consort.gif (5201 bytes)
July 15, 1999
Aborigines & Uranium

By Sam Parry

Kakadu National Park in Australia's remote Northern Territory is one of those wild areas that define the "down under" island continent to the world.

Each year, some quarter million tourists visit Kakadu National Park to view a landscape that blends a harsh landscape of red and brown desert rocks with lush green and blue wetlands, a terrain that many visitors view as almost other worldly.

The 3.2-million acre park -- twice the size of America's Yellowstone National Park -- is also home to a wide variety of Australia's distinctive plant and animal species: 900 plant species; 300 types of birds; 75 reptiles, including the giant saltwater crocodile; 50 native mammals; 30 amphibians; and a quarter of all Australia's freshwater fish.

Kakadu is sacred as well to the Mirrar Aboriginal clan, which traces its ancestors there back 40,000 to 60,000 years. Mirrar rock drawings depict life in the area from tens of thousands of years ago, images that are eagerly explored by today's tourists. Kakadu is one of only 20 sites around the world recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] for both its cultural and natural values.

But today, Kakadu is also a battleground between business interests that want to extract valuable uranium from the region and the Mirrar who see the land as theirs.

For two decades, the Australian government has allowed Energy Resources of Australia [ERA] to mine and mill uranium on land within Kakadu. The government now is pushing to open a second uranium mine next to the first, in an area called Jabiluka.

In July, delegates to UNESCO's Second Extraordinary Session of the World Heritage Committee considered whether to list Kakadu as an "in danger" world heritage site, a classification granted when sites are "threatened by serious and specific dangers" caused by "large-scale public or private projects" or other threats.

The meeting prompted an intense lobbying campaign by the Australian government which sold the project as environmentally and culturally sound. In the face of this effort, the UNESCO delegates decided on July 12 not to list Kakadu as an “in danger” site, a move that all but assures that the second mine at Jabiluka will go forward.

As modern environmental threats go, however, it is hard to imagine a more disruptive activity than uranium mining, a process that virtually guarantees some discharge of uranium waste. The waste remains hazardous for millennia, seeping gradually into the environment and endangering plant and animal life. The solid waste from uranium ore, called tailings, can remain radioactive for 250,000 years or more.

Since 1980, ERA, the third largest uranium producer in the world, has extracted 27 million tons of uranium ore from the Ranger mine on Mirrar land within Kakadu. The company has milled 16 million tons.

During that time, the Uranium Research Group of Australia, a private environmental organization, has reported 100 breaches of environmental requirements, including the release of waste into the surrounding environment.

Though the full impact of the radioactive waste cannot be assessed, the group has counted the deaths of at least 40 birds. The waters of nearby Magela Creek, which flows into the Magela flood plain home to immense flocks of birds, also show double the pre-mining levels of uranium.

In corporate documents and public statements, ERA has responded that the mining at Ranger has been conducted within normal safety levels. The Australian government has endorsed ERA’s activities at Ranger and despite international scrutiny has defended ERA’s plans to continue mining in Kakadu.

Weeks ago, both the government and ERA announced that they would proceed with the Jabiluka project even if UNESCO decided to pass the "in danger" resolution, a threat that in the end contributed to UNESCO’s decision against “in danger” listing.

In Australia, threats to the Aboriginal people and their land are by no means new.

When British Capt. James Cook set sail from New Zealand on March 31, 1770, he embarked on a journey that added Australia to the so-called "known world." But the "discovery" also inflicted widespread misery on the indigenous people, the Aborigines, who then numbered between 500,000 and one million.

Over the next 150 years, the British colonized Australia and used it as a place to exile convicted criminals. Meanwhile, the Aborigines suffered from European diseases and racial attacks, with their numbers declining about 90 percent to an estimated 60,000 in 1930.

The settlers were particularly impatient with the Aboriginal belief in so-called Dreamtime, creative sessions during which the Aboriginal ancestors supposedly made the world and everything in it. Dreamtime contributed to the mystical beliefs common among the Aborigines, but it added to the European impression that the Aborigines were a primitive race.

As the Europeans expanded their settlements, they often resorted to violence -- and massacres -- to eliminate perceived threats from the Aborigines. The Australian government usually tolerated the attacks and sometimes encouraged the settlers to view Aborigines as little more than wild animals. Some settlers hunted Aborigines for sport.

In 1838, tensions deepened between the Europeans and the Aborigines in the outlying areas of Sydney on Australia's east coast. The Europeans were nervous about the presence of "natives" so close to their settlements.

On a Sunday afternoon, June 10, 1838, a gang of 11 European settlers captured 28 Aborigines -- men, women and children -- at Henry Dangar's station at Myall Creek, near Sydney.

The European men tied the Aborigines together with a long tether rope and marched them about one kilometer. There, the Europeans began killing the Aborigines. Some were shot and others were run through with swords. The Europeans apparently thought little of the executions.

Indeed, the incident at Henry Dangar's station was most notable because it was one of the few times that the Australian government actually investigated a massacre and charged the killers. A first trial acquitted the defendants in less than 15 minutes, but a second trial ended with guilty verdicts and death sentences against seven of the European settlers.

In the moments before they were hanged, the men claimed that they had not been aware that it was against the law to kill Aborigines, since it had been done so often before, with no legal consequences.

The death sentences, however, did not stop the slaughter of Aborigines. Later that year, a Sydney newspaper, The Monitor, reported that many whites simply switched to using poisons because poisoning was harder to prove and to trace to the killers.

European settlers also cloaked their actions in euphemisms. They talked about "teaching them a lesson"; "introducing them to Nellie," a name for a rifle; or going on hunting expeditions against native "cats." Noted writer and poet Mary Gilmore maintained that when she was a child, she witnessed Aborigines massacred by the hundreds.

Beyond direct acts of brutality, Aboriginal land rights were systematically violated. The Crown could displace Aborigines on a whim.

Australian courts sanctioned this practice through the doctrine of terra nullius -- the notion that the land at the time of European settlement belonged to no one. This allowed settlers to gain full legal recognition of their property rights with no regard to Aboriginal interests.

Atrocities and human rights violations continued well into the 20th Century. In May 1927, some two dozen Aboriginal people were slaughtered at Forrest Creek in Western Australia. The government conducted an inquiry, but the findings were never published.

The Australian government also pressed the Aborigines to assimilate into European Australian culture. But these efforts largely failed as the assimilated Aborigines were often treated as second-class citizens, servants for the European Australian population. Aborigines were restricted mostly to menial labor.

In the mid-20th century, after Aboriginal culture had been all but destroyed by acts of brutality and assimilation, Australia finally began to recognize the rights of the Aborigines. In 1967, 95% of the Australian public voted to empower the government to work to overcome the disadvantages suffered by Aborigines.

That year, the newly elected Liberal-Country Party coalition under Prime Minister Harold Holt established a Council of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. He ordered the council to study the problems facing Aboriginal people and establish better communications with them.

But other elements of the Australian government continued to ride roughshod over the Aborigines. In 1971, a judge in the Northern Territory Supreme Court ruled that the British claim of sovereignty had extinguished all Aboriginal rights to property.

In 1973, however, the Federal Labour Party established an Aboriginal Land Rights Commission and the Aboriginal Land Fund. The fund gave money to Aboriginal people to purchase land and to set up Aboriginal Land Councils.

In 1976, after more than four years of study and political debate, the government passed a first of its kind Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The Act recognized Aboriginal rights to own land in the Northern Territory, but only if certain conditions were met.

For instance, land can only be successfully claimed if it is "unalienated Crown land" -- land that no one else is using or has an interest in. A successful land claim also required the Aboriginal landowners to prove their traditional relationship to the land.

With these land disputes as a backdrop, and with nuclear energy reactors projected to play a significant role in supplying the world's energy, uranium prospectors discovered uranium deposits on land traditionally belonging to the Mirrar.

In July 1975, the government commissioned an inquiry to examine the prospect of uranium mining in Kakadu. Known as the Fox Inquiry after its chairman, the report noted the Mirrar opposition to the uranium mining.

"There can be no compromise with the Aboriginal position; either it is treated as conclusive, or it is set aside," the report read.

It also addressed the issue of paying royalties to the Aboriginal clans. "While royalties and the other payments … are not unimportant to the Aboriginal people, they see this aspect as incidental, as a material recognition of their rights," the report stated. "Our impression is that they would happily forgo the lot in exchange for an assurance that mining would not proceed."

The Fox Inquiry added, however, that "in the end, we form the conclusion that their opposition should not be allowed to prevail."

In 1978, the Australian government decided to proceed with plans to open an uranium mine at Ranger. The government exempted Ranger, which is on Mirrar land, from a clause in the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 that granted traditional owners a "mining veto." That meant the Mirrar were powerless to protest.

Uranium mining on Mirrar land within Kakadu appears to have been a foregone conclusion. The only question was how to cajole the Mirrar into allowing it.

Ranger began mining and milling operations in 1980. Almost immediately, the fight over the next mine -- at Jabiluka -- began.

The Jabiluka debate followed a different course. The Australian government granted a mining company permission to drill at the proposed mine site so that it could complete an Environmental Impact Statement.

In moving forward with this decision, the government asserted that there was no legal requirement for Aboriginal people to consent to the exploratory work.

But the Australian Labor Party took power in 1983 and shelved plans for more uranium mining. That moratorium remained in place until 1996 when the Conservatives regained control.

The new Conservative government renewed efforts to boost uranium mining and exports. The Jabiluka project received the go-ahead without Mirrar permission.

That decision brought international pressure on the Australian government to reconsider the Jabiluka project. In 1998, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on Australia to cease construction at Jabiluka.

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee issued a preliminary report that mining plans at Jabiluka were flawed and suggested that construction stop.

In mid-June 1999, 37 U.S. congressional representatives, led by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., signed a letter urging President Clinton to do what he could to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of the Kakadu National Park and the Mirrar people.

Despite the pressures, the Australian government remains committed to the Jabiluka project, determined to transform another part of Mirrar land into a source of radioactive fuel.

Sam Parry works for the Sierra Club’s International Program.

Back to Front