Albion Monitor /News

Australian Aborigines, Enviros Fighting Huge Uranium Mine

by Carolyn Court

Opposed for years by traditional Native custodians of area
(IPS) MELBOURNE -- A bruising battle is shaping up between an aboriginal group, and the government and mining firms, over the development of a uranium mine site in northern Australia.

The proposed mine project at Jabiluka has been opposed for years by the indigenous Mirarr people, who are the traditional custodians of the area that includes the mine site in the Northern Territory.

But the mine, which is surrounded by the World Heritage Kakadu National Park, also lies in an area leased to mining companies.

New, ultra-conservative government breaks previous agreement
The Jabiluka mine is the single largest known uranium deposit in the world. The uranium mining firms involved in the project, First Pancontinental and Energy Resources of Australia/North Ltd, have been struggling for more than 20 years to mine its deposits.

The controversy had been pushed to the back burner after the previous Labor government restricted the number of mines allowed to operate in Australia under its so-called "three mines policy," but the entry of the Howard government lifted the old limit.

In October 1997, the Australian government approved mining at Jabiluka, though the Senate later passed a motion objecting to the decision. Jabiluka is one of 26 new uranium mines that the government is studying, with a view to boosting uranium exports.

Since approving mine development at Jabiluka however, the project has increasingly been a public relations nightmare for the Australian government.

The Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, which officially represents the Mirarr people, said it opposes mining operations that have destroyed the local people's environment and cultures.

"We do not feel that our people or country have been protected since mining came here," it said in a statement. "Government has forced us to accept mining in the past, and we are concerned that you will force mining development on us again."

"A new mine will make our future worthless and destroy more of our country," it argued.

Environmental activists have also weighed in with threats of protests if mining-related activity starts in Jabiluka, which is located some 20 km from the Ranger uranium mine and 200 km east of Darwin, Northern Territory.

Among others, they say mining operations could put Kakadu's famous wetlands at risk of radioactive contamination.

The Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Earth and the Wilderness Society are organizing opposition to the mine project in the next few months. Said one campaigner with Friends of the Earth: "It's likely that we will start to blockade as soon as anything like construction takes place."

Adding to the government's problems is the European Parliament's passage of a resolution asking Canberra to halt the development of Jabiluka uranium mine.

On Jan. 15, the European Parliament asked the Australian government "to respect the status of the Kakadu National Park as a "World Heritage site" and to "respect the land rights of the aboriginal peoples."

It also asked the European Commission to review the European Union's imports of uranium, and urged EU members to ban all imports of uranium from mines where the land rights of indigenous people are compromised.

Aboriginal communities have received little benefit from mining and tourism development
The controversy over Jabiluka's fate goes back to the late seventies and early eighties, during the establishment of agreements on the leasing and mining of land covering the Ranger and Jabiluka deposits.

Yvonne Margarula, senior traditional custodian and a leader in the opposition to the new mine, recalls that her father, Mirarr leader Toby Gangales, was sick and suffering from the effects of alcoholism when he signed a final agreement supporting mine development in the area.

Margarula narrated her memories of those negotiations in a recently released documentary called 'Jabiluka,' made by Academy award-nominated filmmaker David Bradbury.

In the film, other interpreters at the negotiations also maintained that Gangales was so unwell he was lying down throughout most of the crucial meetings. But negotiators from the Pancontinental company say the agreement was valid, and that Gangales was happy to sign the accord to allow mining in his people's land.

Some aboriginal people are reportedly amenable to mining operations, but defer to Margarula's views because of her role as senior custodian in the community.

The case of the Mirarr people seems to be bolstered by a social impact study on the Kakadu region, which concluded that aboriginal communities have received little benefit from mining and tourism development in Kakadu.

While millions of dollars flow from the mines to aboriginal organizations, the study said alcohol-related problems in communities have increased and the employment created for local aboriginals in mining operations is "negligible." The need for more schools and health care for aboriginals remains urgent, it added.

The government, which gave the go-signal for the development of uranium mining at Jabiluka despite the outcome of the social impact study, is now considering getting more environmental impact studies.

The preference of mine developer Energy Resources Australia is to develop an underground mine, with the milling of ore being carried out at the Ranger Mine mill. This, the firm assures, would minimize adverse environmental impacts from uranium mining operations.

But the Mirarr are not impressed, saying they have learned their lesson. "Previous mining agreements have not protected us or given our communities strength to survive the development," they said in a common statement.

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Albion Monitor January 26, 1998 (

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