The Kimberley: Western Australian Aborigines Split Over Gas Plant

PHOTO The Kimberley is shown from above.ABC News
The Kimberley is shown from above.

It's hard to believe a place like this still exists on the planet.

The Kimberley, in northwestern Australia, is like the Amazon you've never heard of. It's a massive stretch of pristine wilderness the size of California, largely untouched since the Earth was formed.

It has rainforests, towering desert rock formations and miles of unspoiled Indian Ocean beaches.

It has crocodiles, whales who come here to spawn, dugongs (sometimes called "cows of the sea"), and thousands of other plant and animal species. Many of them are rare and endangered.

The Kimberley is also home to aborigines who may make up the oldest continuous civilization on Earth, dating back some 16,000 years.

The Most Beautiful Place on EarthPlay
The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

A recent "Nightline" visit to the Kimberley began with a chopper ride to pick up an aboriginal man named Alfie Oombaguy. He took us to an isolated beach where, in preparation for what we were about to see, he had us paint ourselves with rock dust. Then we bathed in smoke.

Oombaguy explained that we needed to have the country on our skin and to feel it.

"You know, like you know mother," Oombaguy said. "Here our country, mother. ... We respect it. And people all around, they can hear us."

Oombaguy called out in his native tongue.

"I'm saying 'I come to country,'" he said. "You know, the ocean, water. I come back, return to you."

The aboriginal people here have seen themselves as both guardians and in a way the children of this fragile ecosystem for millennia.

After the ceremony, we headed to a remote island to see one of the hundreds of ancient, secret and sacred aboriginal burial caves that line the coast.

An Ancestral Burial Ground

As we hiked down rocks, Oombaguy talked to spirits all the way.

And then we found the bones.

These people, Oombaguy's, were thought to have been seven feet tall. They were tall enough to paint art on the roof of the cave, featuring images of "wanjinas," or spirits.

Oombaguy said the paintings were a form of prayer. The aborigines would paint a rain spirit, for example, as a way to pray for rain.

The Kimberley: Paradise Under Threat?

This place is now, many believe, under threat -- and could someday be threatened by the type of pollution we're seeing in the Gulf of Mexico right now.

An international consortium of huge oil companies, including Chevron, the American oil titan, wants to ramp up drilling for natural gas off the coast and to build a massive natural gas plant here.

"We remain committed to the responsible and economic development," Chevron told us in a statement.

But critics say this project would be the first step toward industrializing one of the last untouched parts of the planet.

"It'll devastate the area," said Robert Vaughn of the group Save the Kimberley. "It'll be like living in Beijing."

Peter Tucker, Vaughn's colleague, agreed. "There's nothing like it on this Earth, and it would be an absolute tragedy to see the Kimberley become an industrial precinct."

"There is nothing like this in the world. And we can't believe that the Australian government is preparing to do this. It's out of sight, out of mind. It's this chunk of country on top of Australia which hardly anyone visits and yet it is unique. It takes your soul away and holds it there and never lets it go, and we think it's worth fighting for.

The plant would be located on a stretch of land the premier of Western Australia has called "unremarkable."

"I don't know what he was thinking about," said Neil McKenzie, an aboriginal leader fighting the development. "To a lot of people this may be red sand, but to my people this is important land. It might be unremarkable to him, but to us it's one of the most beautiful you can be. ... My soul feels good here."

McKenzie said the area would be annihilated if the gas plant went forward.

"It'll be devastated, it'll be desecrated," he said.

But the proposed plant, in a place that's been called a veritable Noah's Ark of wildlife, has driven a massive rift among the aborigines. It's a fight over money. At the crux is the question: Is the timeworn tradition of treading lightly on the Earth here worth selling? It's a tough question for the people here who are desperately poor and have few other prospects of generating income.

The government and the corporations are offering the aborigines $2 billion. It's an offer that some in the community think should be accepted.

"We are at the negotiating table, reluctantly, but because we feel that there is a good thing for our people, for lifting them out of poverty and dysfunction," said one man, Wayne Barker. "[The] government has failed us for years. Here's an opportunity to do it for ourselves.

"It's a massive industrial complex. We understand that. We're at the table with a heavy heart."

History's Ghosts Loom Over Kimberley Debate

The debate is fraught with history. Since the founding of Australia, the aborigines have been violently repressed. In some cases aboriginal children were even stolen from their parents -- to be "civilized." Until 1967, the aborigines had the legal status of plants or animals. To this day, they have extraordinarily high rates of illiteracy and incarceration. Average life expectancy is 50, in no small part because of alcohol.

We encountered groups of aborigine descendants hanging around in a public park near the liquor store.

We asked one of the men, Steve Martin, where he lived.

"Under the stars, bro," Martin said. "Star Hotel."

"We stay up all night and drink till daybreak. If you can stand it," he said. "Yeah, well, I started drinking early this morning.

"You only live once, bro. And you die once, so who gives a hell. I don't give a stuff if I die now. I'm here to enjoy myself."

We asked Wayne Barker what lessons he draws from the experiences of the Native Americans.

"Don't trust anyone," he said. "There's an old expression: 'Trust, but tie up your camel.' Look, we're talking to four of the biggest multinational corporations in the world. They've been able to get this big because they're business people. In that context, life for indigenous people is quite under threat. As we learn, we are staying firm on our principals."

The Kimberley: Animosity Within Families

Neil McKenzie said the energy consortium's motivation was simple.

"Money, only one thing," he said. "It could be more than a mess. The people who will get their hands on the money will use it for their own benefit. ... It has created a lot of anger and animosity."

McKenzie said the tension had spread to his own family.

"There's a lot of people in my family that I can't look in the eye today because I feel threatened," he said. "We are not happy with each other anymore.

"We've discussed this many times over coffee and beers. It's a hot topic in this nation. What is the answer? There is no single answer, but it's definitely not handing them truckloads of money and saying 'Here you go, build a school, build a hospital.' This nation has to have a good look at itself and look deep into its soul and say, 'Where are we going with our traditional wonders?' I'm embarrassed sometimes to be an Australian. In fact sometimes I'm disgusted to be an Australian, given the way we treat our traditional wonders.

"Their argument is we're doing this with a heavy heart. We're doing this because the government has failed us, and this is our way to get enough money to take care of ourselves. But don't you think that's wrong? ...Should it be passed on to private enterprise to look after a huge social problem? Isn't that the role of government, isn't that why we vote governments in? ... It's time for change."

The stakes couldn't be higher: the future of the Kimberley and of an ancient, embattled culture.

"You can see the country now," said Oombaguy. "Nobody's here. ... All the people who used to live along the coast. We're just losing it. Losing it.