The Inpex Corp. gas exploration company is at the center of a dispute with Aboriginal Australians who say it is conducting a drilling program on their traditional land.

Tokyo-based Inpex has been investigating lucrative gas deposits off the coast of northwestern Australia’s Kimberly region and recently installed a floating rig at the uninhabited Maret Islands for geotechnical testing.

The company has applied to the West Australian government for permission to build a $10 billion onshore processing plant in the Maret Islands to produce liquefied natural gas, with liquefied petroleum gas and condensate byproducts, for export to Japan and other markets.

However, Inpex’s plans have been met with outrage from local Aboriginals who are calling for the company to stop drilling on their traditional land.

Aboriginals lived on the islands until around the 1940s and the area is culturally sacred, Kimberley Land Council Chairman Wayne Bergmann said recently.

The Maret Islands and surrounding sea areas are subject to a native title claim by the Uunguu people, lodged with the National Native Title Tribunal in 1995.

Several Aboriginal heritage sites registered by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs are located on the islands and the land council itself has identified more than 60 sites, including rock formations and burial grounds, Bergmann said.

The council received a letter from Inpex informing it of the start of its drilling program earlier this month, he said.

Bergmann and a traditional owner recently hired a plane and flew over the island, he said.

“We saw a rig drilling about 100 meters offshore. The traditional owner with us was very disturbed by what he saw.

“Aboriginals believe that ‘wanjina,’ a dreamtime figure, created these islands, the fish and the seas, so to see someone drilling into the reef without permission is extremely offensive.”

The land council and Inpex have been in discussions for more than 18 months but have so far failed to reach an agreement on the Maret Islands.

The traditional owners are willing to compromise, but if an agreement cannot be reached acknowledging their cultural sensitivities, the development will be opposed, with protests if necessary, Bergmann said.

Inpex could not be contacted by Kyodo News, but spokesman Sean Kildare told The Australian newspaper the company had government approval for its drilling program.

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