22 Aug 2023
Fears another Juukan Gorge disaster is on the horizon in outback Queensland.
In the rocky outcrops of remote far-western Queensland, there’s an ancient gorge that’s rarely visited.
Scattered with rock carvings and deep caves, Painted Gorge towers above deep red sand hills.
Traditional owners say old spirits live there.
Wangkamadla woman Avelina Tarrago’s ancestors have walked the arid plains of Pilungah Reserve on the Queensland-Northern Territory border for generations.
“Our connection to country is inherent, it’s part of our blood, it’s part of our identity,” Ms Tarrago said.
Patterns in the desert landscape of Pilungah in far-western Queensland can be seen from above. Supplied by Peter Wallis
The 233,000-hectare site near the Simpson Desert is renowned for its cultural significance.
It’s also rich in vast deposits of critical minerals, which mining companies are desperate to access.
In a bid to stop prospective mining projects, Wangkamadla traditional owners and site owner Bush Heritage Australia are lodging a special wildlife reserve application with the Queensland government for Pilungah Reserve and the nearby Ethabuka Reserve.
If successful, scores of mining permits across the land will be cancelled.
Wangkamadla woman Avelina Tarrago says the land is part of her identity. ABC Western Qld. Victoria Pengilley.
“It’s really important we can maintain and protect these pristine locations because they’re relatively untouched,” Ms Tarrago said.
“When things happen to our land, it’s almost as though it’s happening to us.”
‘We’ve seen the outrage’
Special wildlife status is the highest level of land protection. ABC Western Qld. Victoria Pengilley.
There are currently two exploration permits at Pilungah Reserve for rare-earth minerals like copper, lead, zinc and lithium, which are used for renewable energy projects.
There is an additional authority to prospect for petroleum, oil, coal seam gas or natural gas.
Another 17 applications are under review at Ethabuka Reserve.
Eight of the leases are under application by mining giant Rio Tinto.
The reserve has fossils dating back 500 million years. ABC Western Qld. Victoria Pengilley.
Experts have warned the world is facing a serious copper shortfall by 2030, which has cast doubts over the global push for green energy projects, many of which rely on the metal.
Ms Tarrago said if mining companies were to launch exploration on the reserves and bring in large machinery it could be disastrous.
“We’ve seen the outrage of what happened at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, so it would be similar, if not worse, in that situation for us,” she said.
But Queensland Resources Council chief executive Ian Macfarlane said mining companies had come a long way since the destruction of the Juukan Gorge in 2020.
Pilungah is an oasis for desert animals that retreat in the dry times. ABC Western Qld. Victoria Pengilley.
“Consultation with traditional owners is very thorough and detailed,” he said.
“I’d be confident that if there are areas of particular significance, those areas can be quarantined from any future mining development.”
He said mining companies and traditional owners could strike a balance between conservation and demand for rare-earth minerals.
The reserve is home to a vulnerable, mouse-like marsupial called a mulgara. ABC Western Qld. Victoria Pengilley.
“These minerals are so critically needed for the future of the emissions reduction program,” he said.
“There are plenty of examples where flora and fauna are protected while mining goes on.”
The ABC understands Wangkamadla people have been included in some discussions with Rio Tinto, whose application stretches across Painted Gorge.
But Ms Tarrago said traditional owners were largely consulted once application processes were well underway.
“We’re an afterthought,” she said.
“We’re never really asked for our opinion about what the impact is prior to applications going in.
“When country is not healthy by cutting it open … then we become sick as people as well.”