Australia's New Frontier

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Australia's New Frontier


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


ABOUT 100,000 people produce at least 90 per cent of Western Australia's export revenue from iron ore and petroleum products. The Pilbara region--in north-west Australia--is a very good example of why Australia remains economically the 'wonder downunder' (see my article 'The Australian Economy: The continuing "Wonder down under" in the Winter 2009 issue of Contemporary Review). Indeed, Australia's richest person and the world's richest woman--Gina Rinehart--resides in Perth, the capital of Western Australia (WA) and has a family fortune partly derived from mining. The Pilbara is also a recent example of the Australian resource stampede that has gone on for about 160 years and shows no sign of slowing down.

In 1986 I travelled to Karratha, 1500 kilometres north of Perth, which was then one of the main emerging pioneering locations in the Pilbara. I wrote an article for this journal on the region's evolving mineral and energy boom. (1) In June 2012 I was back in the Karratha for the Pilbara Pulse Economic Summit (2) and was able to see how the area was being transformed by the boom. In 1986 the pioneering young workers and their families lived in rugged makeshift accommodation, with few social networks: a town where the average age was 13 and there was no cemetery. Now Karratha is far more settled, including having its own cemetery; people are living there long enough to die there.

This article begins with an examination of the Pilbara region. It then looks at the pleasures and problems of mineral and energy development. It concludes with the ironical comment that although the region is very important for Australia's wealth, few Australians know much about it and yet this region is part of Australia's gateway into the twenty-first century Asian century.

The Pilbara Region

The Pilbara region is geographically about twice the size of the UK or about 80 per cent larger than California. It runs from the north-west coast east across to the Northern Territory border. 'Pilbara' is derived from the local Indigenous language meaning 'dry' and 'Karratha' is also from a local language meaning 'good country' or 'soft earth'.

Australia is the world's oldest, driest, flattest continent. WA is the oldest part of the world's oldest continent. Other continents benefit, so to speak, from volcanoes, earthquakes, glaciers and other natural disturbances that disrupt the earth's surface and renews it (which is ideal for generating soil for agricultural cultivation). Australia is the world's most geologically stable continent because it sits on its own single tectonic plate and so the surface has been less disturbed by geological activity than that of any other inhabited continent.

Australia's Indigenous Peoples are the world's oldest continuous civilization. (3) They arrived in northern Australia about 50,000-60,000 years ago. The Pilbara's Burrup Peninsula and Dampier Archipelago contain the richest body of rock art in the world. (4) There are an estimated one million images carved into the ancient rocks. By being carved into rocks, from about at least 20,000 years ago, they have survived a lot better than cave and rock paintings, which get eroded by the weather. (The risk to rock carvings tends to come from rising sea levels that submerge the rocks.) As archaeologists explore more of Australia's remote and isolated north, so they are finding more examples of ancient Indigenous art; the art is now among the world's oldest (and on a par with the more explored regions of France and Spain(5)).

Indigenous Peoples made a success of living on the world's most inhospitable continent. They lived lightly on the land and learnt how to make the most of the local environment. For example, this year I was taken around some of the rock carvings and my guide pointed out to me how we were also walking through an Indigenous 'fast food outlet' and pharmacy. The plants, which meant nothing to me, were food sources and some of them could be used for medicinal purposes.

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