Broome: Dubai Down Under

The far north-west of Australia is a sparsely populated oasis where ancient Aboriginal beliefs still prevail. The trouble is, there's gas there – and developers who want to turn it into a new Emirate. Kathy Marks reports from Broome

The small, remote town of Broome in Australia's far north-west is known for its pearl diving history, unique ethnic mix and stunning sunsets over the Indian Ocean. But with the country's largest gas refinery set to be built on its doorstep, townsfolk fear a revenue-hungry state government is planning to turn Broome into the next Dubai.

The proposed plant – which would process gas from a massive offshore field – has horrified environmentalists, and sown bitter divisions among indigenous locals. While traditional owners have agreed to give up their land in exchange for an A$1.3bn (£814m) package offered by Australia's biggest oil and gas company, Woodside Petroleum, the deal was only struck after they were threatened with compulsory acquisition by the Western Australian government.

A vocal minority have denounced the A$30bn refinery, which they say will rupture their "songlines" – the tracks followed by their ancestors during the "Dreamtime" creation era – as well as destroying important cultural and archaeological sites. So inflamed are passions that supporters of the project have been branded "toxic on the outside, white on the inside and full of the milk of white man's money" in an anonymous newsletter circulating in Broome.

The designated location for the plant – and an enormous new port complex – is James Price Point, 30 miles north of Broome, on a stretch of coastline so pristine that a 2008 scientific paper ranked it alongside the Arctic and Antarctica in terms of minimal human impact. The Point also shelters 130 million-year-old dinosaur footprints, embedded in rocks near the shoreline, and is a place where humpback whales calve and dolphins, turtles and dugong (native sea cows) feed.

"It's like putting a coal terminal on the Great Barrier Reef," says Martin Pritchard, executive director of the Environs Kimberley group. "They're turning a wilderness into an industrial zone. If this was happening on the [heavily populated] east coast, there would be such an outcry it would never be allowed to go ahead."

Locals are concerned the project could herald wide-scale industrialisation of the vast, largely untouched Kimberley region of which Broome is a main hub. Their anxiety has been fuelled by the state premier, Colin Barnett, who suggested the area could "learn something from" Dubai's success in attracting people to live in a harsh desert environment.

At James Price Point, which lies at the end of a corrugated dirt track, rust-red cliffs tumble down to a milk-white beach lapped by turquoise waters. "This is my country, this is paradise," declares Phillip Roe, one of the traditional owners opposed to the refinery, standing on a dune overlooking the Point. "Now it's going to be wrecked, and our songlines will be broken. The people who have sold out don't care about [Aboriginal] law and culture."

Out to sea, a drilling rig is already at work. The gas project will consume 20 square miles of seabed and 12 square miles of land. Mr Roe stoops down and picks up a sliver of flint from the sand. "An old spearhead. This area is all old campsites and middens."

At the turn-off to the Point, posters proclaim: "No Gas on the Kimberley Coast". Protesters have camped out here for months, obstructing Woodside workers and security staff. In July, a blockade was broken up by 80 riot police flown in from Perth, the state capital.

The plant will produce 50 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) a year, more than a facility in Qatar that claims to be the world's largest. If approved by the federal government – a decision is expected in the coming months – it will help Australia achieve its aim of becoming the biggest LNG exporter by 2020.

South of the Kimberley is the Pilbara region, heartland of the nation's mining industry and an object lesson in what many in the Kimberley wish to avoid. Multinational mining companies have taken over the Pilbara's towns; rents and wages have skyrocketed, motels are booked solid and the tourism industry struggles to survive. The coastline, far from being a wilderness, has the country's busiest ports.

Locals fear that Broome – home to 16,000 people, and a popular visitor destination with a leisurely pace and a laid-back vibe – could go the same way. They distrust Mr Barnett. "There's no mistaking what his intentions are for Broome, and it's not what the local population wants," says Kandy Curran, a long-time resident, and coordinator of a coastal management group.

Ms Curran adds: "It takes many years to create a harmonious town with a strong social fabric, but it doesn't take long to unravel it. This gas development will destroy our unique tourism brand and have a major impact on our town. Colin Barnett thinks he can force it on Broome; he thinks he'll get away with it because we're so remote." Ominously, Mr Barnett has predicted the Kimberley will underpin Western Australia's development over the next 50 years, just as the Pilbara has underpinned it since the 1960s. Rich reserves of copper, lead, nickel, zinc, bauxite and coal are thought to lie beneath the Kimberley's red dirt. Only five mines operate at present, but 700 applications for exploration licences were submitted last year.

The campaign against the gas plant is backed by a number of Australian celebrities, including the singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, who donated the royalties from a 2009 EP, Rob Hirst, the former Midnight Oil drummer, and the musician John Butler.

Ranged against them are respected Aboriginal leaders such as Nolan Hunter, chief executive of the Kimberley Land Council, which represents traditional owners. Mr Hunter believes that critics of the refinery, many of whom live in the cities, are ignoring the grim statistics – relating to housing, health, unemployment and youth suicide – that sum up life for Kimberley indigenous people.

"They've got their homes and their good jobs and everything they need for their creature comforts," he says. "They want this place to be pristine, even if the people here are living in poverty, so they can come in with their well-earned dollars and admire the pristine environment."

Mr Hunter, who has received hate mail, also condemns "the paternalistic attitude of some people who think Aboriginal people can't make decisions in their own right". Of the landowners' decision to renounce a long-standing claim over James Price Point, he says: "It was not made flippantly or recklessly. There was a three-year consultation process. They saw it as an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring about better outcomes for themselves."

The deal with Woodside, the biggest ever negotiated between a mining company and an Aboriginal group, would see jobs created, houses built and training programmes and health initiatives established. It has survived three Federal Court challenges by dissident landowners. A case brought by Mr Roe against the compulsory acquisition threat – which Mr Hunter admits "forced the hand" of those who voted in favour – has yet to be heard.

Mr Pritchard warns that if the refinery is built, some of the world's largest ships will visit the Kimberley to collect LNG and transport it to Asia. Instead of processing the gas near Broome, he suggests, Woodside should pipe it down to the Pilbara, where locals have said they would welcome a plant.

The federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, recently listed a chunk of the Kimberley on the National Heritage register, leaving out James Price Point apart from the dinosaur footprints. However, the listing will not prevent major industrial developments in the region. Mr Roe travels to the Point every day to protest. "We're not giving up," he says.

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