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Native Land Rights at Core of Mine Controversy

by Andrew Nette

on protests of uranium mine
(IPS) MELBOURNE -- At first glance, Yvonne Margarula appears an unlikely candidate to be leading a battle against one of Australia's largest mining companies.

A shy, 36 year-old Aboriginal woman, Margarula was born in the bush of the South Alligator area of the Northern Territory's vast Kakadu National Park.

Regarded as the senior elder of the Mirrar Gagudju, she is responsible for the welfare of the 27 adults and many children making up the clan and their country. She is also the legal title-holder under the white law that gave the Mirrar rights to control their land in 1982.

For over a decade, Margarula has almost single-handedly fought Energy Resources Australia (ERA), which already controls the Ranger uranium mine and mill on Mirrar land, and wants to prolong its operations in the park until the year 2027 by starting a new operation at nearby Jabiluka.

Margarula and her people argue Jabiluka will contaminate their home -- part of Australia's premier national park -- by releasing millions of tons of radioactive waste.

But they say their fight is also about land rights, the social and economic problems brought by mining to their small community and ultimately, about their cultural survival.

As part of this struggle, Margarula last week faced a court on trespass charges stemming from her arrest by police when she and three others last May entered ERA's Jabiluka mineral lease to protest against the project.

Sitting in the witness box and whispering mostly one-word answers, she pleaded not guilty to the charge. "It's Mirrar land," she told the court. "I have the right to go because I'm the traditional owner."

According to Jacqui Katona, executive officer of Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, established in 1995 to look after the interests of the Mirrar, the current controversy over Jabiluka is part of a long history of attempts by big corporations to mine uranium on Mirrar land.

"The Mirrar has consistently opposed this, but after 20 years and a wealth of government reports, mining companies still act as if they are some sort of expert," she says. "Well they are not and they are not interested in dealing with aboriginal people."

Australia's pro-uranium conservative government pushed mining ahead
Exploration by ERA in the area started in the 1970s on a mine called Ranger, but no reference was ever made to the Mirrar or other indigenous people in the area.

Significant public opposition to uranium mining forced the government to call for an inquiry to examine the issues involved.

The inquiry ruled that the land containing both the Ranger and Jabiluka uranium leases belonged indisputably to the Mirrar.

But because of the Ranger uranium mine's perceived economic benefits, the inquiry also argued it should be allowed to proceed, and the mine was exempted from legislation requiring Aboriginal consent for exploration and mining on Aboriginal land.

After years of negotiation, ERA and Aboriginal elders signed an agreement over Ranger in November 1978. A second agreement -- for Jabiluka -- was concluded between Aborigines and mining company Pancontinental in 1982, but the project was halted the next year after the election of a Labor government with a policy restricting the number of uranium mines.

Although ERA purchased the Jabiluka lease from Pancontinental in 1991, it was not until the election of a pro-uranium conservative government in 1996 that the firm received state and national government approval to push ahead with the mine.

Katona says that both the Ranger and Jabiluka deals were reached under duress and deceit on the part of mining representatives, who pledged during talks that exploration for uranium would not lead to mining.

Among the elders to ink the deal was Margarula's father, Toby Gangale. He died alcoholic and dispirited several years later, a victim, according to the Mirrar, of nearly a decade of constant pressure by mining concerns to negotiate access agreements.

"You don't find anybody else but the Mirrar who say that the agreement was secured under duress, and the Mirrar are against Jabiluka," says ERA chief executive Phillip Shirvington.

ERA is under intense commercial pressure to get the Jabiluka mine up and running by the end of the year, in order to get their product on the market ahead of international rivals.

Although Shirvington says that while ERA is still keen to come up with "a win-win arrangement" for all parties concerned in the project, the company will push ahead regardless of Mirrar opposition. "The Mirrar just don't want the project to go ahead at all, so unfortunately there is nothing to negotiate."

An unprecedented 'green-black' alliance
The largest undeveloped uranium deposit in Australia, Jabiluka could generate billions of dollars for ERA and the government from sales of uranium to nuclear companies in Europe, the United States and Asia.

In addition to the export revenue, Shirvington claims Jabiluka will provide substantial benefits to local aboriginal communities in the form of royalties for health, education and housing.

"There was no benefits from Ranger," Katona says. "The pressure was on Aboriginal people to spend their royalty money on providing water, power, roads and road maintenance."

"This is an outrage. In Australia there is no other community that is required to make that choice, that you have to have a uranium mine to get your basic citizenship entitlements."

Studies have found that social conditions of the Aboriginal people in the Kakadu area have not improved over the last decade. Housing, health and education levels are as bad as those of any Aboriginal community in Australia, and few Aboriginal people have been employed by Ranger.

"The Mirrar see no signs that the establishment of a second mine at Jabiluka will do anything but intensify the pressures upon their community," says Katona.

"Until Aboriginal people have the ability to control their affairs on their land then nothing is going to change," she adds.

"That is at the heart of this issue."

Concern about the survival of the Mirrar is not a hypothetical issue. Many of the clans and family groups identified in the Ranger inquiry in 1978 have since died and others, including whole language groups, have passed the point of no return.

As part of her struggle, Margarula has been instrumental in forging a coalition between Aboriginal Australians and environmentalists opposed to uranium mining in Kakadu park and increased links to anti-nuclear activists.

It is a 'green-black' alliance which observers claim is unprecedented in the nation's history.

After launching a series of court actions against ERA earlier this year, the Mirrar also organized a blockade of the proposed Jabiluka mine site in an attempt to sway public opinion.

"This blockade is the action part of the debate about reconciliation, presently going on between black and white Australians," says Kate Lecchi, a spokesperson for the Stop Jabiluka Campaign.

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Albion Monitor July 27, 1998 (

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