FOI documents show ministers were told of risks to Aboriginal cultural sites at Middle Arm precinct near Darwin: ABC

By Jano Gibson


Members of the Larrakia community are concerned about the potential impacts of the project to sacred sites. 

On Larrakia country, where Darwin and its surrounds now stand, remnants of Aboriginal rock art are a rarity.

But on the Middle Arm peninsula, about 13 kilometres across the city’s harbour, the region’s only known petroglyphs, or rock carvings, remain intact.

“You hear stories from elders who speak about Larrakia rock art in various other parts of the greater Darwin region that were destroyed as the city developed over many, many decades,” Larrakia-Wulna man Nigel Browne said.

“Having so few examples of this type of record of Larrakia art still out in the areas like Middle Arm, they need to be protected at all costs.”

Mr Browne is the head of the Larrakia Development Corporation, which has worked with companies including Inpex and ConocoPhillips to create economic opportunities for Larrakia people.

But like several other senior members of the Larrakia community, he has concerns about the future of Middle Arm, where shell middens and sacred sites have been recorded.

Key points:

  • The federal government has committed $1.5 billion towards the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct
  • The 1,500-hectare site will cater for industries including petrochemicals, renewable hydrogen and critical minerals
  • A cultural survey of the area has been commissioned by the NT government, but traditional owners are concerned about the impact on cultural sites
A man with a beard and wearing a black polo shirt

Nigel Browne says the rock carvings must be protected.

“Middle Arm is one of the most important parts of the harbour for us in terms of the history of the area, particularly in use for Larrakia people and where we lived, where we hunted,” Mr Browne said.

The NT government is currently seeking environmental approval to transform part of the peninsula into a 1,500-hectare industrial hub known as the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct.

According to the government’s application for environmental approval, the precinct will cater for a range of industries, including petrochemicals, renewable hydrogen and minerals processing.

“As much as governments and industry are looking to Middle Arm as one of the future mainstays of industry in the [Northern Territory], there is still a significant amount of Larrakia history [there],” Mr Browne said.

“And we don’t want to lose that for our future generations.”

Email shows Larrakia concerns prior to funding commitment

The project received a $1.5 billion funding commitment from the federal government in last year’s October budget, several months after Labor flagged its intention to match the former Coalition government’s support for the project.

But an email released under Freedom of Information laws shows territory and federal ministers were notified of Larrakia concerns prior to the funding being finalised late last year.

Sent in August 2022, the correspondence was directed to the NT Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Chansey Paech, and copied to federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney and Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, among others.

“I would like to urgently request a meeting with you to discuss concerns that the Larrakia people have in regard to the Inappropriate and Unsustainable development of Middle Arm and the subsequent large scale impact this will have on our Larrakia Sacred Sites, Heritage/Environment and our traditional food sources,” the email stated.

The name of the author was redacted from the FOI documents, and Mr Browne said he was not involved.

But the person who sent the email suggested Mr Paech, who is of Arrente, Arabana and Gurrindji decent, would understand the potential risks to cultural sites.

Chansey Paech leans against the ledge of parliament house and looks at the camera.

Chansey Paech was sent an email regarding potential impacts of the project on sacred sites. 

“As an Aboriginal man representing the seat of Gwoja, you surely must appreciate the devastating and desecration, that this type of a major project will have on Larrakia Sacred Sites/Heritage/Environment and our continuing physical and spiritual relationship to our Traditional Lands.”

The FOI documents show Ms Burney replied two months later to say the Australian Government would work in partnership with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance.

“Please be assured the Australian Government is committed to the preservation of First Nations’ sacred sites,” she said.

Traditional owners seek control of cultural assessment

As part of the environmental assessment process for the Middle Arm precinct, the NT government commissioned a private consultant to conduct a cultural heritage survey of the area.

An aerial photo of Darwin Harbour, April 2021.

The government commissioned a cultural heritage survey of the Middle Arm area.

“The Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics who heads the projects, is committed to working closely with the Larrakia community,” Planning Minister Eva Lawler said.

“This includes through a proposed cultural consultative committee and cultural heritage working group to seek knowledge and understanding of the cultural and social values associated with the Middle Arm peninsula and Darwin Harbour more broadly, as well as economic opportunities associated with the precinct.

“Engagement with Larrakia organisations is ongoing and it is envisaged the cultural heritage working group will provide on-country consideration of the cultural and heritage values at Middle Arm.”

But Mr Browne said the government’s engagement with the Larrakia community had been inadequate.

While the Middle Arm precinct had been heavily promoted by the NT government from late 2020, he said his organisation did not receive a formal request to participate in the proposed consultative committee until July 2022.

“The terms of reference for the committee, the membership for the committee, none of it is settled,” he said.

Mr Browne said that rather than engaging private consultants, the government must fund a Larrakia-controlled and commissioned cultural study of the area.

“No amount of desktop analysis or engagement by the government of independent consultants is going to alleviate the concerns that Larrakia have in relation to wanting to make sure that that area, and indeed the sensitive areas around Middle Arm, are protected,” he said.

Another Larrakia traditional owner, Helen Secretary, also voiced concerns about the process and potential impact of the project.

“My concern is the land and the sea,” said Ms Secretary, who runs the Gwalwa Daraniki Association that supports two Aboriginal communities in Darwin.

“We read about [the Middle Arm precinct] but there’s never been any consultation.

“The only notification I’ve received is by email, I’ve never spoken to anyone.”

A serious-looking woman standing on the bank of a creek behind her and staring up into the sun.

Helen Secretary says she has never been spoken to about the Middle Arm project.

In addition to approval from the NT Environment Protection Authority, the project will need the support of the federal Environment Minister, who is responsible for First Nations cultural heritage.

“The Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct is only in its very early stages,” a spokesperson for Ms Plibersek said.

“The Minister’s expectation is that First Nations will play a key role including over any matters of cultural heritage.”

The ABC has previously revealed the original business case for the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct described it as a “new gas demand centre”, prompting critics to question its environmental merits.

The precinct is set to come under scrutiny after a Senate inquiry into the impacts of developing a fracking industry in the Beetaloo basin last month recommended a separate inquiry into Middle Arm.

NT-based Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians, Malarndirri McCarthy, who is a member of the committee, said consultation was vital for large-scale projects in the NT.

“This is absolutely critical in ensuring transparency, scrutiny and rigour over the decisions and processes of this project, including the concerns of Larrakia traditional owners and indeed all Territorians.”

Construction of the Middle Arm precinct is expected to begin in 2026, if environmental approvals are granted.