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Race to protect Australia's rock art

15 Sep 2014
Bradshaw Foundation

An online article - Race to protect Australia's rock art - by Oliver Milman on reports from Laura, Cape York, Australia.

The Quinkan galleries are among the largest collection of rock art in the world, stretching over 230,000 hectares of sandstone, dating back at least 30,000 years

Half the country's rock paintings - some dating back 30,000 years - could disappear within 50 years, experts warn. Oliver Milman meets the Indigenous rangers and researchers working to protect delicate sandstone from the triple threat of mining, graffiti and feral animals.

The Quinkan galleries are among the largest collection of rock art in the world, stretching over 230,000 hectares of sandstone. Dating back at least 30,000 years, the galleries take their name from the Quinkan spirits - comprising helpful protectors and mischief makers - of local lore.

Despite this heritage, the Laura region is a patchwork of mining exploration leases. Traditional owners fear any nearby mining would destroy the sandstone galleries and are pushing for suitable measures to get the area properly protected.

Is there a threat? Professor Paul Taçon, Chair in Rock Art Research, PERAHU at Griffith University believes so, warning that within 50 years half of Australia's rock art could disappear.

There are an estimated 100,000 rock art sites in Australia but there is no central register of the art and no strategy to preserve it. Worse, Tacon notes, there seems to be little interest in protect this ancient heritage. 'France and Spain spend vast amounts of money conserving their rock art, even China is spending millions and putting in a world heritage application for rock art that is 2,000 years old. In Australia there is almost no money there for that kind of work. I don?t know if we need to do an ice bucket challenge or what, but it's really difficult to get the funding to keep these areas for future generations.'

In Queensland, however, the Laura Indigenous rangers are working to overcome this inadequacy, driven by 'a visceral connection to heritage and to self.'

What is being done at government level? The Queensland government's new Cape York regional plan has divided the vast peninsula into areas open for development, such as mining and agriculture, and zones that are environmentally protected. The Laura area falls, despite previous assurances that locals say were given to them, into the former category. Moreover, the UNESCO world heritage listing of Cape York is not being prioritized, despite the efforts of campaigners such as Professor Paul Taçon.

Other areas under threat include Burrup peninsula in Western Australia, Wellington range in the Northern Territory, Chillagoe in Queensland and Blue Mountains in New South Wales, to name a few. It seems all too obvious that a national policy of preservation and protection for an irreplaceable artistic heritage is lacking.

To read more on Australian rock art:

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10 Sep 2014
10 Sep 2014
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