An aerial photo of the cliff line at James Price Point 60 km north of Broome, the site of a proposed LNG hub. Photo: Glenn Campbell GMC
If you travel to the far north-west of Australia, you’ll find a town called Broome waving casually at Asia atop blushing red cliffs kissed by turquoise sea. You’ll see a town inhabited by powdery people. They have red dirt stuck in the cracks of their feet and eyes that crease like dry river beds. The first thing you’ll notice is that many of these people are in love with the land.
Not love in that cliched "nature lover" kind of way. I mean love in the sense of something torrid, exquisitely painful, and strewn with obstacles. A love that makes people surrender the self for a higher good. Love lies behind one of Australia’s most extraordinary local battles against global resource companies. It’s a battle for the soul of Broome fought on the beaches of James Price Point.
In 2011, an agreement was signed for the development of a gas hub at James Price Point, just north of Broome. This was thanks, in part, to a rapacious liberal WA government led by Colin Barnett (who with his sneering curled lips and skin like raw sausage is a caricature of a conservative politician).
Traditional owners (from left) Neil McKenzie, Albert Wiggan and Joseph Roe stand defiant against police sent from Perth to Broome to arrest protesters. Photo: Julia Rau
The local native title claimants voted in favour of a benefits agreement worth $1.5 billion with 164 "for" votes and 104 "against". With its promise of funding for education, housing, infrastructure and training, I can understand why certain indigenous people would vote in favour of the development. It’s a product of structural racism. What I find extraordinary, however, is that a significant 40 per cent of mostly Goolarabooloo people rejected the offer. And to this day, they and the majority of people in Broome continue to protest the development.
It made me wonder how a stretch of beach could be so valuable. What do the people of Broome, both indigenous and non-indigenous, experience when they go to James Price Point? What do they see that resource companies don’t? And what motivates them to protect it?
I asked Teresa Roe, a Goolarabooloo elder, what James Price Point meant to her. "When I go there my whole heart opens," she said. "I see my parents who are buried there walking, walking, walking on the sands. And I cry."
Would you want a gas company digging up the graves of your parents? She told me that James Price Point is a source of bush food and a part of their song cycle; a dynamic law governing relations between people, and people and land that has survived colonisation. Speaking in non-native English, Teresa was eloquent in describing her connection to country.
Where Teresa was lucid, the people of Broome simply blubbered. Eyes were brimful or splashing with tears, lips quavered and deep intakes of breath were drawn. Unlike Teresa, the non-Indigenous inhabitants I interviewed lacked a vocabulary to describe their connection to land. Why? Because Western civilisation has done a fantastic job of separating us from nature. We have no language to describe the transcendental forces that our connection to earth can summon, and so we turn to a culturally validated form of spiritual connection. We turn to the language of love.
The people of Broome cry because words fail. They weep in the same way as lovers weep when asked to describe their emotions at the prospect of separation. "Words cannot contain my feelings" we say. And so the body steps in. Tears speak feelings that words diminish.
And yet the task of love is to attempt description. Louise, a local campaigner, asked me to forgive her for her scattered thoughts, as she looked away and then lovingly described the body of her amour. "When I think of James Price Point" she said, "I can smell the tea tree, feel the shade of the remnant rainforest. I can taste the fish. I could dream it from wherever I was in the world. I knew I was safe there." She told me of the contours of dinosaur footprints etched in the rocks and wept at the thought that Woodside could take this from her. Love is always set ablaze by impending loss.
Allie, a middle-aged, softly spoken, small-business owner, told me that before becoming involved in the campaign to save James Price Point she had never even received a speeding ticket. She was embarrassingly law-abiding. Yet like any committed lover, there were no limits to what she would do to defend her love-object. Romance takes us outside the realm of the ordinary. It releases us from old selves and inspires us to commit extraordinary acts. Allie’s love of country saw her refusing to move from the road leading to James Price Point. She was bundled into the back of a paddy wagon by one of a hundred riot policeman who had been flown in from Perth to quash a peaceful protest. In the frame of Allie’s life, this is a moment that can only be made explicable through the force of land and love.
All too often, white/western society relegates spiritual connections to country to other cultures. Most westerners are happy to accept the power that oceans, beaches, bushland, deserts and rainforests can wield over non-western society. But describing our own connections to land can be perilously hippy. While this relationship obviously differs according to culture, the campaign in Broome shows how our bond with the earth cuts across ethnicity. It’s a teary, passionate love affair that is worth breaking all the rules to defend.