-sharing by the Murujuga Circle of Elders and MAC.

MAC admits that “People have asked why it has taken until now for Murujuga to be nominated, especially as this place is so rich in culture and knowledge spanning more than 50,000 years, not to mention up to two million diverse specimens of rock art. It is worth noting that the World Heritage nomination for Budj Bim  was first proposed in 1989 and it took the Gunditjmara Traditional Owners and members of the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation 15 years working together to deliver it.

“Similarly, the Ngarda-Ngarli, including the Ngarluma, Mardudhunera, Yaburara, Yindjibarndi and Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo peoples, have wanted World Heritage listing for Murujuga for more than 20 years. When MAC decided, in 2018, to pursue World Heritage for Murujuga, we visited Budj Bim and used its example to plan how we would develop a nomination for Murujuga that reflected the Ngarda-Ngarli’s responsibility to preserve, protect and manage our land, heritage and culture.

“And, because the nomination for Murujuga Cultural Landscape emphasises that the Outstanding Universal Value of Murujuga depends on its continued management by the Traditional Owners and Custodians, Ngarda-Ngarli decision-making will become a core component of what is protected under the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. In other words, there will be a legal mechanism to ensure that Ngarda-Ngarli are at the heart of decision-making for Murujuga and acknowledged for their ongoing custodianship of the landscape for more than 50,000 years.

“World Heritage Listing will also help build awareness around Australia and the world that Murujuga is an extraordinary example of creative genius and management of Country for more than 50,000 years. In this way, World Heritage Listing will mean that we have support from the rest of the world to protect Murujuga for the next thousand generations”.

Sadly, there’s a threat to the whole process of listing because of massive existing industrial activity on the Burrup Peninsular, with further plans for expansion being considered. Is this damaging the petroglyphs or can the two exist together? That’s surely a question that UNESCO will ask; and one that Minister Plibersek must ask as she considers the industrial expansion.

And sadly it seems that the Murujuga Circle of Elders is restricting access to some of the amazing images at the site. I have been asked to remove any that contain faces or the human figure. Which I have now done. Though Peter Donaldson’s amazing book, Burrup Rock Art will still exist with those images in.