MAC: Mines and Communities

Pillaging the Pilbara

Published by MAC on 2011-10-10
Source: Guardian, The Australian

The world's second and third largest iron ore mining companies, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, are set to overtake premier producer, Brazil's Vale, in the next few years.

While both companies (notably Rio Tinto) have interests in foreign iron ore sources, the two UK-Australian dual-listed firms have fixed their sights primarily on Australia's Pilbara region - where both have been extracting billions of tonnes of iron ore over many decades.

More recently they've been joined by the Fortescue Metals Group - Australia's third largest iron ore producer. See:

What's often forgotten (though not by MAC*) is that the Pilbara is indisputably Aboriginal-held territory, and was for thousands of years before the miners trampled over the communities' grounds.

In an unusually strident (if somewhat discursive) article, The Guardian's Patrick Barkham reminds readers of the appalling human toll wreaked by these companies over the years.

And it's not just an historic cost.

Both BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are now engaged in a massive expansion of their mining and iron ore transhipments from the Pilbara.

As The Australian put it last week: "With [the two companies] producing some of the world's lowest-cost iron ore from... [the] region, price and demand falls are likely to shut down higher-cost mines, leaving room for expanded output from BHP and Rio."

According to Patrick Barham, although the area "has been long promised national park status", two new explosive manufacturing plants - which will supply the mining industry - are now set to be built in an area rich with Aboriginal rock art.

The Pilbara, concludes Barham "a tough, honest and welcoming land".

But it's "sandwiched between a violent past that repeatedly unsettles you and a resource-hungry future, which may be even more challenging".

And not least to the Aboriginal custodians of that territory - who continue to fight for a recognition of their rights. See: Aboriginal community takes "last stand" against world's most powerful miner

* See: Australian miner "making us powerless in our own country" - Aboriginal spokesperson

Australia's rock art in a hard place

Western Australia's remote Pilbara coast is home to a million ancient rock engravings, but the mining industry threatens this unique heritage and landscape

By Patrick Barkham

The Guardian (UK)

30 September 2011

It takes a moment to get our eyes in, and then, leaping out of the sun-baked rocks, we spot engravings of kangaroos, dugongs and emus; turtles, birds and mythical beasts; complex geometric patterns; warriors with boomerangs; and bush turkeys. This small, unfenced valley in the north-west corner of Australia, marked by nothing more than a rusty metal sign, contains more ancient rock art than the whole of paleolithic Europe.

A paleolithic rock carving of a kangaroo on the Burrup peninsula
A paleolithic rock carving of a kangaroo on the Burrup peninsula
Photo: Graeme Robertson

Despite these riches, the Pilbara is probably the most remote coastal region in Australia. It is as large as Spain but has just 40,000 residents and is almost unvisited by tourists.

Instead, this bleak, spectacularly rugged land is devoted to a different kind of wealth: mining. A region bearing a unique record of human culture stretching back 30,000 years is now home to some of the newest settlements in Australia: air-conditioned towns humming with iron ore and offshore gas industries. That such ancient art and modern mining exist side by side presents a striking, and, to some, troubling, picture of human evolution.

Flying into the town of Karratha, on the Indian Ocean, in a plane full of miners in fluorescent safety gear, I can survey the Australian outback in all its glory. The earth is the colour of a blood orange. Dark rock is infused with sinewy patterns of soft emerald green, created by fresh grass spirited into existence by recent rains.

The scale of the industry in the Pilbara is almost unfathomable. On the turquoise horizon a queue of eight tankers waits to be filled by the output of the world's second-largest iron-ore mining operation. The ore is transported from the mines on trains 2.6km long. We stop at a level crossing for a long wait: 234 wagons trundle past. Each ship then carries at least £12m-worth of ore to China. The North-West Shelf Gas project, Australia's largest single engineering feat, is just north of here, on the Burrup peninsula. But all this human activity is still dwarfed by the mighty landscape.

A short drive takes us across salt flats to the peninsula and views of the 42 arid islands of the Dampier archipelago. Rocky valleys created by great heaps of raw red-brown rock look like untidy mine tailings but are completely natural, exposed on this ancient land for 2.5m years. Here, almost unheralded, lies one of the world's biggest collections of ancient art. It is estimated there are a million rock engravings on the peninsula, with 4,000 examples in Deep Gorge, where we stop to examine art created up to 30,000 years ago.

"It is no idle boast that this is the richest area for petroglyphs [rock engravings] anywhere in the world," says Ken Mulvaney, a cultural heritage specialist with mining company Rio Tinto and the only person with a PhD on the rock art of the archipelago. We were lucky to have Mulvaney along because without expert guidance it is hard, at first, to spot the engravings. When I visited there were no official guided tours, although the Karratha visitor centre plans to launch some during the Australian winter, which is the ideal time to visit this area.

"This isn't art in the European sense of a gallery where you can wander around nicely hung pictures," says Mulvaney, nimbly leaping from rock to rock, pointing out fresher carvings of stick figures, cream against the red-brown rock. "When I say fresh, I mean they've been done in the past 1,000 years," he says. Next he identifies a ship: possibly an example of "contact art" - Aborigines recording their impressions of early settlers - or a carving created by the western crew of a 19th-century pearling ship.

Some engravings are faint and visible only with the sun at a certain angle; others leap out and appear to have been carved yesterday. We soon found kangaroo tails and the curving neck and robust beak of an emu. Rarer was a depiction of the thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger which became extinct on the Australian mainland 3,000 years ago. A rather rotund figure must have been a virile warrior: he's clutching two boomerangs.

"This art is done for a number of purposes," says Mulvaney. "Some of it is just to tell stories, some is identifying your presence in the area, some is for hunting magic and some has mythological associations."

It may be priceless rock art but it is gloriously accessible, with no visitor centres or ropes or zealous signage.

"You can see it for yourself, and you don't have to be taken in by tour guides and walk through some wet, miserable passage to see one little image of a mammoth," says Mulvaney.

But he also points out the disadvantages: some rocks have been scraped, damaged or graffitied by visitors: "The beauty of Australia is the freedom that we have. I have no problem with unregulated or free access to places such as this. The concern is when people inadvertently or intentionally damage the art."

We finish at the head of the valley, admiring a carving of a kangaroo with two turtle images placed over it much later. This is culture-mapping geography: showing how rising seas 6,000 years ago turned inland hills into islands. Unlike European rock carvings, according to Mulvaney, the archipelago art does not progress from crude stick men to more sophisticated works. Much of the older artwork is incredibly sophisticated - far more so than that of early European people.

"We seem to have had elaborate designs from the start," says Mulvaney. "They were a highly sophisticated people. They had a better lifestyle too. It's a lovely warm climate."

That lifestyle came to an abrupt end less than 150 years ago. White settlers established themselves on the Pilbara in the 1860s. The indigenous population saved the immigrants' lives by supplying them with fish and drinking water. This ancient line of rock artists was rewarded with extermination: killed by the settlers in a series of massacres. Survivors were then hit by a smallpox epidemic. Other Aborigines were kidnapped and used for forced labour, while those who continued traditional hunting were thrown into prison if they took settlers' sheep and cattle.

The Pilbara still feels like frontier country and much of the Aborigines' rock art seems undervalued at best and at worst endangered. Western Australia (WA) state governments have since the 1980s earmarked the Burrup peninsula for industrial development. While the area has been long promised national park status, the WA government continues to allow industry to expand here: two new explosive manufacturing plants are set to be built in an area rich with rock art.

Mulvaney compares it to putting a petrochemical plant next to the pyramids. The art is telling a story of people's reaction to an environment, and social and cultural beliefs over a 30,000-year sequence: "There is nowhere else in the world that says that. There is no reason for the industry to continue to be based here at all, apart from the fact that the government is locked into it."

The best thing for the future of this Aboriginal rock art would be for it to have more admiring visitors. I wonder if the Pilbara is so unvisited because people prefer not to be confronted by the weight of the past - or the heavy industry that sustains our comfortable lifestyles. The industry of the Pilbara's mining towns, Karratha, Dampier and Wickham, and the dreams the transient population is chasing, is globalisation's turbo-charged version of a gold rush. This may be a challenging landscape but it is also unfailingly honest, and a world away from the commercialised adventure tourism of Australia's "red centre".

When we drive to Roebourne, the first town created by white settlers, the horror of settlers' treatment of Aborigines is brought to life. Formerly a prison, the visitor centre ( does not duck the cruelty and violence of its early history. As displays reveal, in 1904 there were 72 Aborigines - and no white men - crammed in three cells, in 40C heat. Unlike the occasional white detainee, Aborigines were restrained with iron neck chains as well as leg chains. Nearly all the crimes resulted from Aborigines following their natural hunting instincts and taking cattle or sheep. The youngest prisoners were 14. (Less has changed than we might hope: the vast majority of prisoners in the regional jail today are Aborigines, most detained for offences such as driving without insurance.)

Although it is possible to stay in the Pilbara in some luxury, the pound's weakness against the Australian dollar coupled with the mining boom makes it expensive for Brits. (Refuse collectors earn the equivalent of £75,000 a year; a schooner of beer costs £7.)

Most visitors come during the dry winter months (May to September) when daytime temperatures are a blissful 25-30C and camping is an attractive and affordable option. The best accommodation I find near the rock art is Samson Beach Chalets, lovely self-catering accommodation close to a pleasant beach and the excellent Tata's restaurant. The Karratha International hotel has pricey motel-style rooms slightly mitigated by decent pizzas by the pool at weekends.

The Pilbara is full of fascinating insights into the industrial heartbeat of Australia but there is more orthodox relaxation available too. The starkly beautiful interior is far from dominated by the mines and there is excellent walking in the gorges and hidden pools of the Millstream Chichester and Karijini national parks.

After admiring the art of the Burrup peninsula, I take a boat trip around the East Intercourse island, which serves up more rock art combined with some glorious swimming in the ocean (, while enormous tankers ply the turquoise waters. Humpback whales pass through here from March to May and from September to November.

Most uplifting, however, is a trip to the old customs house in Roebourne, where the Yinjaa-Barni group of local artists are hard at work. Visitors can buy art in the front room or wander round the back, where I found Allery Sandy, a gentle, charismatic woman, painting with her daughters and extended family.

The group began painting five years ago, after they had completed a sewing course. "We started rough. We really had to dig deep to find out where we were," says Sandy.

For 10 years, her husband, who has now passed away, needed dialysis in Perth, and she would fly with him over the red landscape. The aerial views inspired her dot paintings. "Every time I flew, I thought, gee, if I ever get my hands on a canvas, I know what to do," she says. "Painting helps us meditate and takes the stress off. It's something that we are really enjoying. I couldn't stay at home all day."

Sandy's daughters, Melissa and Justina, are also painting with acrylics in the studio, as small children dash among their legs. The group won six art prizes within three months of setting up and their work is now exhibited in galleries in Sydney and Perth. A large work such as Sandy's latest, Pilbara Flats, will sell for about £3,150. They have developed their own modern style, which conveys the distinctive stories of their own people. Critics can tell their work comes from the Pilbara and not from the better-known Kimberley region.

As we chat, Marlene Harold, a tiny, shy woman, scurries in to add to her painting. "We call her the grass lady," says Sandy. "Her work has sold like hot cakes." Harold is currently painting a bold, abstract work of grass-like strokes, inspired by a recent flourish of green in the desert; to gaze at it feels like you are lying in a grassy meadow looking at the brilliant blue sky.

The art they are producing is not simply depicting the landscape of the Pilbara; it is profoundly drawn from it and part of it. Admiring Sandy's work is a beautiful note to end a trip to unseen Australia, a tough, honest and welcoming land, sandwiched between a violent past that repeatedly unsettles you and a resource-hungry future, which may be even more challenging.

BHP bets on China's demand staying strong

By Matt Chambers

The Australian

4 October 2011

BHP Billiton is close to kicking off spending on its huge Port Hedland capacity expansion, as it bets China's steel mills will remain hungry enough to consume up to an extra 200 million tonnes of iron ore a year from BHP alone.

BHP iron ore president Ian Ashby said the Port Hedland outer-harbour plan, which will have a 4km jetty, berths and a shipping channel built, was about to shift into a higher gear.

"We are planning to approach the corporation (BHP) for some pre-sanction funding in the first part of calendar 2012 and hoping to approach the board for full sanction (of a first stage) towards the end of calendar 2012," Mr Ashby said.

There has been no evidence of BHP or Rio Tinto slowing their big iron ore growth plans, despite the global financial turmoil and concerns that iron ore prices and demand could slip.

With BHP and Rio producing some of the world's lowest-cost iron ore from Western Australia's Pilbara region, price and demand falls are likely to shut down higher-cost mines, leaving room for expanded output from BHP and Rio.

BHP has been forced to build the outer harbour project after failing to merge its Pilbara operations with those of Rio last year, which would have given it access to Rio's Cape Lambert ports.

The Port Hedland outer harbour would expand BHP's iron ore production from 240 million tonnes a year after the $US8.4bn ($8.7bn) Pilbara expansion is finished, to 350 million tonnes by 2020 and, beyond that, up to 450 million tonnes a year.

Analysts estimate the harbour, mines and rail needed to boost production would cost about $US200 a tonne of capacity.

This would mean that to get to 450 million tonnes would cost more than $US40bn.

Mr Ashby said BHP was confident that Chinese demand would remain strong, but that growing global supply would eventually bring down prices from present near-record levels of $US180 a tonne.

But a rapid jump in global production was unlikely, based on more than half the supply flagged three years ago to be on market by this year still not having been realised. "We don't believe there's going to be a step-change in supply occurring over the short term," Mr Ashby said.

"Despite the challenges, the market will, over the long term, produce a supply response and prices will fall."

BHP continues to be bullish on China and its ability to sustain demand amid growing concerns about the US and Europe.

"We have a continuing positive view around the modernisation process that's happening in China," Mr Ashby said.

"Perhaps the growth rates that we've seen over the last five years could reduce slightly: the 8 or 9 per cent GDP growth that we've become familiar with might clip down to 7 or 8 per cent."

BHP is predicting that China's steelmaking capacity will grow from about 700 million tonnes at present to 1.1 billion tonnes, which it believes will be enough to account for increased seaborne iron ore production.

Mr Ashby said BHP had now switched all its iron ore sales contracts from quarterly set to monthly set, based on the averages of index prices.

He said the company, which has in recent years spearheaded a move away from annually negotiated contracts, was unlikely to push for daily pricing.

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