Albion Monitor /News

Protesters Dig in at Blockade of Uranium Mine

by Ilana Eldridge and Carolyn Court

on this topic and related protest in the United States
(IPS) DARWIN, Australia -- Aboriginal landowners and green activists have vowed to keep up a blockade against work on the Jabiluka mine until the controversial project is halted.

Protesters, who began the blockade in March, have vowed to spend at least nine months at Jabiluka, in Australia's Northern Territory, to prevent the construction of a uranium mine there by the corporate giant Energy Resources Australia (ERA).

Two people have been arrested at the blockade, set up on March 24, after chaining themselves to drilling equipment. Released on bail, they face charges of trespass this month.

"The traditional owners are prepared to go as far as they can"
In late March, some 100 people occupied the head office of ERA's parent company, North Ltd, in Melbourne, thousands of miles from the mine site.

"We hope to stop ERA constructing the mine through this dry season," said Jayne Weepers of the Stop Jabiluka Mine Coalition.

ERA is taking advantage of the dry season to step up work on the mine project. But protesters have put up a base camp to stop construction from now till the wet season sets in December, when work can no longer go ahead.

The blockade was also visited by Japanese activists, who oppose the involvement of three Japanese utility firms in ERA. "A large portion of Jabiluka uranium would also be exported to Japan. We simply don't want that to happen," said an activist with the Stop Jabiluka Campaign Japan.

"We won't accept Jabiluka so easily," said Jacqui Katona, spokesperson for the Mirrar people, who are recognized by the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 as the owners of the land encompassing and surrounding Jabiluka.

"The traditional owners don't want this mine and we want the whole of Australia to know what's happening," she added. "The traditional owners are prepared to go as far as they can on this one."

The blockade highlights an escalation of protests against the Jabiluka project, whose proponent, ERA, has been waiting for more than 20 years to develop the area.

ERA has had consistent, severe problems with radioactive water management
At the heart of opposition to the project -- to which the federal government gave permission in October 1997 -- is concern that uranium mining would do irreparable damage to a rich environment that is also home to indigenous communities.

Jabiluka is located in the Alligators Rivers Region and is surrounded by the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park. It contains the single largest known uranium deposit in the world.

ERA says the mine's operations would pose no threat to the fragile wetlands of Kakadu, but traditional indigenous owners dispute this. They also fear the disruptive effects of entry of big mining operations on their societies.

Because the indigenous Mirrar people are legal owners of the land, they have a right of veto over any mining activity on their land. But proponents say Mirrar leaders agreed in the seventies and eighties to allow the leasing and mining of land covering the Jabiluka deposits.

Yvonne Margarula, senior traditional custodian of Jabiluka, says her father, Mirrar leader Toby Gangales, was sick and suffering from the effect of alcoholism when he signed a final agreement supporting mine development in the area. The Mirrar say their objections should nevertheless be heard.

Likewise, the Mirrar have learned painful lessons from the Ranger uranium mine, which ERA has operated since 1980 and which also stands on their land. Each traditional owner gets royalties of $1,350 a year.

But Margarula says the real costs have been much higher. Ranger brought alcohol to the Jabiru township, the nearest supply centre for the Mirrar people. "When they get the royalty, they drink it away. My people are dying," she said.

The royalties from Ranger have also allowed the Mirrar to buy hotels and other businesses, but these have not brought them or the other aborigines of Kakadu any better chance than their neighbors of finishing school, finding a job, or living until they are 60.

Most Mirrar people live downstream of Ranger at the small settlement of Mudginberri on Magela Creek. The creek, which flows into the Kakadu wetlands, has sustained spills of radioactive waste several times since 1982.

The Jabiluka proposal involves clearing 80.5 hectares and building about twenty miles of road through sacred land, along which ore would be trucked to the Ranger mine for milling. It would be an underground mine, creating what critics say would be far greater health risks for uranium workers than an open cut structure.

ERA has had consistent, severe problems with radioactive water management throughout the life of Ranger mine, in underestimating both evaporation rates and annual wet season deluge.

Seasonal prevailing winds carry dust from Ranger across to Jabiru, forcing authorities to ban the common Australian practice of collecting rainwater from house roofs.

"There are concerns about what travels in the wind, about whether rain clouds would pick up elements of toxicity from the tailings dams," Katona explained.

"There are concerns about the effect on wildlife because basically you're talking about our 'supermarket' out there," she said, since aboriginal people use the land to gather food and fish in the area.

"Aboriginal people are living basically in a state of fear about the mine in terms of a whole range of health issues and they have a complete understanding that the company will do as it chooses, as it has done for the last 15 years," Katona added.

ERA got the go-ahead to develop Jabiluka under the current Liberal government, which has encouraged mine development to boost Australia's uranium exports. Two mines have started in South Australia, one is planned for Western Australia and at least six more are under negotiation in the Northern Territory.

Under the previous Labor government, community pressure forced a compromise policy of strictly controlled uranium mining. This could also become an issue in the next elections.

For now, protesters say they are ready to camp at Jabiluka for months. "We don't expect everyone to be charging police lines and be arrested. But as ERA moves in to start constructing the mine, the blockade will become more confrontational. This will involve standing in front of trucks," Weepers said.

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Albion Monitor April 14, 1998 (

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