It would be impossible to learn everything about Aboriginal culture overnight, but Deborah Ruiz Wall, OAM, a long-time Indigenous rights advocate, gives Australian Filipina a hand, with answers to our basic questions. She believes everyone should know the facts surrounding the proposed gas plant project - a disastrous outcome won't just hurt the Aboriginal community in the region, it will hurt us all.

When you live in the city, be it Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, cities where there are heavy concentrations of Filipinos, it's easy to forget that Australia is a vast land that stretches well outside city borders.

It is likely then that of the 1.2 million people in the general population, who said they have part or full Filipino ancestry (2006 Census), only a fraction would have visited or know much about, the Kimberley in Western Australia.

The Kimberley is a place where there are Aborigines with Filipino ancestry. It is also a place at the heart of a major dispute where a proposed $30 billion gas plant project has the potential to irreversibly damage, or even destroy, Aboriginal culture as it exists today.

Deborah Ruiz Wall, a long-time Indigenous rights advocate, knows this because in 2008, she went to Broome, Western Australia, at her own expense to research Aborigines with Filipino background. Her plan was to write a paper on it as part of her doctorate.

But her supervisory panel said that such a narrow focus might not be seen as sufficiently substantive for a PhD research undertaking. As she had already been granted a scholarship by the Centre for Cultural Research (University of Western Sydney), she had to think of what might be regarded as a 'substantive' issue without departing from the region where she had already done a lot of research, in this case the Kimberley region.

Wall chose the LNG development project because it was the most significant issue confronting the Broome people who she interviewed for her oral history project, and she wanted to continue working with them. That's when she began her thesis, which currently has the working title, 'The LNG precinct proposal in the Kimberley, Western Australia: a development dilemma'.

Asked what she might achieve from writing a thesis on this subject, she said her study has the potential of raising awareness of the continuing challenge of Australians' relationship with Australian Indigenous people, particularly from the perspective of land use on a broader front.

"The LNG site is subject to a native title claim so developers have to seek the consent of the traditional owners of the site that is their traditional land. Other issues are the extent to which inappropriate development may damage sacred sites as well as have a damaging impact on the maintenance of Indigenous culture and tradition quite apart from the destruction of a pristine environment and risk of exterminating rare marine species," she said in an email.

"The Filipino heritage identification in this sense has been subsumed into a broader political question involving the global and local impact of mining development, protection of the environment (the country's heritage), and Indigenous native title rights," she added.

Wall said that if the LNG Project goes ahead, it could cut one of the three major song cycles passing through the area in half. This song cycle is an oral heritage map that contains codes of behaviour to ensure the sustainability of the balance and wellbeing of the land. The whole area is affected if one area is destroyed.

Because of this, Wall said the Filipino community, as represented by the Filipino Women's Working Party, is showing its solidarity with the Aboriginal people in raising its concerns about the impact of the proposed gas plant. This is not the first Indigenous rights advocacy campaign that Wall has been a part of and it likely won't be the last. She is encouraging everyone to attend the forum dedicated to raising awareness on the issue. The Kimberley LNG gas hub environmental approval has not yet been given and final investment decision is not due until mid-2012 so there is still time to avert an agreement that could prove disastrous for the Indigenous people of Broome.

But first, here is a primer on the issue:

1) What is the LNG precinct proposal?

The Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) precinct proposal is a development issue that will have a major impact on the lives of the people in the remote town of Broome in the Kimberley, north-west of Australia. As the chosen site for the LNG precinct is subject to a native title claim, developers need the consent of traditional owners for the project to go ahead.  James Price Point, about 60 km north of Broome in the Kimberley was chosen by Western Australian Premier, Colin Barnett to install a $30 billion gas precinct onshore with its industry partner, Woodside Energy Ltd, to process natural gas for export. 

On 5 May 2011, 60% of traditional owners voted in favour of Kimberley Land Council’s $1.5 billion negotiated terms with Woodside Energy Ltd spread over the life span of the gas hub estimated at between 30-50 years. The legitimacy of that vote is now being questioned in the WA Supreme Court in an action taken by local traditional owners. The vote was clouded by the real threat the state would compulsorily acquire the site regardless.

Aboriginal people are divided on the ‘gas’ issue. As children, some of them were forcibly taken away from their Aboriginal families and lost contact with some of their Indigenous heritage and culture. They were taken into white-run missions, orphanages or reserves. Some refer to themselves as ‘people of two times’ — brought up in the Western way but also living in a traditional world where the boundary between culture and nature is indistinct. If the LNG project goes ahead, they say it will cut the song cycle in half. The song cycle is an oral heritage map that contains codes of behaviour to ensure the sustainability of the balance and wellbeing of the land. The whole area is affected if one area is destroyed.

2)  What is a 'traditional owner of the land'?

The Native Title Act legislation was enacted following the Mabo decision of 1992 recognising that Australia was not terra nullius (empty land) when the British arrived.  The Act provided a mechanism for recognising native title. Traditional owners (Aboriginal) who lodge claims for their particular territory will need to prove their lineage in connection with the land either through litigation in the Federal Court or through mediation or negotiation through the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT). Twenty per cent of the continent is claimable.Freehold title is not claimable. Native title is not freehold. Some traditional owners' claims have now been determined and recognised but many more are awaiting processing.

3) What is a song cycle?

‘Walmadany is right in the middle of a major Song Cycle or Dreaming track sacred to the Jabirrjabirr and Gularabulu peoples. (It is the Gularabulu clan to which Joseph Roe belongs. ) This Song Cycle is memorialized in the Lurujarri Trail, and has now also been walked by nonIndigenous people, under the guidance of Indigenous elders, for many years. There is moreover an eerie significance in the name, Walmadany. As Stuart Cooke explains, Walmadany was an actual historical figure, a Maban (cleverman) and leader of the Jabirrjabirr people in the early twentieth century, a “fierce protector of his people, of his country’s jila (water holes), and of his country against strangers – be they invading tribes, or Europeans.” (Cooke 2010)

‘The Lurujarri song cycle itself is a collection of poetic fragments that are performed in conjunction with music and dance. It follows a path because the poems don’t all belong to one place. You have to move through country as you sing them. Whitefellas don’t see any of this; it’s strict men’s business that’s too sacred for the tourists to see. Still, if you pay enough attention to what the family tell you, what you can discover about the song cycle is that it is vital to the land’s survival. The deep power of this poetry is ancestral: the first creation beings came from the ocean and sung the land into existence; the words of their songs have been handed down through the generations. To sing them, therefore, is to sing the land into fresh being.’  Read more  below for a fuller explanation.


4) What is the Filipino Women's Working Party?

The Filipino Women's Working Party (FWWP) is a non-incorporated advocacy group of women founded in the eighties immediately after a state-wide consultation on conditions of Filipino women in Sydney conducted by the former government commission,  Ethnic Affairs Commission in NSW (now called  Community Relations Commission). The group made representations to the NSW and Federal government concerning Filipino women who were subject to media sensational reporting that focused on 'mail order brides', 'serial sponsorship' and 'spousal violence and homicide'. FWWP was also involved in one of the storytelling/sharing projects in Sydney in 2007. FWWP got involved in this LNG discussion through my involvement in Broome. The group and their friends from the Filipino network took an interest in Broome Aboriginal people's story that has historical roots from the time of the pearling days.  They, like me, want to express their solidarity with the plight of Aboriginal Australians in Broome now that they are aware of our connection with them.


Note: Special thanks to Deborah Ruiz Wall for supplying us with the info and links mentioned in this article.


Antony Ruhan

The Filipino Women's Working Party can support the efforts of the indigenous people to obtain their land rights and to protect the Australian environment and further the political organisation of Australian women in general.

Leave a Comment

Word Count: 0
More from this section

Traditional owners share their views

Help protect Aboriginal culture: FWWP

A Poem for Walmadan