Aboriginal People Win Right to Limit Australian Uranium Mine

DARWIN, Australia, February 28, 2005 (ENS) - The Aboriginal owners of Kakadu National Park have won their long battle for the right to halt further development of a uranium mine on their traditional lands within the park.

On Friday, the Mirarr Gundjeihmi Aboriginal people, the leaseholders Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), and the Northern Land Council signed a landmark agreement on the long term management of the Jabiluka uranium mining lease area in the Northern Territory.


ERA Jabiluka mine in Kakadu National Park with Magela Creek wetland in the background. (Photo by P. Waggit courtesy DEH Australia)
While the Jabiluka Mineral Lease and the 1982 Jabiluka Mining Agreement remain in force, the newly signed Jabiluka Long-Term Care and Maintenance Agreement obliges Energy Resources of Australia to secure Mirarr consent prior to any future mining development of uranium deposits at Jabiluka.

Mirarr Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula, ERA Chief Executive Harry Kenyon-Slaney and Northern Land Council Chief Executive Norman Fry signed the agreement following nearly three years of negotiation over the future management of the lease which is surrounded by Kakadu National Park, but is separate from it.

All parties welcomed the agreement as a major step forward in relations between Traditional Owners and Energy Resources of Australia, who in the past have been in conflict over Jabiluka.

“I am pleased that the mining company has listened to the Mirarr people, showing us the respect we deserve as Traditional Owners," said Margarula, who, with Jacqui Katona was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize for Australia in 1999 to honor her work to conserve Kakadu.

"This agreement lifts the shadow of Jabiluka off the Mirarr and other Aboriginal people in Kakadu," Margarula said. "We now have a chance to solve some of the social problems like alcohol, unemployment and health. Jabiluka will never be mined unless the Mirarr give approval - in future the decision is ours alone for the first time.”

Kenyon-Slaney said the agreement heralds a new era of cooperation. “The company would like to develop Jabiluka, one of the world’s most significant uranium deposits. Under this agreement development would only go ahead with the support of the Traditional Owners, and we can now work together to try to find a way forward that meets the expectations of all parties.”


Mirrar campaigners take their message to London, UK, August 1998. From left: Christine Christophersen, Yvonne Margarula, Jacqui Katona (Photo courtesy ENIAR)
Norman Fry, chief executive of the Northern Land Council said, "The agreement will promote a cooperative and constructive relationship between the Mirrar and ERA regarding future developments."

The agreement also waives some of ERA's financial obligations flowing from construction of the mine decline in 1998. The backfilling of the 1.2 kilometer decline at Jabiluka was completed in late 2003, in the lead-up to this agreement, with mineralized and non-mineralized rock returned to the underground workings.

Yet it is unlikely that Margarula and the Mirrar people will allow more uranium mining at Jabiluka. In a 2002 statement, Margarula said, "All the Mirrar are together; we are united against any more uranium mining on Mirrar country. No amount of money, no amount of political pressure, no backroom deals, no bribery or blackmail will make us change our mind. We cannot change the law and the law is that we protect our sacred sites. Since 1996, the Mirrar have fought against Jabiluka across Australia and overseas. We have won many friends and our supporters are strong and stand with us."

The Mirrar are concerned about radioactive contamination of land and water from the mining as well as disturbance of the natural land surface and life of the land.

Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covers 19,804 square kilometres (7,646 square miles) in the wet-dry tropics of northern Australia. The park is managed by the director of national parks and the Kakadu Board of Management. Over half of Kakadu is legally recognized as Aboriginal land and the remainder is subject to land claims.

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle today hailed the deal which gives the Traditional Owners of the Jabiluka uranium mine site a veto over any future development as a great victory for the Mirrar people.


A rock outcrop in Kakadu National Park is festooned with a Jabiluka protest sign. (Photo © Sandy Scheltema courtesy FOEI)
"The Traditional Owners, the Mirrar people, now have control over the future of the mine site and have ruled out any future mining in this unique and precious area," Nettle said.

"As one of the many thousands of Australian who joined blockades in defence of Jabiluka I understand the natural beauty and cultural significance of this place."

The struggle over uranium mining in Kakadu National Park began in 1976 when the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was legislated with a provision to extinguish the right of the Mirrar to withhold their consent to uranium mining at Ranger, a site near Jabiluka, also in the park.

In 1980, the Mirrar and other clans in the Kakadu area launched their land claim.

Nevertheless, ERA packaged the first product of uranium oxide at the Ranger operation in August 1981.

In 1983, with the election of Bob Hawke's Labor government, development at Jabiluka was suspended indefinitely.

In 1992, Margarula, now the Senior Traditional Owner, instructs the Northern Land Council and the federal government that the Mirrar do not want mining at Jabiluka to proceed.

In 1996, John Howard's Liberal Coalition government came to power, and approval of uranium mining at Jabiluka began to move forward.

In 1997, the Alliance against Uranium formed as a result of a meeting in Alice Springs between Aboriginal people affected by uranium deposits and environmental groups. Traditional Owners rejected the offer of royalties from the Jabiluka mine.

In 1998, the Mirrar and others established a blockade against the uranium development. In May, on the first International Day of Action to Stop Jabiluka, Margarula arrested with three other elders for trespass on land to which she holds title.


Two Mirrar traditional owners showing their support for the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation against mining. (Photo courtesy GAC)
The blockades, protest marches and legal actions continued for years, along with appeals to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to halt the mine development.

In 2000, Rio Tinto Ltd became the majority shareholder in ERA, leaseholders of the Jabiluka mine.

In December 2000, the World Heritage Committee concluded that the approved proposal for the mine and mill at Jabiluka does not threaten the health of people or the biological and ecological systems of Kakadu National Park that the World Heritage Bureau's 1998 Mission believed to be at risk.

As work proceeded at Jabiluka, reports of radioactive leaks at Ranger and another Australian uranium mine became public. In 2002, the Mirrar called for ERA to enter into legally binding agreement to never develop Jabiluka without the informed consent of Traditional Owners. Negotiations around that proposal were finalized Friday in the Jabiluka Long-Term Care and Maintenance Agreement.

"The Greens welcome both the conservation of the Jabiluka site and the fact that the growth of the Australian uranium industry has been thwarted at Jabiluka," said Nettle. "The Greens will continue to campaign for an end to uranium mining in Australia as part of our broader opposition to the dangerous and destructive nuclear industry."

The Mirrar want Rio Tinto to rehabilitate the Jabiluka mine site and incorporate the lease into Kakadu National Park.

On Thursday the Australian and Northern Territory governments released a consultancy report on the future of tourism in Kakadu National Park that turned attention once more towards the natural values of the unique region.

The report, "Kakadu - Walking to the future... together, A Shared Vision for Tourism in Kakadu National Park," outlines 71 recommendations and builds on the launch of the Kakadu Board of Management's vision of greater indigenous involvement in tourism and new experiences for visitors.

"Kakadu is a place of extraordinary landscapes and wildlife and a rich and deeply spiritual Aboriginal culture," said spokespeople for two federal ministries and the Northern Territory.

"This report provides an important opportunity for the tourism industry and the public to have their say on the ways in which tourism could develop in Kakadu National Park for the benefit of future generations," said Greg Hunt, parliamentary secretary to the minister for the environment and heritage; Warren Entsch, parliamentary secretary to the minister for industry, tourism and resources; and Clare Martin, chief minister for the Northern Territory.


Aboriginal rock art in Kakadu National Park (Photo credit unknown)
"This vision is about respecting our culture, helping visitors understand and appreciate the beauty of our traditional lands and proudly sharing our country with park visitors," said Jonathon Nadji, who chairs the Kakadu Board of Management.

"We look forward to working more closely with the tourism industry to create new job opportunities for our people, especially young people looking for satisfying work on their own country," Nadji said.

Among the ideas the Board will consider are an enhanced tourism focus within the park management; the potential for new experiences such as night wildlife tours, bush tucker tours, eco camps and walking tracks; new low impact accommodation, both at the luxury and budget ends of the market; exploration of Kakadu's unique six seasons; and the potential for Aboriginal storytelling to give visitors a new perspective of country.

"We will be looking to governments to help traditional owners gain business skills and access venture capital so that those of us who want to be part of a new tourism industry are able to participate effectively. We will now be considering how the new Kakadu Plan of Management will advance these initiatives," he said.

"This is the beginning of a new partnership between the traditional owners, the Australian and Northern Territory Governments and the tourism industry," the government officials said.

"We will now look at how governments can support traditional owners and the tourism industry in delivering a new, re-invigorated, tourism future for Kakadu."

The Australian government, still led by Prime Minister John Howard, said it will provide a formal response to the report by July 1, 2005.

A number of recommendations from the report are already under way at Kakadu, including the establishment of a tourism manager position and the upgrade of the welcome and exits to the park to reflect the indigenous heritage.

An electronic copy of the report is available at: www.deh.gov.au/parks/publications/kakadu/tourism-vision. Public comment closes on March 25, 2005 and can be made by email to: kakadu.comments@deh.gov.au

See the environmentalist point of view at: Environment Centre of the Northern Territory