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On the Tiwi Islands, people traditionally bury their dead under carved and painted poles called Pukumani.
Standing on an isolated beach looking into the aquamarine Arafura Sea, Tiwi elders Marie Francis Tipiloura, Ancilla Kurrupuwu and Molly Munkara sung out to their ancestors on land and in the ocean.
This ritual, they explained, protects the living when they pass through.
“We believe in our Tiwi spirituality,” Ms Munkara told ABC News.
Now these Tiwi elders fear the gas company Santos is about to put a pipeline through sacred sites, including several Pukumani.
It is believed these sites are not on land, but submerged in waters to the west of the Tiwi Islands.
“It is not good what is happening,” Ms Francis Tipiloura told ABC News.
“It hurts us and our beliefs.”
Santos, however, said there was “no specific Indigenous underwater cultural heritage places” along the pipeline’s route, and that it is going ahead with this infrastructure for its $5.7 billion Barossa gas project in the Timor Sea.
Six Tiwi elders have now lodged an emergency appeal to stop the pipeline with the federal government through the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO).
Aerial view of Cape Fourcroy on Bathurst Island, close to where the Tiwi elders say there could be burial sites.
How could there be burial grounds underwater?
Indigenous Australians have occupied mainland Australia for at least 65,000 years. The continent back then was far bigger because sea levels were much lower.
They plunged to their lowest point around 20,000 years ago, explains Flinders University maritime archaeologist Jonathan Benjamin.
Then, coastal waters were around 130 metres lower than today, he adds, with Australia being 25 to 30 per cent larger.
This means Tasmania and Victoria were connected by a land bridge.
And in the north of Australia, the Tiwis were once not distinct islands at all. They were connected to the mainland.
Then the Ice Age ended, massive glaciers melted, and Australia’s coastlines quickly rose to what we see today.
For Professor Benjamin, the excitement lies in finding archaeological proof that people once lived and died in these underwater places.
Just a few years ago, he achieved this with an international team led by Flinders University in tandem with Murujuga traditional owners in Western Australia.
As senior elders celebrated on boats, divers pulled stone artefacts from seabeds in the Pilbara that were last exposed to land at least 9,000 years ago.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was such a delight,” Professor Benjamin said.
“You’d be surprised how many archaeological sites do survive inundation and then are well preserved for thousands of years.
“There are almost certainly thousands, if not tens of thousands, of archaeological sites preserved around Australia’s coasts.”
At least 21 First Nations groups including the Tiwi people have oral histories indicating they witnessed sea level rise at the end of the Ice Age, research shows.
What does this mean for a gas pipeline?
The multi-billion-dollar plan to drill for gas 300km north-west of Darwin in the Northern Territory was first flagged last decade.
The offshore oil and gas regulator NOPSEMA gave Santos environmental approval for its drilling sites above the Tiwi Islands last year.
This drilling approval was then challenged by Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa with support from the EDO.
The Munupi clan leader won this David vs Goliath case, with the full Federal Court finding both Santos and NOPSEMA hadn’t consulted with traditional owners.
This means Santos is still waiting on fresh environmental approval for its drilling in the Timor Sea, with a decision expected this year.
Santos planned to pipe gas from the offshore Barossa field past the Tiwi Islands to Darwin for export. Supplied: ConocoPhillips
The company was hit by another roadblock in January when NOPSEMA put a halt on its pipeline’s approval, and told Santos to do an underwater cultural heritage assessment.
The work done for Santos on this was just made public.
The company’s archaeological survey found 60 features in the pipeline’s route with “high archaeological potential”, including dunes and former shorelines.
The report by Wessex Archaeology also noted conditions could be good enough for the preservation of shell middens, shell mounds and – importantly for the Pukumani – “ancestral remains”.
“It is possible that there is potential for significant archaeological and palaeoenvironmental remains to survive within the deposits identified,” the Wessex report concluded.
“Any surviving archaeological material within the submerged palaeolandscape would be of national and international significance.”
Santos says its anthropologist has got it right
Santos also commissioned an anthropologist, who spoke to 170 people on the Tiwi Islands over many months.
Dr Brendan Corrigan, who used to work for the Northern Land Council, wrote in his report for Santos that many people told his team there was a spirit being that travelled through the waters that could be disturbed by the pipeline.
Molly Munkara sings out to Pukumani when she drives past them. ABC News: Michael Franchi
Standing on the remote beach, Tiwi elder Molly Munkara said one of the stories the elders have passed on is about a crocodile man.
“He is selfish and didn’t want to share the land,” she said.
Dr Corrigan said some Tiwi people told him they could “ameliorate” the disturbance to spirits in the water by introducing the pipeline to the “rainbow serpent”.
He ultimately concluded there were “no specific ‘underwater cultural heritage places’ along the pipeline route”.
Dr Corrigan did note many people voiced concerns about an oil spill on marine life and sacred sites outside the pipeline, but that this wasn’t in his report’s scope.
The “underwater Kakadu” as it once would have appeared before sea levels rose, as recreated by artificial intelligence. Supplied: Flinders University/Mick O’Leary
The Santos-commissioned work is being challenged by reports done for a group of Tiwi people, represented by the same lawyers that stopped its drilling last year.
This team’s marine geoscientist, Mick O’Leary, describes the underwater landscape in the pipeline’s path as once very similar to “Arnhem Land or Kakadu”.
“It would have had deep wide gorges, huge river channels, big deep lakes, and waterfall cascades,” the University of Western Australia associate professor said.
He told ABC News that he carried out cultural mapping workshops with “senior elders and knowledge holders”.
He was able to get specific by working with them on their oral histories about locations and routes, which many First Nations groups still have today.
“I am constantly amazed by the stories I hear about place and location,” he said.
When it comes to the Pukumani, Associate Professor O’Leary says he heard “three different narratives of ancient burial grounds submerged on sea country”.
He mapped this against formations in the “underwater Kakadu”. The result was a map showing two “probable” burial sites right near the Santos pipeline route.
“We have no direct evidence of archaeological material or human remains,” he said.
“But the reason we haven’t is because we haven’t looked yet.”
ABC News tried to contact Dr Corrigan for further comment. His final report for Santos disputes Dr O’Leary’s finding about the burial grounds.
Will a pipeline damage anything that could be there?
According to the Wessex report, Santos said the pipeline was 65 centimetres in diameter and its installation won’t “actively remove sediment or material”.
Santos has declined an interview, but described their reports as “independent” and “extensive” work by highly credible people and organisations.
It reaffirmed there is no cultural sites near the pipeline, and that when it installs it, it will have “Tiwi cultural heritage observers on board construction vessels”.
“There is no risk of desecration of any underwater cultural heritage from the construction of the Barossa pipeline,” a spokesperson said.
It now appears to have the go ahead, after NOPSEMA said it has satisfied their initial direction. The statutory body declined an interview.
This week, after Santos told the stock market the pipeline was going ahead, the EDO lodged an emergency application to the federal environment minister.
This was made on behalf of six Tiwi elders to “protect sacred Tiwi cultural heritage” under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection.
The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, and the resources minister, Madeline King, both declined interviews.
Every second day that Santos is delayed on its project, it is paying $1 million to keep a massive drilling rig floating unused off the coast.
Santos’ recent market update listed the Barossa project as 66 per cent complete. It has started to offer employment opportunities for offshore work from Darwin.
Yet, analysts say its target of full production by 2025 is looking increasingly unrealistic.
The offshore oil and gas lobby group Energy Producers is agitating about delays.
“The offshore environmental regulation system is broken because an approval no longer means an approval,” chief executive Samantha McCulloch said.
“Companies, which consider underwater cultural heritage and consult with stakeholders in good faith under the current system, are watching approvals granted by the national regulator be overturned in court.”
What could happen next for the Tiwi site?
Tiwi elders are working with lawyers and activists to stop the pipeline. ABC News: Michael Franchi
Whether damage could occur or not, another Tiwi person, Jikilaruwu leader Simon Munkara, told ABC News the “water is special”.
“Hopefully we make a stop to this,” he said.
“We are not happy with the pipeline going down there. It is sort of disrespecting heritage and ancestors.”
In a statement, the land council representing the Tiwi Islands acknowledged concerns from some of its people about the Barossa gas project.
It said it looks forward to engaging with Santos in a “respectful, sympathetic and culturally appropriate manner”.
“The seas off our islands have always been, and remain, of great cultural and economic significance to our people,” Tiwi Land Council chair Gibson Farmer Illortaminni said.
“Tiwi concerns for this environment when faced with major projects are only natural.”
As Santos battles to get its beleaguered project going, the recognition of underwater cultural heritage by offshore developers is only growing.
Down in Victoria, there are big plans for offshore wind farms.
And the company that is proposing to put a transmission cable between Tasmania and Victoria is working with First Nations people on underwater heritage too.
Marinus Link is being helped in its assessment by Dr O’Leary.
The marine geologist also just did work for gas company Woodside over concerns its Scarborough project would damage the stone artefacts near Murujuga.
He was part of the team that helped uncover them, and like many in this fast moving space, he hope artefacts keep being uncovered and protected.
“What we have on the continental shelves of Australia is a lost archive of the first 50,000 years of occupation of Australia,” he said.
He is also worried there are not enough protections, as is Professor Benjamin at Flinders University.
Under Australia’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Act, shipwrecks and submarines older than 75 years are granted automatic protection in Commonwealth waters.
However, cultural sites are subject to ministerial discretion and require physical proof.
This means a Japanese submarine that sunk during World War II right near the Santos pipeline route currently has better protections under this law than the Tiwi people’s “underwater Kakadu”.
Dr O’Leary hopes they can explore this underwater landscape. To do this, they’d need to send remotely operated vehicles to the seabed.
“Our understanding is the burial grounds identified by the elders are in 40 to 50 metres of water and were inundated around 15,000 to 14,000 years ago,” he said.
“It’s a challenge to actually explore at those depths.”
Six Tiwi elders are appealing to the federal environment minister to halt the pipeline. ABC News: Michael Franchi
Even if tangible proof is never uncovered, the Tiwi elders who are worried about the Santos project will continue to sing to their ancestors in the Pukumani.
“We care because it’s part of our culture,” Molly Munkara said.
“It is our beliefs. And how we connect to the sea.”