Six Tiwi elders have submitted an urgent application to Minister Tanya Plibersek to make a declaration to protect sacred Tiwi cultural heritage, which they say is at immediate risk of desecration from the construction of a pipeline for Santos’s Barossa Gas Project.  

Santos has announced that it intends to begin work on the pipeline as soon as this Wednesday, despite being aware of Tiwi concerns that it will traverse an area of significant underwater cultural heritage.  

The application to Minister Tanya Plibersek under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection (ATSIHP) Act requests the Minister to make a special declaration to prevent serious and immediate harm to significant underwater cultural sites in the Timor Sea, where Santos is intending to develop the Barossa Gas Project. 

Over the last few months, Tiwi people have made their concerns known to Santos as part of a separate process overseen by the offshore regulator NOPSEMA, which, in January 2023, required work on the pipeline to stop until Santos had completed an underwater cultural heritage assessment. 

Last week, Tiwi people learned that Santos was preparing to commence works on the pipeline. The pipeline route will cross an area of the sea floor where Tiwi people say it will cause significant harm to ancient Tiwi burial grounds, songlines and other sacred ancestral sites.  

Tiwi people have now appealed to Minister Plibersek to exercise her powers to grant urgent protection over the area. Tiwi people have taken this step to try to ensure that their sacred areas, and the spiritual beliefs and ways of life associated with them, are protected. 

If the Minister makes a declaration under the ATSIHP Act, Santos would be prevented from taking any steps that would contravene that declaration. 

Senior Jikilaruwu elder Molly Munkara said:  

I speak for this Sea Country. I hold the stories of my people. They have been passed down from our ancestors since time began and were told to me by my great grandparents. The seabed is part of the Country that I must speak for and protect. If Santos puts that pipeline where it has said, it will destroy our sacred sites and our ancient burial grounds. This will impact our spirituality and destroy our health, our home and our lives. 

Alina Leikin, Special Counsel, Environmental Defenders Office said: 

Tiwi elders have sought emergency protection for an area that they consider holds cultural significance and which they fear is under serious and immediate threat. They have asked the Minister to make a special declaration under cultural heritage laws, to protect their cultural heritage.  This is a step our clients take very seriously, but given the importance of the cultural heritage at risk, it is a step they feel they must take to protect and preserve their precious cultural heritage.  

Photo Credit: Tymunna Clements