by Andrew Nette
(IPS) MELBOURNE --
Australian government is resorting to a 'dirty tricks' campaign to stop an embarrassing proposal to list as a World Heritage site "in danger" a national park eyed for uranium mining, critics say.
The site in question is the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, listed as a World heritage site by UNESCO.
Leaked documents produced in the national parliament on Feb 16 show the government has spent nearly $1 million on a concerted effort to lobby the 21 member states of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee against an unfavorable ruling on Kakadu.
Critics say Australia's campaign has included the government's offering its vote for internationally elected jobs in return for countries supporting its position -- and future support on similar projects in World Heritage areas elsewhere.
"The government has pulled out all the stops to both discredit the eminent scientists of UNESCO and convince the members of the World Heritage Committee, particularly those from developing countries, to vote against listing Kakadu National Park as 'in danger,'" says Lyn Allison, environmental spokesperson for the Australian Democrat party.
"We would like to believe our World Heritage Areas are being protected by certain values, and these kinds of tactics just undermine faith in the whole work of the Heritage Committee," she says.
Anti-nuclear campaigners have not been surprised by the government's actions, however.
"We were expecting the government to do this, it's the way that things are done at the international level," says Eric Miller, an anti-uranium activist with Friends of the Earth.
"They have no other bargaining chips as they cannot prove Kakadu is not going to be put in danger by Jabiluka," he adds, referring to the nearby area targetted for new uranium mining.
to expand uranium mining in Kakadu has pitted traditional Native owners, the Mirrar, and environmental and anti-nuclear groups against the money and power of one of Australia's largest mining companies, Energy Resources Australia (ERA).
ERA already has one mine in Kakadu, also on land claimed by the Mirrar, the Ranger uranium mine and mill, and wants to prolong its operations in the park until the year 2027 by starting a new operation at Jabiluka.
A high-level delegation from UNESCO's World Heritage Committee visited the park to assess the impact of the Jabiluka project in October, following a year-long blockade of the mine site by project opponents.
Based on the group's findings, on December 1 the World Heritage Committee adopted a resolution calling on the Australian government and ERA to "immediately and voluntarily suspend construction of the mine," saying it threatened the park's cultural and heritage values.
Failure to do so, the resolution said, would result in Kakadu's inclusion on its "heritage in danger" list along with 25 other sites including the Everglades in the U.S. and the old city of Dubrovnik in Croatia.
The Australian government rejected the delegation's finding, claiming the report was unscientific, unjustified and biased.
Under pressure from Canberra, the Committee gave Australia a six-month reprieve to prove its argument before it votes on "in danger" status in June.
Kakadu's listing as "heritage in danger" would be a major international embarrassment for the Australian government, and would hurt international tourism to the area.
A visit by a similar delegation to the U.S. in 1995 and the listing of the world's oldest national park at Yellowstone on the "in-danger" list, led to the scrapping of plans by a Canadian conglomerate to develop a gold mine less than five km from the park's border.
An inspection and listing of the Galapagos Islands prompted the Ecuadorian government to pass laws restricting tourism and fisheries in the world's most ecologically diverse archipelago.
According to the documents obtained by Allison, the government's lobbying effort has included trips to Mexico, Nairobi, Zimbabwe, Washington, London and Ireland.
The documents include a confidential Department of Foreign Affairs cable exposing how Australia "lobbied with success" to have the South Korea delegate preferred over Thailand's in recent elections for the World Heritage Committee -- because of the Thai nominees' perceived position on Jabiluka.
"Given that a lot of these countries have pending mining projects in World Heritage Areas, I imagine the Australian government will say if you support us then we will support you when it comes to your turn," says Allison.
"We have nothing to apologize for, nothing to be ashamed of and there is absolutely nothing unprincipled about promoting Australia's national interest," Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer told Parliament in response to the alleged 'dirty tricks' campaign.
Downer and ERA executives say Jabiluka will deliver nearly 1,000 jobs and $10 billion in profits from international sales of uranium ore.
largest national park, Kakadu contains some of the most important and ecologically diverse wetland areas in the country. It is among the 17 out of the 469 World Heritage areas named by the UNESCO for both its natural and cultural value.
One third of all Australian bird species live in Kakadu, with countless species of fish, reptiles and amphibians and one-quarter of Australia's terrestrial mammals.
The area is also of enormous cultural significance. Aboriginal people have lived there for 40,000 years, and Kakadu contains some of the country's best-preserved and oldest archaeological and sacred Aboriginal sites.
Despite its remoteness, 250 km from the Northern Territory capital of Darwin, Kakadu is a major tourist destination drawing some 300,000 travelers each year.
Environmentalists claim Jabiluka will dump 20 million tonnes of radioactive waste tailings into the Kakadu's wetlands.
As proof of the risks of uranium mining, they cite problems over the 17 years of operations by the Ranger mine, including periodic release of radioactive water from containment ponds, and the discovery in 1983 that for an unknown period of time drinking water from the mine had been connected to processing water.
The push to mine Jabiluka is part of the nuclear industry's expansion since the election of the conservative coalition government in 1996. Up to 14 new uranium mines are proposed across the country.
March 8, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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