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History and Economy Pilbara

Aboriginal people have lived in the Pilbara for more than 30,000 years and the many different indigenous groups of the region call it Bilybarra, which means ‘dry country’. In 1818, Captain Philip Parker King arrived in the Dampier Archipelago, he was later followed by Francis Thomas Gregory who arrived in 1861 at Nickol Bay on the ‘Dolphin’. Francis Thomas Gregory named Hearson’s Cove, the Maitland and Fortescue rivers, the Hamersley Ranges, and Mts Samson and Bruce.

Today the major towns of the Pilbara are Karratha, Roebourne, Onlsow, Port Hedland, South Hedland, Newman and Tom Price. The main economic activities of the region include mining, petroleum, pastoralism and tourism.

Mining and petroleum industries largely dominate the economic activity of the Pilbara. Some of the most significant mineral resources being mined in this region are iron ore, salt, molybdenum, manganese, gold, copper, tantalite, silver, lead and zinc.


Peedamulla. Photo taken by Teressa Belcher

A significant portion of the Pilbara is under mining tenement although only a small portion is directly subjected to exploration and mining activities. Currently more than 95% of Australia’s iron ore exports come from the Pilbara.

The Pilbara has the largest solar salt fields in Australia and the second largest in the world. As well this subregion has a large proportion of Australia’s hydrocarbon reserves making it the major gas-processing hub of the nation. 

The Pilbara also produces oil and gas products such as fertiliser and industrial products such as those from the world’s largest ammonia plant, opened on the Burrup Peninsula in April 2006.

The majority of the subregion (58%) is under pastoral leasehold tenure, with leases being between 200,000 and 300,000 hectares, although smaller on the more productive coastal areas. Before the economy boom in the 1960s, pastoralism was the main industry in the Pilbara, this was until settlers realised that the environmental conditions of the region were generally unfavourable for crops.

The Pilbara is valued by the tourists for the variety of recreational experiences, wilderness experiences and scenic views it provides. Key draw cards are the region’s natural assets e.g. Karijini and Millstream-Chichester National Parks.